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Human Capital: People as Economic Asset

In the Tamarack Learning Centre an interesting article is available called From Information to Application: How Communities Learn written by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy. The purpose of this article is to summarize key findings about how people learn under three themes:

  1. Information becomes knowledge when it is applied;
  2. The essential connection between the needs, concerns and interests of the learner and the application of information; and
  3. Ways a learner can engage and interact with information.
While each of these themes is well known, what is particularly interesting is the way in which ideas about learning are framed...

"Nations today increasingly are being categorized according to their ability to produce, apply and create knowledge." - From Information to Application: How Communities Learn

Recent ideas about economic development have been closely connected to ideas about the information society, or the knowledge economy, as being a "new reality" that is transforming the nature of trade and commerce. Since the characteristics and requirements of this emerging economic environment are deemed as being significantly different from the previous industrial economy it appears reasonable that the methods and approaches for preparing people to be successful in this new environment must also be significantly different. This commonly leads to an emphasis on learning as a means to sustain the economic progress and prosperity of a nation.

"Human capital refers to the skills and other attributes of individuals that confer a range of personal, economic and social benefits."

One of the natural outcomes of this perspective is to merge ideas about this new economic environment with ideas about learning, or more accurately, training programs designed to help prepare people for the apparent new economic reality. For example, human capital has made an appearance in many of these discussions and merges the idea that the knowledge and skills of an individual or group of people represents a kind of asset that can be used for economic benefit. Of course, over-generalizing ideas like knowledge economy or information society results in a sense of de-humanization by too closely equating the lives of people with their economic value.

From Information to Application: How Communities Learn written by the Caledon Institute of Social Policy makes an important distinction centred around the idea of community-capacity building:

"There has been growing interest in recent years in the role that community organizations, local groups and citizens can play in promoting economic and social well-being."

The constant interplay between economic and social well-being through community-capacity building prevents the tendency to become overly centred on economic metaphors for learning. Economic well-being as an end unto itself is not an effective platform for the development of the workforce, increasing the quality of life, or making an individual, community or nation prosperous. Nor should the apparent circumstances of a "new" type of economy itself be the sole source of design in the development of learning strategies. Both the information society and knowledge economy are more of a question mark than a period, and a phrase like human capital is one well worth avoiding. It is entirely possible for an economy to be strong, while the communities within it suffer.

During the early 1990's, I worked as a teacher in a school that promoted a "vision" for the future. This vision was centred on the notion of preparing students for the workforce of tomorrow and was closely tied to the extensive integration of computer technology. What precisely this "workforce of tomorrow" really was had not been clearly defined, nor could it be, but it seemed to make excellent content for speaking engagements. Further, precisely how students were being prepared for this unknown workforce remained a complete mystery, although their computer skills went far beyond what was normally found in a traditional school setting and over one-thousand visitors from around the world came to see what was happening there. Of course, the more insightful teachers in the school were able to reach beyond these limitations by connecting with students and the present realities they faced.

It is important for communities to develop economic well-being through learning, however, a community and the people in them are something far more vibrant than an economy.

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