The Learning World: A Tribute to Alvin Toffler

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

Alvin Toffler was one of the original futurists, beyond Scotsman Adam Smith, who, a few centuries before, was able to offer, in a tangible way, how economics worked via his “Wealth of Nations.” Toffler was able to view the transfer of culture and society from an industrial revolution to a knowledge society. Toffler passed away only a few months ago (June 27, 2016) and was the author of many top selling books, including “Future Shock” (1970) and “The Third Wave” (1980). I studied the latter during my joint program at Red River College/University of Manitoba Program back in the early 80s. Preparing to be an industrial arts/technology instructor, this was required reading. And it changed me.

Toffler, to me, was the first person to verbalize our new world order and put it in a perspective that made sense. The refrain from his work is simple: knowledge rules. Not coal. Not military. Not even automobiles and manufacturing. Not even politics.

Just knowledge. And those with knowledge will lead the third economic and social wave.

Toffler’s attribution to this construct can be hardly discarded. We are a world of 24/7 news (“news” is used very, very lightly), entertainment, and everything else we can imagine. Information is quite literally at our fingertips.[1]

Toffler wrote about this third wave of technology 36 years ago and he nailed it. Think about this for a moment: Alvin Toffler wrote about the importance of information before there was any type of personal computer (PC, for those who forgot). Before there was a Mac, an Internet, a thumb drive. He did this when the idea of a cell phone was either from Dick Tracy cartoons, Batman, or Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone. The thought of a smart phone or iPad was completely beyond us even in the 1970s. Heck, HBO didn’t show up until 1975 and ESPN in 1979, and they were fledglings at the time. Rarely can we look back at some evolutionist and see that they were right. Nostradamus may be well known about future projections from back in the 16th Century, but he was a nutcase at best who believed in the occult (and no, he did not anticipate JFK!).

Think, for a moment, the changes that have happened in this world over the past 50 years. Fifty years is a miniscule amount of time on our little blue planet. Still, the nature of the technological and societal change during this period far usurps any previous changes. We have moved from analogue to digital in a relative instant, revolutionizing and, to an extent, democratizing the world.

If I go back to my childhood, I remember the first truly instant camera, the Polaroid SX-70. My dad had one, like many dads at the time. It was seemingly unbelievable that we could take a photograph, and then, after a waiting period of 60 seconds, could actually see that photograph and have it in our hands. This was revolutionary.


Skip forward to today.

The only delay we have today in viewing a photograph or video is the millisecond after “press.” Unless you have it on voice activate, then there is no need to even tough the smart phone. Printing a photograph in today’s world is a simple process of either sending the photo to our printer or uploading to the one-hour photo store, which is usually ready in about 25 minutes for pickup.

Many of us remember researching our college papers using both the card catalogues (do you even know what those are?) and microfiche (do you even know what those are?). Quite

simply, the 70s and even 80s were a much, much different world, technologically speaking, than today. Sure, we had the Concorde and some other cool stuff, like Pong, but let’s be real: they all disappeared and only we remain. Well, us, as well as i7 Macs and Windows 10, and a world that is quite literally at our fingertips.

Knowledge rules.

The challenge is that we largely educate people the same way that we did when Toffler wrote his book(s), and similar to when Clark Kerr drafter the California Master Plan, and when John Dewey wrote Democracy and Education in 1916, a book that still was a mandatory read for my doctoral work at GW.

Technology is ubiquitous in education today, but it is poorly harnessed by most. Sure, we use the computer for research in classes, but we mostly use it as a word processor; a fancy IBM Selectric. Online classes now replace what were originally known as correspondence courses. But back then, you sent in your materials via snail mail and waited weeks or even months for feedback. Today it is relatively immediate. Feedback in minutes, hours, and rarely days.


But classroom teaching, beyond moving from an overhead projector to a smart board, is hardly transformative. Technology is used mostly to supplant prior technology, but rarely used to enhance pedagogy and learning.

There are teachers and other educators who are most certainly harnessing the power of technology to enhance their classroom productivity and learning. I’ve seen it. To suggest that it isn’t happening would be disingenuous to the hordes of top-shelf educators who are changing the world. But en masse, it isn’t happening.

In a global society, where two people can receive world news simultaneously from either a rice paddy in Sri Lanka or the 90th floor of One World Trade Center in New York, we can surely incorporate a better utilization of technology in our education systems. Toffler showed us a future light down a dark technological tunnel. And the industrial world followed, creating dynamic uses of digital technology that have transformed our world. Now is the time for the next step: enhancing the global education of all students via these same technologies.



[1] Hey Shireman, is that a correct use of “literally?” Ha!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.