An Era Shift Raises Big Questions for Education – Part 1

January 4, 2019 by

This article is the first in a three-part series by KnowledgeWorks futurist Katherine Prince on the challenges and opportunities emerging in education.

Educators have a lot to do, and they face many immediate and pressing demands related to supporting learners. Stepping out of the day-to-day to look 10 years into the future may feel like a luxury of time they can ill afford.

Taking that time, however, is crucial. It is important for educators to pause and consider how the world is changing and how those changes could affect learning. Moreover, educators should prepare to help lead the way as we all navigate the murky territory of moving toward a future of learning that can help all learners thrive.

As colleagues and I forecast in KnowledgeWorks’ latest comprehensive 10-year forecast, Navigating the Future of Learning, we are in the midst of an era shift that is changing how we relate with one another, our institutions and even with ourselves. People are interacting with smart devices – such as our mobile phones, voice-controlled personal assistants and the code that powers all those machines – in new and ever-deepening ways. Over the next decade, many facets of our lives will be affected by exponential advances in technology and by the social and economic changes that are accompanying them.

When KnowledgeWorks creates a forecast on the future of learning, we draw upon methodologies from a field called strategic foresight to examine what is happening today and to project what could happen in the future. In this new forecast, we identify five drivers of change that we think will impact education over the next decade. These drivers of change, or major societal shifts, are described in this post, along with key questions that they raise for learning. The drivers of change include:

  • Automating Choices
  • Civic Superpowers
  • Accelerating Brains
  • Toxic Narratives
  • Remaking Geographies.

Subsequent posts in this three-part series will explore more deeply what these drivers of change could mean for learning and how educators and other stakeholders might begin responding to the changing landscape today.

Automating Choices

Artificial intelligence and algorithms are automating many aspects of our lives. Many of us use these technologies when we interact with recommendation engines that suggest what movies to watch or products to buy. We also use them when we navigate with GPS and when we authorize apps to save dinner or airline reservations to our calendars. These technologies are expanding opportunities for personalization and efficiency in many areas of life, including education. But they are also raising questions about trust, bias and individual agency.

We need to consider how best to develop strategies for using artificial intelligence in learning without sacrificing student and educator agency or deepening inequity.

Civic Superpowers

Engaged citizens and civic organizations are seeking to rebalance power in the face of a growing governance gap and increased corporate influence in the civic sector. They are supercharging their efforts to mobilize action by using participatory media, machine learning and data analytics to reach more people and increase impact. This driver of change is exemplified by the waves of hashtag activism that have been spreading of late – the #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and #NeverAgain movements have all used social media to extend their reach and catalyze action.

Looking ahead, we are going to need to think through how tech-enabled civic engagement might reshape educational governance and decision-making.

Accelerating Brains

People now have increasing access to tools and insights that are reshaping our brains in intended and unintended ways. Neural enhancement technologies, therapeutic environments and practices informed by neuroscience, smart drugs and do-it-yourself transdermal cranial stimulation are just some of the ways people can now affect our cognitive processes and brain-based health conditions. Our exposure to pervasive media (mainstream, online and social) is also changing our brains in unintended ways.

We need to begin considering today the ethical and long-term health implications of using brain-based interventions. We also need to explore how these developments might impact our expectations of educational performance.

Toxic Narratives

Outdated and misaligned systems and metrics of success are contributing to chronic health issues, including rising rates of mental illness among children. The pressures of high-stakes testing, grueling college admissions processes and student debt that might not lead to employment represent some of the pressures that young people face. In addition, the ways we measure achievement in education and other areas of life are increasingly understood not to reflect a holistic understanding of human development and well-being.

We need to ask how educators might collaborate with communities and other sectors to create new definitions of success that promote good health among diverse populations – and how educational accountability might need to expand to support a broader perspective on learner development and well-being.

Remaking Geographies

Communities are working to remake themselves in the face of deep transitions, including economic transition and climate volatility. More people are migrating in search of safe, livable communities, and increasing numbers of communities are seeking to foster sustainable cultures and economies by finding new approaches to economic and community development. As they do so, education has an opportunity to play a key role in contributing to communities’ vitality.

Educators can consider how they might get involved in helping communities find new signature identities, as well as how new economic approaches might change what it means to be ready for work.

Facing Change for Learners’ Sake

These drivers of change represent big trajectories that won’t necessarily make sense or seem actionable right away. But it’s critical to begin grappling with them to make sure that we all do our best to steer the future of education toward one that supports all learners in thriving amid a rapidly changing world.

My next post will take a closer look at what these drivers of change could mean for learning.

Read the rest of the series:
2. An Era Shift Creates New Opportunities for Education – Part 2
3. Seeding the Future of Learning Today

Katherine Prince is Senior Director, Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, where she leads the organization’s exploration of the future of learning. She speaks and writes about the trends shaping education over the next decade and helps education stakeholders strategize about how to become active agents of change in shaping the future. Katherine holds a bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University, a master’s degree from the University of Iowa and an MBA from The Open University. She is a member of the Association of Professional Futurists. Tweet to her @katprince.

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