People sometimes ask me how I spot or predict educational trends that are likely to stick. I usually share an idea or two, but I thought I would give a little longer answer for those who are interested.
You go to bed one night and wake up in a world of blended learning, online learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, learning analytics, adaptive learning, and a dozen other phrases. How did that just happen so quickly? While some people might feel like things changed overnight, that never happens when it comes to educational trends. They come about amid years, decades or even longer. If you are not paying attention, it might feel like the changed happened in a day, but it didn’t. There were signs of the impending change for a long time, and anyone with the desire and commitment can learn to read these signs.
I’ve been doing this for decades. Once you get a feel for key factors, you can get good at seeing them develop from a distance. It is not always easy to predict when the innovation is going to reach a critical mass and spread more quickly. I admit to being off as much as a decade in some cases. Yet, we can usually do better than a decade, and we can use this skill to prepare ourselves and our organizations for what is coming. Consider the following fifteen factors that are valuable when you are studying trends likely to shape and change education over time.
Lots of promising ideas in education don’t start in education. They begin in entertainment, the world of video games, in the business sector, in health care, or dozens of other domains. Yet, when there is an impactful development in one of these domains, it will eventually influence broader cultures and find its way into education. We can’t always trace the direct moment in which an idea jumps from one domain to education, but by looking at innovations more broadly, we can notice patterns that hint at that future jump.
Too often, people focus on their small and local world of education. We don’t look across early childhood, elementary, secondary, tertiary, workforce development, continuing education, informal education, and other forms of education. As such, we miss a major development in one area that will likely jump to another level.
We also want to look for the mixing of ideas, sometimes from within education, sometimes a mixture of ideas from within and outside of education. This is where two or more seemingly disconnected and distinct ideas come together. This is largely what happened with blended learning. Online learning started first. People basically just imitated what that saw in the classroom in an online environment. Then people discovered distinct benefits of online not possible in face-to-face. Then we had the development of video sharing technologies. These converged with face-to-face teaching to create what we call blended learning today. If you can see various developments and begin to explore what it might look like if they were to combine, you can get ahead of many developments. Of course, you can also be the one to help create the future.
In their infancy, most technologies are not quite as impressive as they will be in a decade or two…or three. As new features are added, we begin to discover new possibilities. These technologies mature into things that have greater application and possibility in education. Their ease of use or affordability develop, inviting more people to consider their possibilities in education.
If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend the wonderful little book called The Metaphors We Live By. In it, the author points out the power of a metaphor to change how we think, how we make decisions and the possibilities that we consider. When you start noticing the growth of a new metaphor in a culture or community, you can identify a forthcoming innovation or set of innovations.
Some technologies amplify beliefs, values, and philosophies. When one of those amplifying technologies emerge, they will give greater power to one philosophy or set of values over another. We can use this to predict which trends will win over others. We can also use this to try to find and promote those technologies that best amplify the values and philosophies we support.
Investors, foundations, and government grants can and do help create the direction of future trends. Money is not the only factor, but when you see significant and persistent investment in an innovation, that is certainly an important factor to consider.
There are plenty of financial factors at work in education and when there is a revenue generation potential behind a certain educational technology, this gives it an extra boost. Textbooks didn’t just grow as a dominant curricular resource for a century because they were the best means of teaching and learning. They did so because they met a need and did so while creating lots of money for people and organizations.
In general, easy to understand, concrete or simple innovations gain more traction in education than complex ones. This is true even when a more complex solution is better for students and organizations.
The media doesn’t typically create any educational innovations, but media attention can and does influence awareness and adoption rate. We saw this with Massive Open Online Courses as an example, an innovation that continues to grow to this day even though it no longer gets the frequent media headlines. Yet, the stories and attention around these developments, leaders in the MOOC movement, and key higher education and corporate players, it gained traction rather quickly. This is not a factor that lets us track trends far away, but we can use it to identify 1-3 year developments…even a bit further out.
Superior but Muzzled
There are great innovations, models and ideas that sometimes clash with the agenda of those in power. People ignore or muzzle the innovation to keep their influence. Sometimes this is enough to kill it altogether, but it usually re-appears in another time and place, seeking a place with fertile soil to grow and spread. This is why you can’t always predict which organization will take the lead on a new development. Some try it out early on but don’t have the culture and support to expand. Someone else often creates a new organization and accomplishes much of the earlier vision.
Superior but Isolated
There is incredible work happening in small pockets in education, and most people don’t even know about them. They are serving a small group in amazing ways, but there is either no drive to expand what they are doing, there are not the resources to grow it , or others have just not learned about it yet. When you come across one of these and it truly is superior in some way, keep an eye on it. These can and do blow up on occasion to have a quick and massive expansion.
Kairos is Greek for the “due season” or the “opportunity time”. It is when a series of cultural and other conditions come together to create an ideal time for a given idea, trend or innovation. Think of it as similar to the idea of “the perfect storm.” If we follow innovations in view of larger cultural developments and trends, we can sometimes see the emergence of a forthcoming kairos.
Policy Change Creates Fertile Ground
Policies can kill and give life to educational trends and innovations. Watch the patterns of debate and lobbying around educational policies to get a sense of which trends are more or less likely to grow and spread.
Some downplay or disregard significant growth on a smaller scale. An innovation might increase its impact or reach by 500% but it was so small to start that it didn’t seem like much compared to larger efforts. Yet, don’t forget the law of compounding interest because it can apply to trend and innovation development as well. Some innovations don’t lend themselves to scale and that is important to note, but with time and attention, you can begin to uncover where you are looking at something that can scale and is experiencing compounding effects.
There are plenty of other factors involved in noticing the growth of educational trends and innovations, but careful and collective attention to these fifteen can give you a good sense of what will and will not stick, develop, and expand over the upcoming years and decades. In fact, I’ve pretty much shared how I manage to notice trends early. This can aid you in helping to create the future, prepare for it, challenge trends that you consider dangerous, or just become very good at studying trends in their infancy that will eventually become mainstream and widespread.