op-ed future of education EDUKWEST

3 Themes Defining The Future of Education

A society’s view of education is simply a reflection of the broader culture. Back when America was far more homogeneous and agrarian, we developed schools that reflected those values and ideals, right down to the calendar we taught kids on. I would argue one reason there is such confusion over where education should go in the future in this country, is because we now have so many competing visions of what our culture is and how that should collectively define us in the 21st Century. But if you step back, remain objective, and keep your eyes open, what is happening in the world today is pretty clear. And when we understand the direction of the broader world, the role and direction of education comes into focus.

Three themes for the future world and implications for education:

1) Breakthrough technology is now cheap (free?) and getting cheaper (more free?).

Think about something like Google Cardboard, which offers a virtual reality headset for a few bucks that runs off the supercomputer in your pocket. The New York Times just sent 1 million Google Cardboard headsets to subscribers as they launched NYT VR, while entire communities in Africa are embracing virtual reality due to its power as a story telling platform.  This is only possible because things like mobile and virtual reality are cheap.  Really cheap.

2) Mobile is the new primary platform and it is consuming the world.

Mobile devices outsell PC’s 5 to 1, and that will soon be 10 to 1. Android powers 1.4 billion supercomputers in the pockets of everyday people, iOS powers about 400 million. As Ben Evans likes to say, it’s time to think of mobile as the real internet and think of the web as delivered on a PC as the scaled down and limited version.

Babies born today might only know mobile and might never open a browser or perform a conventional internet search. What does this mean? Already, 50% of people do zero searches per day on mobile and we are only getting started with the mobile era. As I’ve said before, the internet as we know it will disappear and conventional search volume will race to zero as we enter a new customized app era where we each configure our own mobile supercomputer to deliver exactly the information we want, when we want it, in the UI that works for us. The internet as we know it today will disappear in a few years.  In case you think that’s crazy, the Chairman of Google agrees.

The Google search page of today will seem as antiquated to your kids as DOS does to us now. The world will have 10x the number of mobile phones as we had Windows powered laptops at their peak. What happens when literally everyone in the world has access to a supercomputer configured uniquely for them? The one size fits all approach of today and popularized by folks at places like Microsoft will move to all sizes fit one….one person with multiple mobile interfaces.

3) We expect information instantly and on demand.

Barriers to information, and moats around learning simply no longer make sense. At the same time, very traditional educators are now freely admitting virtual classes can be superior to traditional ones. Seemingly every innovative leap we have seen in technology has enabled us to get closer to the content and information we want, where we want it, and as soon as we’d like to have it. On demand learning now solves the problem that has vexed educators for centuries; how to teach in context and deliver lessons as the need for knowledge presents itself. We know learning is more powerful when learners understand why and when they will use the knowledge. With learning content delivered instantly, on demand, and in a self directed way, you are doing just that. The implications on the future of teaching are profound.

The last few decades have been about increasing access through technology. We talked about online learning in terms of how many new learners could now access education through an online modality. The next few decades will be about what we do with that. Babies born today will only know a world where they have a supercomputer in their pocket and infinite access to all the information in the world delivered instantly exactly as they want it.

What is the impact on teaching and learning?

I’ll be honest, I need someone to help me understand how and where traditional teachers even fit fifteen years from now. I have a hard time seeing it.

The truth is, the world faces an acute teacher shortage.  Globally, we need almost 30 million new teachers by 2030 to provide every child with a primary school teacher. Given current demographic trends, this is nearing a mathematical impossibility according to even the most optimistic among us. In fact, even optimistic teacher supply projections come up dramatically short. Current student to teacher ratios in some parts of Africa are close to 90 to 1 and accelerating in the wrong direction.

We are approaching an era each where child has access to a mobile device, but not a human instructor. This screams for solution oriented innovation. The reality is we have widespread mobile adoption, cheap (free?) virtual reality, and instantaneous access to any information we want. That feels like the necessary ingredients and that a solution is simply waiting for us to assemble it. The problem we defined is simple: in parts of America, Africa and the Middle East we simply do not have enough teachers today and trends are moving in the wrong direction for tomorrow.

People debate this by saying “a computer can’t ever replace a teacher”. I did not suggest computers would replace teachers. We need to grasp the data and let it sink in. In many parts of the world, including parts of America, the computer does not have a teacher to even replace. To deny that is to deny reality. Look fifteen years out. The world is producing more babies. We are not producing more human teachers.

These themes speak to the innate human need to structure increasingly complex layers of information in more useful and functional ways. This is not so much a theme of our current future as much as it explains the arc of human history to date and we can draw this arc into the future to help shed some light on our common and eventual destiny. And if you truly accept and believe in the three themes mentioned earlier, then you know that destiny is a profound and magical place.

Think about the global dominance and availability of mobile, its affordability, and its inherent ability to deliver near infinite information on demand. If knowledge is indeed power, we are democratizing and leveling the only playing field that matters, which is the one allowing access to knowledge. The potential of that changes the course of human history forever, and the truth is it has absolutely nothing to do with our ability to manage an antiquated model that relies on one person standing in front of and engaging 90 others in a cramped and sterile classroom.

It’s a brave new world indeed. With themes like this playing out for the next few decades, I cannot wait to see what we create.

Picture by Nathan Rupert via Flickr.

Jason Pfaff is a recognized innovator in contemporary higher education. Most recently, he served as Vice President of Student Experience for Delta Career Education, a leading privately held provider of career oriented education. Jason's innovation portfolio lies at the intersection of massive data sets, predictive analytics, and a student centered mindset. Prior to Delta, Jason worked in a variety of roles at University of Phoenix, a leader in the widespread adoption of online learning. Prior to University of Phoenix, Jason served in a variety of roles at Saint Gregory's University, including leading the launch of its multi-media lab. Jason holds a degree in Letters from Saint Gregory's. When not working, he spends time with his beautiful wife Anna and their four lovely children.

  • Edgar Wilson

    The push toward on-demand instruction, information access, and learning should deconstruct existing institutions which sell knowledge by equating time spent in class with mastery. The notion of a four-year degree will be supplanted by technology and a fast-paced culture built on lifelong learning, not compartmentalized (and expensive) forays behind brick walls.