As a potent reminder, let me set the stage with a quote by the great physicist and Nobel laureate, Dr. Richard Feynman:
“If you don’t understand technology, you don’t understand your times”.
That quote was written quite a few decades ago but remains true and is especially timely with the unprecedented advancements we witness in tech today. As other sectors have already done, education should embrace tech for the potential it holds to significantly increase the return on human potential.
To be clear, it is not about tech itself but about what it can – and increasingly will – enable us to do. In education, too much focus has been on tech’s ability to spruce up the industrial-factory model we have become so wedded to. Far less attention has been devoted to how it could reshape the model itself. With what tech is capable of, we should not just innovate inside the box but also innovate the box itself. The latter is more disruptive to what we are currently doing but that is also where the real gains in the return on human potential lie.
An insightful way to reflect on what tech might have in store for education is to consider what an educational institution is at its core: a two-sided market platform that brings together knowledge with those who seek that knowledge. We typically do not think of it that way but we should because, as we have seen in other sectors, advances in tech empower platforms and can lead to a restructuring of value chains and novel business models. It would be naive to think that education can be spared from what has already revolutionized other sectors.
At its core, any educational institution is a two-sided market with bundled knowledge (degrees) on one side and aggregated demand (class cohorts) on the other side. The matching of the two is quite static, externally determined, and done independently of the profile of those seeking knowledge. In that sense, the process is quite mechanical and devoid of memory, learning, adaptation, and anticipation. Smart tech will change all that.
Every aspect of the two-sided market is ripe for a tech-induced revolution that can only benefit future generations. Here are 9 ways in which it will usher in a new dynamic in learning.
1. A shift from standardized delivery to adapted learning
The industrial-factory model of education with its standardized delivery has run its course. As I describe in my best-selling book, Rough Diamonds. Rethinking How We Educate Future Generations (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), that model arose from dynamics that characterize the cost structures of educational institutions. Those dynamics require a high degree of standardization to secure efficient delivery. As a consequence, the latter takes priority over effective learning. To the benefit of all students, tech will turn the tables on that one.
Tech will put the students and their learning back in the driver’s seat. It will shift the focus away from standardized delivery (teaching) and put it on fully-adapted learning. That shift in emphasis will insure significant increases in the return on human potential. With lifelong learning looming large on the horizon, the shift towards learning could not come at a better time.
2. The unbundling of supply and demand
Unbundling is how digital tech disrupted many industries, and education will not be an exception to that dynamic. We will see it occurring on both sides of the two-sided education market.
On the supply side, we already see the unbundling of knowledge with the arrival of micro-credentials and nano-degrees. That trend will continue and most likely accelerate. With the momentum shifting from delivery to learning, students will also demand access to a much broader portfolio of unbundled knowledge when designing their individual learning journeys.
On the demand side, we will see a disaggregation of demand and a move away from standard class cohorts. The traditional class will just be one level in a portfolio of intelligently-created learning pods. Individual learning will be combined with pod and group learning (and co-learning) in customized learning journeys that optimize each student’s unique potential.
The one-size-fits-all model where all students follow the same sanctioned curriculum at the same pace is on its way out. Tech will increasingly enable efficient and cost-effective scaling of fully-adapted learning. In the future, we will all be able to design intelligent learning journeys that fit our needs and requirements. Those journeys will be designed from the ground up taking into account individual differences in inherent potential, cognitive learning profiles, social contexts, etc. Tech-enabled smart learning journeys whose dynamics are internally-determined and not externally-imposed will become the norm.
3. Continuous, real-time, and unobtrusive learning assessment
Assessment has always been a weak spot in education. As a consequence, it has been difficult to manage learning effectively. The old adage that “what you can’t measure, you can’t manage” also holds for education. But that will change with tech increasingly enabling the continuous, real-time, and unobtrusive assessment of learning.
Assessment methods that are imbedded in learning processes will turn education into a data science. Data-driven dynamics will create learning journeys that have memory, learn, adapt, and anticipate the future. Evidence-based learning will be a real game changer in education and usher in a era of substantial increases in the return on human potential.
4. Intelligent matching of demand with supply
In education today, the demand for knowledge is matched with degrees in a rather mechanical way. At younger ages, standardized curricula that satisfy externally-determined education requirements are imposed; at older ages, standardized curricula are built around job templates and reflect our continued adherence to work-based education. At no level in education today is knowledge bundled in a way that aligns with the students’ potential.
Furthermore, and because the supply side is defined independently of the characteristics of the demand side, the matching of the two has become a bureaucratic certification process that is devoid of any intelligence. Smart tech is about to make the matching process truly intelligent.
Intelligent alignment of supply and demand will insure that students get the knowledge they need when they need it and in the form they need it. Hence, externally-imposed curricula and constraints on knowledge access will be replaced with internally-driven and evidence-based dynamics. In the process, and to the benefit of the students, knowledge will become much more liquid and flow to where and when it is truly needed.
5. Smart rebundling of supply and demand
With rapid innovation, change, and disruption, many jobs are becoming obsolete or are being restructured fundamentally. In fact, almost every job today can at least in part be done by an intelligent algorithm. This ought to draw into question our continued adherence to work-based education that channels students into ever narrowing career paths.
In the future, intelligent learning processes will create knowledge bundles that insure each student’s continued relevance, personal growth, and professional agility. This will usher in a tech-enabled and tech-supported lifelong learning paradigm that will ultimately replace education as we know it today.
On the demand side, we will see the creation of intelligent learning pods to encourage, stimulate, and accelerate co-learning. As already alluded to above, individual learning will be supplemented and combined with pod and group learning and co-learning. Those pods and groups will be created in intelligent ways based on who can contribute as well as benefit the most from the learning/co-learning. Accordingly, learning journeys will become much more varied, dynamic, and intelligent.
6. Experiential learning 2.0
As digital tech is looking beyond the file-sharing internet, a future with immersive experiences that cut across universes is slowly taking shape. That online-offline virtual future will enable learning opportunities that we currently can only dream about: actual realities enhancing virtual experiences as well as virtual realities enhancing actual-world experiences, and both of these aligned and integrated seamlessly on a single plane. That plane will be the playing ground for experiential learning 2.0. Experiential learning 2.0 will be dynamic and smart, and as such have the inherent ability to tune into and address specific learning needs and co-learning objectives as experiences unfold.
Although we are some way off, the metaverse world is destined to provide experiences that are much richer and deeper than anything we can create today. Those experiences will foster not only more profound learning (and co-learning) but also enable learning at much faster rates, something the accelerating changes we experience around us will increasingly require.
With the shelf life of knowledge shrinking rapidly, lifelong learning is becoming a necessity. With it will come the need to accelerate learning. The pace of learning in education today is too slow and we will need to pick up the pace. Tech holds the secret to blitzlearning; i.e., the design of mechanisms and approaches that accelerate the pace of effective learning.
One way to accelerate experiential learning is to rely on simulators. This is how we currently train pilots and keep their skills razor sharp throughout their flying careers. Simulators augment and accelerate the exposure to the experiences pilots need to hone their skills and competencies. Professionals in other fields will need access to similar learning technologies to maintain their edge in a rapidly changing world.
Blitzlearning is not doing more of what we already do, or do it faster. It is about doing things in a fundamentally different way and deploy tech to accelerate the pace of learning.
8. Digital learning ecosystems
In the future, the learning infrastructure will consist of learning ecosystems that span seamlessly across the online-offline digital world. Within these ecosystems, learning journeys will be created and executed intelligently to benefit the needs of students, and not rigid bureaucratic requirements that only benefit educators and educational institutions.
Educational institutions need to imbed their core identity into these digital learning ecosystems, and lock in their students and alumni. They might do well to explore well-functioning digital ecosystems in other industries to learn the game and understand the roles they could play in such dynamic ecosystems.
9. Novel business models
Our current educational model is already quite expensive (for students, their parents and, in the case of public education, governments), and stretching it to cover lifelong learning and/or making it more adaptable to individual student needs would make it prohibitively expensive. In my view, the current model is not sustainable and a search for novel business models that enable affordable and adaptable lifelong learning is warranted. As we have seen in other sectors, digital tech enables and supports innovative business models.
In my book Rough Diamonds, I describe what some of those models might look like. Some might have the character of learning-earning models; i.e., once students have reached a level of competency that they can contribute in a meaningful way to the learning ecosystem, they can begin to earn back their learning fees. Other models could be built around pay-for-success mechanisms and mimic social impact bonds; after all, there is no sector with a bigger social impact than education.
Digital tech offers many other avenues for novel business models and we should explore them all, experiment with them, and learn which ones might be sustainable in more dynamic learning environments.
There is no doubt in my mind that tech will revolutionize education. Given what it is already capable of, Feynman’s quote is not only a timely reminder but also a warning. If education is content with what it is doing today, it is probably not understanding its times and what is required of it in those times.