Most People in Education are Just Looking for Faster Horses, But the Automobile is Coming

Note: If you like what you read, you can go here for the MoonshotEdu podcast episode that addresses this topic.

Remember the famous quote often attributed to Henry Ford (although we don’t know if he actually said it), “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Most people in education are looking for faster horses. It is too challenging, troubling, or beyond people’s sense of what is possible to really imagine a completely different way in which education happens in the world. That doesn’t mean, however, that the educational equivalent of the automobile is not on its way. I am confident that it is very much on its way. It might even arrive earlier than even the futurists expect. Consider the following prediction.

According to this article in the Business Insider, the futurist Thomas Frey predicts that the largest Internet company in 2030 will be an online school. Yet, when you look more closely at his prediction, it is not that the largest company will be an online school, but that it will be an education-based company. I am not an economist and lack the business acumen to agree or disagree with his assessment of “the largest.” I will, however, comment on the more general prediction that there will be a single, massive Internet-based education company in 2030 that is a leading voice and holds a dominant position in the education space.

This is more than possible. He is probably right. For Frey, this relates to the growth in artificial intelligence and machine learning, two trends that are clearly going to play increasingly larger roles in education this year and well into the future. Frey paints a picture of a future where robots take adaptive, individualized, and personalized learning to a new level; taking over the facilitation of massive open online courses and delivering better learning outcome results than teachers of the human sort. These robots will master the science behind the age-old principle of good teaching, “know your learners.” By mining rich and ongoing data about each learner, these robot teachers will be able to adjust the time, pace, pathway, and experience of learning to optimize outcomes, allowing students to master concepts and content in a fraction of the time that it takes today. That is how Frey sees it. These robots might not replace most teachers, but such a vision suggests that they will, at minimum, teach alongside and supplement what teachers do.

I love this prediction. It is informed, provocative, rooted in changes that are already well underway in several sectors, and it serves as a great discussion starter and source of reflection for those of us in education. It forces us to go beyond the faster horse mentality. Every technological element that Frey describes already exists and there are multiple education (or non-education) companies investing in educational applications of them. Some of these technologies are already deeply embedded in various educational systems and applications. Yet, even Frey tempers his prediction by noting that these will likely just be supplements to human teachers.

We are largely just looking for better horses in most education reform and quality improvements. We talk about how to improve retention rates in school instead of diving right into how we can re-imagine education where concepts like retention rates become irrelevant. We talk about how to get as many people as possible to earn a college degree instead of talking seriously about how we can create an model where we have the most informed and educated population in the history of the world. We talk about GPA as a good predictor of school performance thus focusing upon how to increase GPA instead of asking whether the entire grading system itself is helping or hindering what we do in education.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking faster horses in education, but that will eventually reach a limit. Horses can only go so fast. Switching from faster horses to faster humans for a second, it is certainly true that we have succeeded in creating a generation of faster humans. The 4-minute-mile barrier was broken, but there is going to be a limit when we are talking about human legs and anatomy, at least until we change the rules of the race, allow new technologies, or something else more drastic than most people might be thinking. Humans can go much faster than a 4-minute-mile. Just put them in a jet-propelled car that goes over 700 miles per hour.

There are limits to the current models of education. Tackling some of the priorities that people seem to have about learning and education in the 21st and 22nd centuries calls for automobile-level changes. We might not like Frey’s predictions. We might have moral concerns. We might want to fight for our fondness of the current system. We might want to protect our own jobs and how we do them. Yet, there are plenty of people in the world who don’t have those inhibitions and they will be working to move from faster horses to educational automobiles. I have no reason to doubt that more people will eventually embrace the innovations that come from the efforts of such people.

Frey might not have it right in terms of the specifics. Yet, I suspect that he does have it right on at least a few.

  • Many education transformations will happen in organizations not bound by current educational policies. That means companies like MOOC-providers who don’t have to worry about the regulations and restrictions of K-12 and higher education institutions. This can just. I just don’t know if it will.
  • Many education transformations will happen in organizations not dominated by faster horse people. Again, that probably means different types of organizations than what we typically think of as schools. This too can change. I just don’t know if it will.
  • Technologies attached to machine learning, artificial intelligence, and new forms of adaptive learning will play a key role in these educational transformations.

Note: If you like what you read, you can go here for the MoonshotEdu podcast episode that addresses this topic.

The Future of Education: Ignore, Prepare, Predict, or Create?

When it comes to thinking about the future of education, there are four basic approaches. Some ignore thoughts about the future, arguing that it is out of reach and that there is plenty to focus on in the present. Others take the approach of preparing for the future. While it might be unknown, we can prepare ourselves by being agile, alert, responsive to subtle and significant changes and trends, and by doing what it takes to position yourself for the unknown. Then there are those who work to predict the future. While this is not a certain science, there are ways to notice trends and develop a nuanced ability to track that which is likely to stick and shape the future of education. Yet, there are those who go beyond all of these, aspiring to create the future.

Of course, there is no rule against embracing more than one of these, In fact, I suggest that there is much wisdom in takings lessons from all four emphases. Let’s look at them more closely.

Ignore

Maybe “ignore” is not the right word, but there is something to be said for not obsessing about the future. There are instances where people are so worried about or focused on what might happen in the future, that it prevents them from investing in the present. In that sense, there is a time to set aside our thinking about the future, instead dealing with the important tasks of today. By investing in creating something great today, we might be better preparing ourselves for the future anyway. As Mother Theresa is quoted as saying, ““Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.” There is plenty of work in the present. Yet, there is a limit to this. Completely ignoring signs of change in the near future can be detrimental.

Prepare

The “prepare” camp is sometimes skeptical that you can actually predict the future. At the same time, those in this camp also see it as unwise to ignore the future. Instead, the goal is to figure out how to best prepare for it. In fact, this sort of mindset is arguably essential in education. We are preparing people for a future that doesn’t yet exist. As such, we have to find ways to prepare for the unknown. As Malcolm X wrote, ““Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today.” Or, FDR said it this way, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Predict

As I wrote in a recent article, the future might seem to sneak up on us in unexpected ways, but it rarely happens in an instant. With attention and study, we can notice the signs of change. A good place to start is with the past. The past might not repeat itself, but studying the past can give us a better sense of the changes to come, which is the spirit of what Marquis of Halifax meant when he wrote, “The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.” In addition, there is ample wisdom in this quote from an unknown source, “A good forecaster is not smarter than everyone else, he merely has his ignorance better organized.” If we can see patterns in what seems like randomness to others, we can sometimes make sense of it.

Create

Others realize that we all play a role in creating the future. Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, ““The best way to predict your future is to create it.” It isn’t just some distant, disconnected and abstract thing. Each of us has a role in making it happen. Even small actions can have a ripple effect on future lives, organizations, communities and more. I’m especially fond of how Buckminster Fuller put it when he wrote, ““You never change things by fighting the existing reality.To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The models, metaphors, and ideas that we create or promote help shape the future. Having been involved with tracking trends in education for over twenty years, I am confident that we can do this to a degree that is helpful, but we must also do it with a healthy dose of both humility and skepticism of our own predictions. That is why I appreciate the wisdom in Stephen Hawkings way of thinking about the topic, “One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.”

A Combined View

Yet, instead of sticking with any one of these, I am both an idealist and a realist. I choose to learn from each of these approaches, seeing them as complementary more than competitive or discrete approaches. There are times when it is best to focus on the present and not let thoughts of the future distract us. Then there is wisdom in doing what we can to prepare ourselves for the future, even if it is unknown. At the same time, we can do the hard work of studying the past and present trends so that we are more informed about possible futures. Yet, we don’t have to be fatalistic about it. We have a role to play in shaping what is to come, and recognizing this fact is an important starting point.

Education Lessons from Alvin Toffler

Less than a year before I was born, Alvin Toffler who recently passed away, published a book that would later inspire me think more deeply about the impact of change in society. In this book, Toffler popularized the term “future shock”, the disorienting result of living in times of rapid and constant change. This first book extended to two more, The Third Wave, and Power Shift. Through these books and other efforts, Toffler established himself as one of the most known and influential futurists of the last fifty years. His ideas inspired a generation of futurists, not to mention a growing interest in trying to make informed predictions about the future impact of emerging cultural and technological trends in the world.

Among other things, Toffler popularized and introduced many to the concept of information overload, a theme that certainly gained traction even more as the Internet emerged. Amid that development, many people found it easier to understanding the implications of trends that Toffler spotted decades before the expansion of our contemporary digital world. In fact, people today will use the phrase without realizing Toffler’s role in shaping its usage.

Toffler saw and wrote about many future innovations. These ranged from cloning to cable television, the Internet to mobile devices and communication; as well and many sociological, psychological and economic implications of these and other developments. While he certainly did not invent such things, his writing sparked curiosities that influenced what came to be. After all, when you have as large of a forum as Toffler developed, your predictions quickly blend into a shaping of the future. In fact, he knew this well and stated as much when he wrote, “Our moral responsibility is not to stop the future, but to shape it…to channel our destiny in humane directions and to ease the trauma of transition.”

Toffler on Education

Already in Future Shock, Toffler developed a growing perspective on the future of education, partly represented in a widely used quote from the text, “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to unlearn.” Yet, I sometimes lament that this quote is truncated from the surrounding sentences in the text which provide an even richer set of ideals and context.

By instructing students how to learn, unlearn and relearn, a powerful new dimension can be added to education. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy of the Human Resources Research Organization phrases it simply: ‘The new education must teach the individual how to classify and reclassify information, how to evaluate its veracity, how to change categories when necessary, how to move from the concrete to the abstract and back, how to look at problems from a new direction—how to teach himself. Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.’

This grew out of his larger observations about the rate of of change. If the future will perpetually arrive prematurely, as Toffler noted, this has massive implications for life, work and education. The knowledge and skill necessary for a given job will change more rapidly resulting in the need to both learn and relearn. This also means more shifts from one job to another as certain jobs become obsolete or at least in lesser demand. In such a context, it is no longer about building a set of skills that will serve you well for a lifetime as much as developing the capacities to adapt, learn, unlearn, and be the the designers of your own learning goals and pathways.

The Affect and the Future

Yet, some might miss that Toffler also tempered this with the need for people who have more than head knowledge and skills. The world of the future, as Toffler saw it, needs compassionate people as well. “Society needs people who…know how to be compassionate and honest…Society needs all kinds of skills that are not just cognitive; they’re emotional, they’re affectional. You can’t run the society on data and computers alone.”

Shaping the Future as a Moral Responsibility

Toffler was far from a luddite. While he wrote about the dark side of the future, his writings indicated a conviction that we can help shape the future by our words and actions. He further challenged readers to neither put their heads in the sand nor to completely resist change. In fact, he saw change and the emerging future as an opportunity for us to bring about more favorable conditions in our communities and world. At the end of his book, The Third Wave, he said it this way on page 443: “The responsibility for change…lies within us. We must begin with ourselves, teaching ourselves not to close our minds prematurely to the novel, the surprising, the seemingly radical.” Similarly, he warned that our accomplishments of the past are no guarantee of similar outcomes in the future, represented in another widely shared quote, “The first rule of survival is clear: Nothing is more dangerous than yesterday’s success.”

Multiple Futures

I do not agree with many of Tofflers political and ideological positions, but his work unquestionably influenced my thinking and provided me with insight into the role of future studies in education. Yet, among all his ideas and words, there is a single quote that continues to inspire my work and writing. In fact, this quote is partly behind a core part of my vision for the future of education, namely the idea that there is not one future but many, that the most humane and compelling future of education is a vision of multiple futures. On p. 463 of Future Shock, he wrote: “We need a multiplicity of visions, dreams and prophecies – images of potential tomorrows.” In education, I expand this to say that we do not just need multiple visions and dreams. We need for multiple visions and dreams to become a reality.

Nobody Wants to Be a Brick. Everybody Wants to be Lego, Inc.

“Nobody wants to be a brick. Everybody wants to be Lego, Inc.” This was a statement that I heard at least twice as I participated in the recent 2-day event hosted by Educause, Exploring the Next-Generation Digital Learning Environment: Opportunities and Challenges. The idea of a next generation digital learning environment is not an easy one. It is largely more of a conversation than a targeted program or initiative. Yet, the idea of a NGDLE helps establish a rich and robust ongoing exploration of the future of digital learning environments. In a world of big data and learning analytics, predictive analytics, emerging integrated assessment practices, accessibility needs, emerging models of collaboration and much more, this NGDLE conversation is a way for us to think about the potential implication of integrated and interoperable systems in these and related domains. 

Yet, my intrigue kept returning to this the statement in the title for this article. “Nobody wants to be a brick. Everybody wants to be Lego, Inc.” Here is the dilemma. There are many robust vendors who provide products to help K-12 and higher education organizations grapple with everything from digital learning environments to assessment, data analytics, and accessibility. Some provide niche services that integrate with existing tools. Others are clearly going the direction of trying to provide a single solution for all such issues. Yet, no company has a clear monopoly. This is true in the student information systems, learning management systems, analytics tools, and the rest. There are certainly efforts to make progress toward shared standards that allow for even greater interoperability, but in a battle for market share, companies do not have openness, integration and collaboration with what they see as their current for potential future competition as a central business goal. And this is the context behind the statement that nobody wants to just be a brick in the lego set.

Is it possible to have a single and central system in which all these other products integrate? Theoretically, it is absolutely possible. In fact, if the education establishment and the vendors that serve those in that establishment did not have competition as a consideration, perhaps we would be moving toward such a future. Or, if we were starting from scratch, that would seem a logical direction to go. Yet, that is not where we are going at the moment. Keep in mind that many of these companies do not just make money on their core services but also on the consulting and custom services associated with integrating one system with others. You might be able to get a standalone product for a more reasonable rate, but once you start figuring the cost of having that fully integrated with the other systems, you can be looking at costs that far exceed the original price of the product.

A common and agreed upon standard appears to be the most viable move forward, and customers still have the clout to demand as much from current and future vendors. In such a context, perhaps it is not necessary to have a centralized system in which everyone else connects. Yet, a shared standard doesn’t necessarily free us from the extensive time, money and effort to build that impressive and all-inclusive Lego Death Star.

A just as viable future is simply the clear rise of 2-4 clear and dominant winners for that unifying system, the Windows, Apple OS, and Linux of the digital learning environment world. The rest will indeed become bricks in these few Lego-esque companies. These companies create a forum in which other vendors can seamlessly integrate (not unlike how the Apple store works). While everyone might want to be Lego, Inc., there is still plenty of money to be made as a brick in the modern K-12 and higher education landscape, and that might just satisfy the ambitions of leaders in many companies.

Not so quick. Allow me to throw a brick in these two possible futures. Another important consideration is that of regulatory agencies. As systems develop, we’ve also seen policies and regulations established that essentially demand that schools purchase and use increasingly complex systems just to meet the reporting expecations of the present and future. Accountability for retention rates, graduation rates, employment rates, and other post-degree success indicators are all forcing the issue for schools. These policies have already set up a have and have not system in education, even in the abensce of clear data about what truly does or does not improve student learning or other valued outcomes. Or, people believe that they have the magic bullet (like tracking student GPA as a key indicator of retention and graduation) when their construct may actually just be inhibiting potentially far more beneficial learning models that do not even used 18th-century technologies like letter grades. Regardless, such regulatory issues not only drive people to invest in existing systems (and not invest in other things), it also potentially impacts the mission of organizations.

It potentially forces them to reallocate resources that were otherwise focused on an individual school’s distinct mission, vision, values and goals, and that brings me back to the title of this article but from a very different angle. Now we are looking at schools and seeing that there is a potentially emerging regulatory system that insists on becoming more and more like a Lego, Inc., driving K-12 and higher education institutions to be happy as bricks that meet the standards and expectations of this possible future corporate regulatory agency.

I am not shy about expressing my concern about such a possible future. Diversity of missions, visions, values and goals are at the heart of the American education system’s strength. While we might pursue these standards and regulations in a spirit of increased access and opportunity, we might well find ourselves achieving the opposite while moving our education ecosystem from a rainbow of colors to standard grayscale education for all. Connecting this with the initial conversation about the next generation digital learning environment might seem like a stretch, I’ve examined this from many angles and am convinced that the two have a much stronger connection than many might first expect. Beware. The Lego Deathstar may already be under construction.