Maysan Center for Future Studies,
Mar 17, 2021
In recent months we as a global community have experienced a hard lesson about the nature of change. While it is common to plan for the normal ebb and flow of life, the world always has the capacity to spring sudden upheaval on society. Sometimes such change is for the better, very often it is not, and always it allows us an opportunity to look closely and what we value and what we desire in our institutions and practices.
Such has been the case for our institutions of learning. Historically, learning has been a social activity, one in which we take part in person. It is based on telling stories to each other, modeling and demonstrating practices, asking and answering questions. The outcome of an education is not a body of knowledge or a skill or competency, but a person, one who has become not merely informed, but engaged and moved to action.
As we navigate our education systems through change, we seek first to preserve what is important and valuable and desirable in the system we already have, and at the same time, to use whatever tools are at our disposal to adapt and improve. In recent years in the field of education many of these tools have been technological, and in recent months especially we have seen how digital media can help us respond in a crisis and perhaps even strengthen our educational system in the future.
It is precisely that future that this essay addresses. It is a future where world events unfold in a sometimes chaotic and unpredictable manner, a future of technological promise or dystopian outlook, a future of societies on the move, of ever advancing knowledge, and the need, still, to progress from one generation to the next, passing along the best of who we are to our children.
In understanding such a future the first question we must ask is, “what’s unsustainable?” This is partially because it’s an important question to ask, but also because it offers the most certainty in our predictions. If something cannot continue then we can say with assurance that it won’t. So, what’s unsustainable? Here are a few ideas: • Consumption - Our resources, especially related to building and transportation, are becoming deleted, and their use poses environmental risks
• Centralization – a ‘hub and spoke society’ – which doesn’t provide adequate safeguards against rapidly spreading threats raging from misinformation to pandemics
• Inequality – the increasing concentration of wealth and power into the hands of a few people is creating unrest and instability
These, however, are merely drivers of change. They tell us the future will be different, but not how it will be different. Each of them poses a series of choices we have to make. Much of the practice of futurism is based on creating scenarios describing the outcomes of different choices.
Knowing what those choices will be, or even manipulating those choices, is a powerful mechanism of change. Alan Kay said, for example, that 'the best way to predict the future is to build it.' Sometimes, all one needs to do is suggest it. As Audrey Watters cynically says, “The best way to predict the future of education is to get Thomas Friedman to write an op-ed in The New York Times about your idea.” Either way, what we do today will change what happens tomorrow. And to know what we will do, we need to know what we want – we need to know what the attractors of change will be.
What needs to be done: frankly acknowledge and detail the impact the major drivers of change in society, beginning especially with an acknowledgement of unsustainable systems and practices, including especially challenges to resources, security and stability. In education, these drivers include funding challenges, complex learning challenges, and accessibility.
A good way to understand the attractors is through the concept of a value proposition. Each decision we make is based on a value proposition, “an easy-to-understand reason why a customer should buy a product or service from that particular business (that) should clearly explain how a product fills a need, communicate the specifics of its added benefit, and state the reason why it's better than similar products on the market.” If we understand what people want, we can understand what decisions they will make.
A sentiment that has been heard a lot recently is “we don’t want it to go back to normal. Normal wasn’t working.” A crisis exposes a society’s weak points; it highlights inequality, it heightens scarcities of resources, and it exposes gaps in learning and comprehension. The distribution of the impact of the pandemic has shown that the focus of both relief and in the reconstruction that follows needs to be not at the top but at the bottom - making sure those most in need have housing, food, health care, education, clothing, and connectivity, a voice.
A recent McKinsey report describes these needs. The authors argue, "There are four priorities for school systems:
• maintaining health and safety of students, staff, and the community;
• maximizing student learning and thriving;
• supporting teachers and staff;
• and establishing a sound operational and financial foundation.
In each case, we believe that issues regarding equity—that is, ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are met—should be front and center, both during the closure and after students return to school."
While we may think that educational institutions serve only learning needs, the sudden closure of educational institutions around the world has brought to light the many additional functions they fulfill. Many families, for example, relied on schools for child care while both parents worked. For many children, school lunches form an important part of their diet, and school counselling services help ensure they are free from abuse and neglect.
In higher education, schools and universities serve important social functions, connecting students and giving them a safe place to practice and develop their own identity. As many corporate and government reports have pointed out, educational institutions play an important role in preparing students for work with the skills and competencies demanded by business and industry. And they create for students a set of social connections that may last a lifetime, helping them develop communities of interest, of support, and of practice.
What needs to be done: identify the essential purposes being served by existing social and cultural institutions that must be preserved, and ideally enhanced, through any process of change, and develop a strategy to meet these objectives while responding to the drivers listed above. In education this may include the passing on of specific knowledge and skills, but will also include developing the capacity of people to learn for themselves and continue learning for a lifetime, as well as to develop and maintain the social supports and connections to continue to thrive, and possibly even some non-educational functions currently being served by the educational system.
What Can Change?
During the pandemic, educational institutions were forced to offer instruction online. For many people, online learning is touted as being a part of this new normal. But online learning is incompatible with a traditional elite education. "Taking classes is just not what it’s all about,” says Steven Krause. “It’s also a whole lifestyle of dorms or near campus apartments, sporting events, frats and sororities and clubs, parties, beautiful buildings and campuses, etc." However, "elite universities don’t like online classes because they are not the college experience (see above) and they still believe online classes are for poor people."
Meanwhile, our social structures have been built around the idea of in-person schools. Fordham's Robert Pondiscio argues "Kids will go back to brick-and-mortar schools... the act of sending our kids every morning to a place called a school is a cultural habit formed over many generations." Similarly, Alex Usher says predictions that all learning will go online are nonsense. "Education is social," he argues, and online learning isn't set up for that. All of these arguments are based on the wider function of educational institutions, a function that delivers a set of benefits beyond mere learning and job preparation.
The current system of educational institutions is not well-designed to provide these wider benefits to a mass population. This is true through most of the world. Yet as the pace of change and growth of technology increase, the need for mass education increases, and increasingly, the need for these additional functions increases. But this will require government support, and government support isn't going to be sucient to give everyone an elite educational experience. Such levels of funding are unsustainable.
The choice governments and societies will face is whether to return to a ‘normal’ where social and government resources are devoted to providing an elite education to a small percentage of the population, or to redesign learning using educational technology to produce a more ‘hybrid’ model that enables more of the population to access some of the benefits of the elite in-person experience. There is precedent. Clive Shepherd invites us to think about how we watch music, drama or sport - if you wanted to do it all live face-to-face, "unless you're rich and with considerable discretionary time, it would be completely impractical." And the same too with learning, in the future.
What needs to be done: identify those aspects of the educational system that are unequally accessed and that are also less essential to the essential purposes identified above. Develop more equitable alternatives to these, and consider how they might be offered (if at all) more effciently.
In the future, different nations will design different systems employing different technologies based on different degrees of equity, and as a result, a range of ‘hybrid’ models will emerge into practice. One model for this can be found from a Chinese team of researchers that “advocated schools designing a blend of synchronous and asynchronous teaching and identified four essential technologically enabled pedagogical techniques that should be used in combination:
• live-streaming teaching (lecture format);
• online real-time interactive teaching;
• online self-regulated learning with real-time interactive Q&A;
• online cooperative learning guided by teachers."
The same report also stressed the utility of open educational resources to address learning content needs, but the approach that will be taken ultimately depends on how important each nation finds it to address the problems of equity that exist not so much in online learning as they do in the higher education system in general.
With respect to the challenges these issues pose, the limits of technology define the limits of what we can do. For example, we cannot implant knowledge directly into the human mind. Learning requires a process of interaction between student, technology and teacher. Meanwhile, our social and economic structures will define what we will do. For example, not everybody has access to cheap and high quality Internet. Not everyone will have access to teachers and resources. Change in education will depend on the renegotiation of a social contract. The coming debate in the next decade will centre around the values and principles we want to base these on.
As technology changes, the limits of what we can do changes. This means preparing students for a world of possibility that does not exist today. It will be essential for students acquire the ability to learn skills, conceptualize and design in future environments that do not exist today. Some authors propose that students be prepared with 21st century skills, soft skills, design thinking, or STEM skills. And yet while there is a degree of truth to such statements, ultimately students will need most of all the ability to recognize and learn things we could not have predicted, as new technology and global events take us into unexpected directions.
We should similarly expect our teaching resources to adapt to rapidly changing environments. “Consider our curriculum as a self-contained coherent resource,” writes George Siemens. “The goal of education? Teach this container to the students. What happens when you add artifact creation? If someone comes along and says, ‘what about the power structure and the bias that underpins this content,’? Bam. It’s a new course. Someone creates a video reacting to a lecture I delivered? Bam. It’s a new course.” The content of a learning resource will be far less important that the ability of people to use it to make new contemporary learning resources. Being digital does not automatically make the resource better; it’s what you can do with the resource that makes it better.
What needs to be done: invest in a range of educational capacities rather than adopting a single monolithic solution; this creates system flexibility and the capacity to apply specific solutions to specific contexts. Examine models developed internationally to support hybrid learning, while developing contingencies should one or more element (for example, face-to-face interaction) be unavailable for a period of time. Develop expertise in these modalities, both for instructional staff, and the learning population.
What will Change?
What will these new technological environments look like? There is again no shortage of predictions, ranging from the 4th Industrial Revolution to the Green New Deal; and any number of scenarios in between. But in fact it will be socially and culturally determined with no single principle determining the outcome. Think of a new technological environment as if it were a language. We can’t predict what the next new slang term or acronym will be, but we can predict that there will be one. No individual will define the grammar and the semantics, but all of us will need to learn this new literacy, to both understand what we are trying to do, and to express ourselves through whatever technology we have available.
When we return to the subject of schooling and education, we see that the core elements - classrooms, cohorts, textbooks, assessment, and communication – are beginning to change as the demands of a rapidly changing environment are pushing us gradually to that point where ‘normal education’ is no longer viable. Consider, for example, a simple idea – that we study in school for a set number of years, and then, with our education finished, we go to work. This is no longer viable because it is no longer viable to stop learning. Nor is it viable to continue traditional learning while in the workforce. The static structures that define education are shifting; boundaries between formal, non-formal, informal and post-formal education are changing.
Successful education systems of the future will therefore be those that adapt in two significant ways: first, they will be equitable by default, so that equity isn’t a separate and additional problem that must be addressed later; and second, they will be lifelong by default, so that there isn’t a need to transition from ‘formal’ schooling to different and more challenges of learning in the workplace. Learning environments, and learning technology will change in education to the extent that these principles are adopted in different cultures. Let us look at a few examples.
What needs to be done: develop and apply a rubric to technological development, acquisition and deployment, identifying core capabilities (for example, supporting autonomous learning, open educational resources and software, peer-to-peer and group interaction, and diverse ownership and applications) supporting more equitable and lifelong access to learning.
First, consider classrooms. Today these are places where teachers present content to students, and students learn that content. That has been true both in traditional classrooms and in modern ‘remote learning’ classrooms. But in time, these synchronous instructional environments will begin to look more like collaborative work environments. The emphasis will be on helping students manage products and create cooperatively. Online learning will emphasis dialogue and discussion, rather than presentation.
Elite and effective educational institutions are already delivering education this way. For example, high school students learning at Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) engage in “a semester-long project working alongside brilliant people using cutting-edge technology.” Students at MIT’s Media Lab work together on projects to address cutting-edge social issues. Stanford students “develop an entrepreneurial mindset by immersing themselves in cohorts of changemakers.” Waterloo engineering students work in teams devoted to rocketry or robots or alternate fuels. In Scandinavia, “pupils from Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia have established more than 50 international joint ventures and participated in international fairs and innovation camps in the project countries.”
Online learning that makes the transition from being content-based to project-based addresses the needs of future-ready students. They achieve greater equity by enabling all students to have the same sort of genuine hands-on experiences that elite students have. And they create the same sort of in-class environment for students that they will find when they enter the world of work. The precise details vary – some students learn to be entrepreneurs, others to become scientists, others artists and designers – but all learn how to define and solve problems while developing new skills and capacities as defined by the changing environment.
What needs to be done: develop infrastructure to support off-premises learning (for example, at home or in the workplace), define how learning opportunities can occur in community contexts, redesign physical facilities to support more specialized and active and collaborative learning.
Second, consider learning cohorts. In younger years cohorts are created by age grouping and geography. In post-secondary education cohorts are created by enrollment to specific colleges and degree programs. The result in both cases is often a social stratification, with a great deal of competition to enroll children in ‘good’ schools. As has been noted elsewhere , the reason a person wants to study at MIT or Yale or Oxford is not only the quality of the instructor or the facilities, it is the quality of the person next to them in class, and the networks they will form thereafter, a fact well-recognized by these elite schools.
By contrast, as online learning becomes more prevalent, there is no need to limit access to learning to specific cohorts. Already, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have enrolled cohorts of tens of thousands of people. By contrast, personalized competency-based education reduces the size of the cohort to a single person. In both cases there is a need to create manageable social groups, but new methods will be required. New models of cohort formation are likely in the short-term future, for example, automated peer-learning cohorts (auto-PLC) where “students who have already acquired a particular skill become paired together with students who are still acquiring that same skill, and vice versa.”
With such developments in cohort formation, learners may find themselves in groupings with unexpected colleagues. Opportunities to collaborate will not be limited to social or physical proximity, but will extend across a global network. Learners at every stage of their careers will find themselves working together. Such diversity improves the quality of learning for everyone, and increases opportunities for those who have been traditionally disadvantaged or disengaged.
What needs to be done: develop or participate in learning models that include a diverse range of participants, develop or apply mechanisms that support online cohort or group activity, develop skills in working in diverse communities, cooperative teaching and learning, and open project management (for example).
Third, consider pedagogy, that is, the method and practice of teaching. New terms have already come into prominence, for example, androgogy, which is the method and practice of teaching adult students, and heutagogy, which is the management of self-managed learners. These new terms reflect a practice that is becoming increasingly life-long and increasingly autonomous. These trends reflect not only the demands of a changing world and workplace but also the changing affordances created by digital technology. People want to learn on their own, for example, because they can learn on their own.
The recent conversion to ‘remote learning’ showed that our understanding of learning was limited by the conception of a teacher managing the learning of a collection of students in a classroom, which is why the spring of 2020 saw the rapid deployment of video-conferencing tools such as Zoom. But new online teachers learned quickly that online instructional design had been developed over the last two decades as the underlying science of online learning, with the discipline of ‘instructional designer’ being recast as a profession.
Broader use of online learning will force the discipline beyond its behaviourist roots. “The methods which inform so much of learning and instructional design do not, in any way, account for the diversity of experiences available in online spaces,” writes John Villasenor. What is needed, he says, is “a digital pedagogy which empowers teachers and learners alike to get to the heart of what education is about, and to preserve that heart no matter if learning takes place on-ground or online, or some hybrid of both.” This need portends a shift from instructional design to the development of a learning environment design strategy deploying individual analytics, learning support, virtual reality, and tools for interaction and collaboration.
These are pedagogies that are designed by default to be accessible to all populations at any stage in their career, a concept captured in the philosophy of ‘accessible by design’. Additionally, they are pedagogies that anticipate a transition from teacher-directed to self-directed learning, thus enabling lifetime learning without the need for course and program support.
What needs to be done: adopt approaches and pedagogies that support the development of self-managed learning. Develop support and skills supporting accessible and inclusive pedagogy, and adopt or develop open-ended learning technology (for example, collaborative authoring, or open-ended simulations) rather than programed or designed instruction.
Fourth, consider credentials. In a traditional system, students progressed through formal education accumulating a series of standardized diplomas and degrees leading, ultimately, to a terminal credential, usually a doctorate. Most students did not progress to the terminal degree, stopping at either a secondary or undergraduate certification. Credentials, meanwhile, were offered in a limited number of subjects – arts, sciences, engineering, medicine, law, etc. This created a relatively efficient filtering mechanism allowing potential employers to quickly evaluate the suitability of a person for a position.
The increasing complexity of both learning opportunities and employment requirements is changing this. When evaluating the knowledge and abilities of a person, a much wider range of learning experiences needs to be considered, for example, work experience, licenses and certifications, continuing professional education, non-credit courses, seminars and in-service training, MOOCs, volunteer work, hobbies, independent reading and research, and military training. As alternative learning becomes more popular, new methods for assessing or recognizing a person’s knowledge and abilities have been proposed and implemented. For example, many colleges have defined processes of prior learning recognition (PLR).
Additionally, new models of competency-based learning have been developed, allowing a person to quickly progress through material they already understand. Alternative certifications have been developed, some resembling professional designations, and others in the form of microcredentials or badges.
With the introduction of big data and artificial intelligence (AI) much of these alternative forms of assessment will be automated. Automated essay grading is already in use. Tools and standards for activity tracking and learning record store have been developed, for example, Advanced Distributed Learning’s xAPI specifification. In the near future, it will be possible to directly assess a person’s qualifications using these and similar tools. Evaluators will no longer need specialized tests or assignments (though these may continue to be offered as social challenges or competitions) but will be able to apply AI to the totality of a person’s published work and online presence, including social media, in order to assess their fitness for employment. The major challenges remaining are social and ethical, not technological.
The benefifits of alternative forms of assessment for social equity are being demonstrated through the use of such tools as GitHub and open source software for a person to establish programming credentials , or even services like YouTube to establish acting and singing credentials. They enable a person to work on a career while at the same time achieving recognition for skills and achievements.
What needs to be done: prepare for the increasing use of AI in recognition and assessment by establishing ethical application frameworks, develop open-ended assessment mechanisms such as personal portfolios, activity records, and open data management, and apply these mechanisms to support student learning, for example, though the deployment of personal learning dashboards.
Conferencing and Communication
Fifth, consider conferencing and communication. The global pandemic has accelerated a trend toward online events that was already in progress before it became a necessity. The suddenly urgent need for digital conferencing and communication has force providers and consumers to consider much more closely what would be optimal. Almost immediately, closed conferencing systems requiring enterprise authentication were eschewed in favour of zero-login tools like Zoom. People wanted to be able to quickly connect online without being required to establish a membership or subscription to a platform or service.
A similar disaggregation can be expected in other communications and interactions online. Challenges are being made to tradition al social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter by decentralized applications and networks such as Mastodon and ActivityPub. As decentralization takes form teachers will talk about the online world more as a place to converse and collaborate, not as some other sort of news media or textbook publisher. Meanwhile, the content of an online education is defined less by external authorities and more by the learner’s self-perception, identity formation, and understanding of his or her place in society.
What needs to be done: prepare for self-sovereign identity management or trusted social federated identity, identify appropriate decentralized tools and systems (taking note especially to manage social, economic and technology risks), support, acquire or deploy decentralized communication (eg., Slack in the enterprise, MS Teams, Mastodon, Discord), support instructor and staff skills development.
Online decentralized conferencing and communication opens learning and academic discourse to a much wider audience, one far greater than the limited number of people who could take part in person. It also enables people to participate while working, often using the same tools and technologies as they do on the job. Understanding the future is a process of understanding change. To understand change, it is necessary not only to understand drivers, which described how unsustainable practices force us to move, but also to understand attractors, which describe where we want to go. In education, increasing pressures on resources, security and equity are pushing us away from traditional models. What we need to preserve are systems that maintaining health and safety, maximizing student learning and thriving, establishing a sound operational and financial foundation, including support for instructors and staff.
What we want is often expressed in terms that describe an elite education, which includes in-person residence, small classes featuring personal instruction, and the formation of communities and networks. Elite education, however, can and will be changed into a more hybrid offering that offers the best possible version of these affordances to the wider community. Learning technology supporting these is in the process of being developed, and this technology defines how we can change much of traditional education to make it more equitable and more sustainable over a lifetime.
Expect learning to be much more integrated into the community, with people learning at home or in the workplace and coming together into classrooms only for activities and events. Expect cohorts to be formed and managed by artificial intelligence and to include people from a wide range of backgrounds, cultures and workplaces. Expect pedagogies to transition for a model based on instruction to one based on learning environment design with tools and practices supporting self-managed learning. Expect credentials to continue to shift away from diplomas and degrees to much more fine-grained forms of assessment based on actual experience and practice. And finally, expect increasing decentralization of conferencing and communication.
These are substantial changes, and none of them will be straightforward and linear. Those most benefiting from existing systems and institutions will resist change, while those who stand to gain the most will push for it. Meanwhile, the system will continue to be pressed on all sides to adjust to the realities of a changing world. New learning technologies will offer opportunities to respond by supporting more equitable and lifelong learning, but there remain social and ethical challenges to their use.