Today I’m speaking to the International Technology, Education and Development Conference, or INTED 2017. It’s being held in Valencia, and I’d like to attempt to distract everyone from that fair city by sharing my presentation notes.
Here they are. Know that this was scheduled to be a twenty-five minute talk for a general audience, so I will go both quickly and carefully, somehow:
I’d like to thank INTED for inviting me to Valencia. This is my first time in Spain, and I appreciate and enjoy the experience.
I appreciate the weather, as this is what my home town looks like now.
I also apologize deeply for representing a country that has temporarily gone insane. More on this later.
How many of you are on Twitter? How many are tweeting now? Keep going! Let’s get a backchannel roaring. I promise to jump in once I’m done speaking.
Where is higher education going? What changes can we anticipate now?
There are many ways to forecast these futures. Personally I recommend careful attention to science fiction, without which one cannot really grasp the 21st century. But today I’d like to kick off the conference by exploring key trends. These are forces in the present day which we can analyze, consider, then extrapolate into the future to see how they change education.
I’ve been tracking trends for decades, and for the past five years have been sharing them through the FTTE report. Now we have a good amount of evidence to track longitudinally.
Extrapolation is tricky, as trends can turn out in different ways. They can race ahead and reboot civilization, or slow down to have powerful impacts after a long duration. They can quietly progress without media attention, or they can fizzle out into future historical footnotes (assuming we still use footnotes). Our best option now is to assess trends in terms of their real-world impacts, then connect them to other trendlines to see how they reinforce each other.
We can begin with technological trends.
- Multimedia keeps growing, and educators keep using it. From images to podcasts to infographics to video to videoconferencing, we bring these media into our classes, and sometimes create them.
- Some technologies have raced across the world and changed society, but have only been slowly, hesitantly embraced by higher education: mobile, gaming, social media.
- Combining these trends, we *may* see a new form of virtual learning environment emerge, one that integrates courseware with open and social media. I’m referring to the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment concept.
- Some technology-enabled practices are slowly making progress. We are gradually exploring the possibilities of new learning spaces, shifting away from the classrooms of decades and centuries past. Open education and open access scholarly publication see incremental growth each year, producing more content and winning new practitioners.
- The demand for digital literacy increases, especially as digital technology continues to reshape our lives and with the new panic about fake news; we may start thinking of learners as creators.
- Alternatives to face-to-face learning have grown rapidly. In terms of numbers of learners, online and hybrid learning are approaching par with traditional methods.
Newer technologies have begun to emerge, each with implications for learning:
- 3d printing has appeared in new makerspaces, in libraries, in engineering programs, and anywhere curious academics can bring them into play. They are used for visualization, for creativity, and for rapid prototyping – so far.
- After a crash in the 1990s virtual reality has returned and blossomed. We are using it for visualization, for storytelling, and, curiously, for some badly needed empathy. We are also exploring combining VR with augmented reality to make mixed reality, intertwining virtual content and the physical environment. This could be another avenue for visualization, or it could revise our entire digital experience.
- Blockchain – nobody is sure what to do with this. It could create a global currency alternative, or fail. It could set up an alternative to the web, or not. In education we could use blockchain to upgrade student transcripts, or to create a new venue for registering scholarly discoveries. Or we could work warily around it.
- Automation – the combination of robotics, artificial intelligence, big data, and algorithms – is starting to impact education. A growing number of students and faculty research and invent in this field. Smarter programs are helping us learn languages or find our way across campuses or decide which classes to take.
Yet we cannot examine technology in isolation. Indeed, we must situate the digital world within the other contexts of education:
- Politics is… conflicted. One the one hand there is general and growing demand for higher education worldwide. On the other we see the rise of neo-nationalism in many countries, from Poland to Britain to the United States, India, and France. Will students and academics be free to move across borders, or will they be locked into their national systems?
- Demographics: Many trends continue to play out, such as the shift of populations from rural to urban areas. But I want to draw attention here to a major and growing difference between global North and South populations. The developing world looks like this: a major youth population, followed by a dwindling middle age, then senior group. The developed world is nearly a perfect opposite, with growing numbers of middle aged people and seniors, and shrinking youth. A higher education system aimed at 18-24-year olds is going to either face a shrinking student body, or have to market itself globally. In other words, the global north may become a major education source for the global south, while the south supplies students for the north.
- Macroeconomics : globalization has changed the world. Some 20th-century manufacturing giants are now dominated by service sectors, while some developing nations have become industrial powerhouses. Capital and good flow more freely across borders than ever before. Labor is more competitive and flexible… which means often less well compensated, especially as we enter the gig economy. And yet income inequality has been building up for the past generation, soaring in Anglophonic nations.
If we combine these trends, what appears in the future of education? Recall that some trends may extend further in time, or take longer to take effect.
- For example, climate change, the reshaping of the world into the Anthropocene, lies ahead in the decades and generations to come, although we seem to have decided as a species to do little to halt it. The Northwest passage is now open. Multiple nations are engaged in a geopolitical rush for the north polar region, which is now opening up into a new world. That’s just the start. What happens when snows and permafrost retreat northwards, opening up lands for farming? When a hot climate turns arid and desertification begins? Do more cities become like Las Vegas, artificial creations maintained solely by massive infrastructural investment? When do people flee such cities?
- We are now experiencing the emergence of a global higher education market. We can offer and take digital classes across continents. We have growing access to educational and scholarly materials. Universities are increasingly competing with those of other nations. I suspect that unless neonationalist governments become both deeply autocratic and truly stupid, this global university system will continue to grow.
- Technological advancement should continue, with devices shrinking, computation moving further into our personal spaces, more of the world networked and annotated, robots filling our skies and cities, virtual content humming before our eyes. Add to that a steady stream of newly invented hardware and software.
- The proliferation of digital content and discussion will continue to challenge our ability to handle it. Expect a battle between those seeking to create new authorities and gatekeepers, and those preferring to empower people.
- We may see some educational business models destroyed while new ones appear. The triumph of open education and scholarship could end both textbook companies and scholarly publishers. Universities who base their funding on student debt may not be able to sustain themselves on students accustomed to open content and a competitive global marketplace.
- Automation is one of the biggest game-changers. Automation is one of the biggest game-changers. First, consider what happens as automated services take on more educational functions. Let’s grant further, steady growth in deep learning and advanced neural networks. Let’s count Google’s victory over the game of Go as a milestone, and Siri’s uncanny abilities as a baseline.
- First, consider what happens as automated services take on more educational functions. What happens to a professoriate when competent digital tutors can successfully compete with humans for a student’s time? What happens to a learner’s initiative and sense of self when a university can, with some confidence, predict their likely educational outcomes? What kind of professional training and development prepares instructors to work very closely with automated services in teaching and doing research? Which researcher will be the first to offer an AI co-authorship credit in an article?
- Second, think of the world beyond education as automation takes hold. The past generation of digital advancement has seen new businesses and fortunes made… but by employing fewer people. If a generation of automation leads to unemployment and underemployment, what becomes of a university’s mission? If, on the other hand, jobs continue to exist, but are so deeply intertwined with technology that workers are effectively cyborgs, are universities prepared to overhaul their curriculum and pedagogy to help students into that new world?
- We should not be surprised by chaos and uncertainty, especially as our technologically-empowered students react to this emerging world and try to improve their lives, using the tools we teach them. Expect both creativity and insurgency.
- Some of that creativity will appear as storytelling, because we know that whenever we invent a new medium, we create new stories for it.
So what can we do now?
Collaborate with each other, across institutions, sectors, nations, populations, professions.
Use social media.
Use and be open.
Rethink everything in terms of automation’s possibilities.
Think of these people, of the rising generations of children and young adults.
Imagine different worlds and inhabiting them – yourselves, your institution, your children and the generation to come.
You. Help. Make. The. Future.
It isn’t something just done to you, delivered like gifts from a cargo cult. You help make the future.
Every decision you make contributes. When you craft a creative work, or teach in a certain way, or nudge a campus in one direction, or support a political candidate, or tell a story, or dream out loud, or influence younger folks, you help co-create what is coming next. Don’t be passive – it’s too late! You’re already making it happen. You are all – each of you – practicing futurists and world-makers. Do so with open eyes, and the flame of creative possibility roaring in your heart.