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R. Bridgstock

Queensland University of Technology (AUSTRALIA)
Beginning in the second half of the 20th century, ICTs transformed many societies from industrial societies in which manufacturing was the central focus, into knowledge societies in which dealing effectively with data and information has become a central element of work (Anderson, 2008). To meet the needs of the knowledge society, universities must reinvent their structures and processes, their curricula and pedagogic practices. In addition to this, of course higher education is itself subject to the sweeping influence of ICTs.

But what might effective higher education look like in the 21st century? In designing higher education systems and learning experiences which are responsive to the learning needs of the future and exploit the possibilities offered by ICTs, we can learn much from the existing professional development strategies of people who are already successful in 21st century fields, such as digital media.

In this study, I ask:
(1) what are the learning challenges faced by digital media professionals in the 21st century?
(2) what are the various roles of formal and informal education in their professional learning strategies at present?
(3) how do they prefer to acquire needed capabilities?

In-depth interviews were undertaken with successful Australian digital media professionals working in micro businesses and SMEs to answer these questions.

The strongest thematic grouping that emerged from the interviews related to the need for continual learning and relearning because of the sheer rate of change in the digital media industries.

Four dialectical relationships became apparent from the interviewees’ commentaries around the learning imperatives arising out of the immense and continual changes occurring in the digital content industries:
(1) currency vs best practice
(2) diversification vs specialisation of products and services
(3) creative outputs vs commercial outcomes
(4) more learning opportunities vs less opportunity to learn. These findings point to the importance of ‘learning how to learn’ as a 21st century capability.

The interviewees were ambivalent about university courses as preparation for professional life in their fields. Higher education was described by several interviewees as having relatively little value-add beyond what one described as “really expensive credentialling services.” For all interviewees in this study, informal learning strategies were the preferred methods of acquiring the majority of knowledge and skills, both for ongoing and initial professional development. Informal learning has no ‘curriculum’ per se, and tends to be opportunistic, unstructured, pedagogically agile and far more self-directed than formal learning (Eraut, 2004). In an industry impacted by constant change, informal learning is clearly both essential and ubiquitous.

Inspired by the professional development strategies of the digital media professionals in this study, I propose a 21st century model of the university as a broad, open learning ecology, which also includes industry, professionals, users, and university researchers. If created and managed appropriately, the university learning network becomes the conduit and knowledge integrator for the latest research and industry trends, which students and professionals alike can access as needed.