Today's automobiles are significantly more sophisticated than yesterday's nuclear reactors. The data collected and analyzed in one hour of intensive care can exceed the complete dataset collected in one year by the entire hospital 20 years ago. The ability for the police to engage in utilizing real time information technology, to apply pure scientific processes to supplement their everyday investigations, has become so sophisticated a whole new generation of television series has popped up around it.
While I am not one, I would venture a guess that today's ER nurse knows more about saving lives then most doctors of 20-30, or even five years ago. As well, they must know about a whole lot more hardware that was not available just a few years ago. They must know what that equipment does, how to use it, what its output is, and what it is used for.
Yet the mindset of so many of our incoming students in every vocation, in fact really in just about every discipline, isn't even close to prepared for that high degree of sophistication. The reality for all of us is that this is a far more complex world than existed only twenty years ago; however, a lot of the sophistication is hidden behind processes that have been simplified exactly to make it possible to deal with this complexity. More and more people learn how to follow the process without understanding the complexity that lies behind it. And that is a problem.
In the automotive world I see it all the time. A shop has purchased a really nice four wheel alignment system that uses four 3-axis pyrogyrating accelerometers triple phase connected to differential GPS sensors reading 12 satellites each. The technician gets trained on how to operate the thing by learning step one, step two, step three, etc. but they never learn a darn thing about the basic geometry of the four wheels they are trying to resolve into alignment. Nor do they need to until.. until something comes along that the machine can't handle.
Now translate that to a nurse using the newest fangled wide-angle thunder defibrillator and I become very certain I want them to understand what electricity does, what hearts do, why fluid flows, OR NOT, and just about everything that has anything to do with all that is related to me staying alive with that machine attached. Yet how many of our entering nursing program candidates could conceive, let alone explain, how Ohm's law depicts the amount of voltage and millijoules needed to pop-start the human heart?
This gap between limited basic skills and rampant ubiquitous sophistication permeating every facet of our world is not just a barrier, it's a chasm; a long, very deep, and increasingly widening chasm. Couple this to the "dumbing down" effect that many believe is plaguing our learning institutions and one cannot really question the three-and-a-half year degrees that most two-year colleges offer.
So what are we going to do about it? Each student must value such a capacity before they will seek to attain it. Attaining this value early on is one the most critical roles our Student Services folks must play in the student's college experience. As well, their remedial development must not only remediate each under prepared skill area, but it must also empower them as learners. And our entry courses and faculty must also drive home the nail that anchors this capacity and value. So I question, how much do we, as organized institutions, really go after this strategically, as a universal learning outcome? Clearly this is a conversation we all need to engage in.
Remarkably, in conclusion, I must point out, that while this chasm exists and is broadening, in many ways our students are far more sophisticated than any of us could ever have imagined being at their age. Yet there exists this bizarre paradox where they can't figure out that they need to work their checkbook ledger but they can wind their way through 497 levels of "Ninja Pong meets Atari the Avatar."