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October 26, 2000 Technology will fill the gap: David Foot



by Caroline Plante

David Foot, the demographer whose book Boom, Bust and Echo became a Canadian bestseller, predicts that university professors will be learning more about new technology from their students than they will ever be able to teach them.

“The young are going to be the new champions of technology,” Foot told an audience of about 200 at the opening of the McGraw-Hill Ryerson Educational Technology Conference on November 1, “but population aging is leaning against the growth of technology.”

Using cartoons to illustrate his arguments, Foot, an economics professor at University of Toronto, said the large “echo” generation — he also called it the ToysRUs generation — already knows a lot more about computers and new technology than their aging teachers.

“It’s going to be a major challenge to bring new technology into an aging population,” he said. “That’s why every senior manager working for General Electric has to have a 28-year-old mentor.”

Although it will be challenging for professors to adapt to modern teaching tools, Foot argued that it must be done in order to reach an incoming population of students that is technologically-literate.

These “tweens” are already accustomed to communicating with each other via e-mail and the World Wide Web. Most students coming out of high school already know what a Powerpoint presentation is. But Foot gave another reason why professors will have to make increasing use of the new technology.

“The echo generation — in other words, the children of the boomers — are going to make university enrolment boom in the next few years. There will be lots of students, but it’ll be hard to recruit new faculty. That means we have no choice but to use technology,” he said.

Baby boomers are now in their late 40s and early 50s, and there are simply not enough 20-somethings to fill the boomers’ shoes. Therefore, Foot argued, we need the most up-to-date teaching tools to address the incoming mass of students. Chalk and talk won’t cut it; universities will have to offer more online courses as well as online libraries and cheaply-priced e-books to keep up with the needs of a vast population that is as big as the baby boom.

The 20-somethings who are now graduating from our universities can expect to have many careers, as opposed to occupying a single job throughout their life, Foot said.

“They will change their occupation four, five or six times in their lifetime,” Foot said. “They might study economics, but they’ll have to go work in a hospital. Then they’ll switch to human resources, and their parents will ask them, Why can’t you settle down? Where’s your loyalty?”

But this is the new world of work, Foot said. We ought to understand it, and we had better adapt to it.