What does the future of learning look like?
It is clear that we are heading into a time of great uncertainty, with a number of forces intersecting and creating that uncertainty – most notably rapid climate and technology change. These forces will affect almost everything in our society over the next decades, from the work we do, to the skills we need, to the way we teach students, and to retraining staff displaced by technology to allow them to successfully adapt.
We’re either going to end up with a dystopian future, with greatly exacerbated inequities and social issues, or one in which we have transformational change for the better. I’m an optimist, so I’m gunning for the latter – we can embrace and apply emerging technologies to create a better future.
Learning is the great differentiator for humanity – the accumulation and transmission of knowledge is one of the key factors which has allowed us to successfully adapt as a species, and learning is one of the critical factors determining success in life.
However, the scale of the changes we are seeing is unprecedented in our history – and they are accelerating. That trend is incredibly difficult to comprehend, but it is happening whether we comprehend it or not.
It is clear that the status quo is going to be challenged, and it is likely that the current paradigm and systems of education will not be able to change fast enough to be sustainable. That is a pretty big issue for education to deal with – for teachers, for administration, for the ministry, for employers, and of course for students.
Most importantly for students.
It is a critical issue for us to deal with as a society, given the importance of education to shape our future.
As technology changes and accelerates, we will need to learn in new ways, and embrace the technologies available to address the issues of the current system, and of our somewhat dysfunctional society.
So, in the time since I first heard of Cheryl Doig’s concepts for the Future of Learning conference and event series, and becoming involved as a co-host for the event, I’ve thought a lot about what learning might look like, given the available technology now, the trends in key technology areas, and the likely changes we’ll see in the near future. As futurists, we call these perspectives the three horizons, and it is a useful framework for you to consider the future of any technology-driven change.
I’ve wondered, what does the future of learning really look like?
- What are the potential changes we will see?
- How will technology change the way we will learn?
- How will that change formal education, lectures and classrooms, qualifications?
- How will it change the way we teach new skills to staff?
- What are the current state-of-the-art learning practices?
What might the Future of Learning look like?
Firstly, I’ll openly admit this:
I am not a trained teacher, I have no formal education qualifications. However, I have had some wonderful teachers through my life, who’ve taught me to be a critical thinker, a systems thinker, to understand complexity, to put aside the status quo and look at problems with fresh eyes and a fresh perspective. I am however a learner – I have multiple qualifications across different disciplines, from biochemistry to biotechnology to technology and business management – I’ve spent much of my adult life learning about and working towards things which I think are important to building a better future.
Science fiction shapes our expectations a fair bit when thinking about the future, but from what I know of current technology:
We’re still a long way from uploading knowledge like the Matrix movies…
However, we’re quite close to the immersive learning experiences in Ready Player One.
By embracing technology change and applying emerging technology, we will enable the following characteristics of the Future of Learning:
Accessible – learning should be available on any device, any location, and to everyone. We must work to make sure the same quality of learning experience is available to everyone. While several of these items are being applied right now in forward-thinking schools, it needs to be scaled to all students, and indeed to all adults who have not had the benefit of a modern education.
Self-directed – if you are interested in a topic, you learn about it (full stop). If you are actively curious and interested in a topic you tend to absorb information readily, and we need to teach students through that lens of the things which interest and excite them, that harness their natural curiosity.
Self-paced – we all learn at different rates, so learners should be supported to explore knowledge at a pace that fits their needs. We’ve also all got strengths and weaknesses in different areas, based on our previous knowledge and experiences.
Adaptive – we also need to adapt to individual strengths and weaknesses, to diverse learning styles and diverse intelligences, with multiple ways to engage with the content, and multiple types of content available. That means content needs to be presented in written, audio, video, virtual – luckily those are all possible and accessible right now.
Interactive – we learn much better from interacting with a learning experience, rather than just consuming content. This plays to the kinesthetic learner in all of us – we learn by doing, by applying, not just consuming.
Immersive – technologies such as augmented and virtual reality immerse you in learning experiences, your attention is focussed naturally on the content, distractions are eliminated and you therefore learn more effectively.
Microlearning – topics should be broken down into micro-modules which are easy to consume, bite-sized pieces of knowledge. This allows them to be accessed when needed, filling time when commuting, waiting etc.
Multi-disciplinary – bite-sized learning topics lend themselves to being re-used in different areas of knowledge they are relevant to – and cross-linking ideas into other disciplines and other knowledge helps us to remember it easily.
Personalised – we all have a different learning journey, we need to recognise your strengths and weaknesses and adapt your learning to keep you engaged and challenged.
Repeated at a rate which optimises learning, and which also allows revision whenever it is required.
Reciprocal Flipped learning, with students investigating topics and teaching each other is incredibly effective, with the right facilitation. Learning enough about a topic to be able to teach others allows the re-framing of knowledge into the context and language of the learner.
Gamified – gamification is a great motivator for learning – attaining higher levels of skill, being recognised for your skills, levelling up in areas of knowledge. The “level” you are at now is a stepping stone to the next level of knowledge and expertise, and we must emphasize the importance of lifelong learning and achievement.
Microcredentialed – recognition of your achievements, and your “level” of learning is important – microcredentials which recognise your abilities at a modular level will combine to create a mosaic demonstrating your interests, aptitude and achievement.
Collaborative – as humans we are hard-wired to collaborate and interact with other humans, and learning projects which combine skills from multiple disciplines are far more engaging and easier to learn from.
Equitable – it goes without saying, everyone deserves to have access to the same opportunities in life. Access to learning opportunities is critical to success.
Automation as an opportunity
We should consider our preferred outcomes – how *should* learning work, to address the issues of teacher workload, equity of opportunity and access, learner difficulties etc? In order to do this, we need to set aside the status quo, the current issues, the politics, the policy and procedures, the “way things are done”.
If we are going to successfully adapt to the future, we clearly need to embrace technology and harness it to automate as much as we can. The looming spectre of automation is being used to scare a reaction against change, however change we must.
Let’s face it, teachers are typically overworked and up to their eyeballs in repetitive, low-value activities such as marking and administration. Automation should leave teachers to do the increasingly important work they are in the career for – teaching children (and adults) to learn.
In this way, learning and relearning can be delivered in a scalable way, and given the disruption we’re already seeing to work, scalable is the ONLY way we will be successful. There is no way to be able to deliver this type of custom, individualised, tailored learning at scale – not without embracing the technology.
What kind of skills do we need to be teaching in this way? Well, that’s a whole different topic really – a future post if you are interested. Here is a starting point:
- Foundational skills for success – literacy, numeracy, digital skills
- Teamwork, collaboration, communication
- Research, critical thinking
- Adaptability, change resilience
- Cultural awareness, empathy
- Mindsets for change, optimism
- Learning skills and curiosity
Fundamentally, I think we should be teaching students of all ages what they can do to make a difference.
Teach them that they *can* do something to make the world a better place.
That they can contribute to creating a better future for everyone.
That they can have hope for the future.
On a MUCH broader note
What exactly is a “future of learning”, what does that mean, what could it mean?
In the futurist space we talk a lot about preferred futures – how might the future be, if we removed the constraints of the status quo, the limitations of our current systems and thinking, the systemic and societal barriers in place now.
That requires a certain amount of imagination and perhaps an element of suspension of disbelief…
So let’s exercise our imaginations a bit… I like to think big, and long term!! I’ll note that I have an optimistic bias – however I acknowledge and embrace that!
Follow my train of thought here:
Let’s imagine a future where technology is embraced in order to enhance our humanity, where it is used as a force for good…
Imagine a world where most of the menial, repetitive work we do has been automated – the modern-day slavery of work is no more…
Imagine a future where we didn’t have to work in order to support our families, to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads – because those services are provided by technology…
Where the inequities of our current world are resolved by application of technology to remove scarcity of fundamental human needs…
Where we worked because we enjoyed what we were doing, or the contribution we were making, not because we had bills to pay…
Where we could spend our time doing what we felt is important for the future, no matter what that is…
Imagine being able to spend all your time doing the things you think really matter…
Learning about whatever we want to, exploring ideas and building expertise…
Sharing that expertise with others, teaching people about what you feel is important…
Collaborating with other people who are also doing the same things, working towards the greater good…
A world where making a contribution which betters the world is valued – so you are supported to be able to spend your time contributing, not caught up in a cycle of work, consumerism, debt and modern-day slavery (work)…
A world where EVERYONE on earth has the same opportunities to learn and contribute to a better future…
What if all the boring, repetitive, stressful parts of our current work were automated by AI and robotics, and all we were left with was this?
What would you be doing with your time? What would you learn about? What area of society, community, the arts or the environment would you be contributing to?
Isn’t that a better future than what we have now?
Isn’t that something worth striving towards?
Isn’t that a better future, one in which EVERYONE can thrive?
What if billions of us were striving for the same future – the global butterfly effect of all the actions taken would be transformational. I’m pretty sure we could create this preferred future, if we all started moving towards it together.
I’m keen to hear your thoughts on this – what would *you* consider a better future for everyone? Personally, I’m particularly interested, as this might seem like a pie-in-the-sky fantasy – but I’ve been steadily moving towards it for over 10 years now…