Envisioning Education in the Year 2050

May 21, 2010
Jim Parsons

By midcentury, what will education look like?

In 2008, Canadian educator Kieran Egan published The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. Egan contends that schools need reforming because they are built on three flawed and incompatible goals—academic growth, social growth and developmental growth. He proposes an “imaginative education” that would dramatically change teaching and curriculum. A historian of education, he reviews human socialization; Plato’s academic ideals; and Locke, Rousseau, Piaget and Dewey. He then imagines how education will evolve up to the year 2060. Egan believes that the future demands creative ideas, and to this end, he has created a 50-year education project to educate thoughtful, humane and innovative citizens. I recommend Egan’s book.

My essay is shorter and less audacious. That said, the ATA Magazine’s invitation to write about education in 2050 seems somehow perfect, as it allows me to project education 40 years ahead and it mirrors my own experience backward. This year I celebrate my 40th year of teaching. Perhaps this essay marks the midpoint of my career—I’d relish 40 more years of teaching.

It’s hard not to go Star Trek here—that is, to prognosticate the future. Explicating future visions is good fun.

However, I will limit my focus to how teaching and learning may change in the future. Although my essay is speculative, I’m seeing the Ghosts of Education Yet to Come being birthed in Alberta’s classrooms as I write. How these ghosts will shape the future is yet unknown. My essay will not discuss geopolitics or human relationships with the natural world, although these do matter. Obviously, education responds to historical moments, and global events can’t help but influence how we educate our children. That said, a number of educational changes seem likely.

Canada in the year 2050

What will Canada look like 40 years from now? I suggest the following:

  1. Canada will become a majority minority country. That is, more than half of Canada’s population will be what we now consider minorities.
  2. Canada will become an urban country. Most Canadians will live in cities—the movement to cities is already occurring.
  3. Canada will become an old country. As in most developed countries, the birth rate in Canada is slowing and people are living longer.
  4. Canada’s leadership will change genders. Already Canada’s young women outperform Canada’s young men in many ways. This fact, combined with work’s lessening physical demands, opens leadership opportunities for women.
  5. Canada’s (and the world’s) economy will change—somehow. Futurists suggest that between 2010 and 2050 the world will experience scarcities of food, energy, water and minerals. All of Canada (including Fort McMurray) will be affected.

Elsewhere in 2050, the president of the United States will be an Afro-American female pacifist who speaks fluent Arabic. The U.S. will have passed universal health care. Febreze Virtual Candles will have eliminated the memory of odour, and Simon Cowell will have been replaced on American Idol. The next 40 years will bring a truckload (what’s a truck?) of changes to education.

Digitization

Digitization—converting atoms to bits—will transform education. Already digitization has raised questions about the future of reading and writing. In the future, will students need to develop reading and writing skills? Will books exist? We must drastically rethink curriculum. Today’s curriculum is a curriculum of literacy, and school tests (both teacher-created and high-stakes) basically test subject-area vocabulary, reading and writing. By 2050, futurists believe, schools will no longer teach children to read and write, because those skills will be as useful as stringing telephone lines is to today’s youngsters. (This will harm country music. “I am a cellphone specialist for the county” lacks romance.)

Computers will become more powerful. Old books will be removed from library shelves and will become freely accessible digital editions. But digitization carries concomitant ramifications for education and, if we are not careful, a digital divide may emerge between socioeconomic classes. Already, as technology has become cheaper and more available, a difference between young and old has emerged (I have an iPhone that I only use as a lifeline in emergencies, compared with younger people, who rely on cellphones as their lifeline to everything in the world). But this age gap is trivial compared with the consequences for educational quality if the gap between the technology haves and have-nots widens. A digital divide limits intellectual capacity, access to equipment, and the ability to understand the reason technology exists (Anderson 2010).

Classrooms and Curricula

What role will classrooms play in education’s future? From the early days of Western education in the agora, face-to-face has been the topography of learning. School now formats life into opposites—school time and non-school time—a split invented to assist agrarian and industrial economies. No more. By 2050, learning will occur any time of the day, any time of the week. Somewhere a charter school will have merged life and school; the change will pick up steam and odd will become the norm.

Already two movements are occurring in Alberta and elsewhere that are reshaping school learning—assessment for learning and differentiated instruction. Both these movements are hybrid syntheses of philosophy and pedagogical possibility growing in a historical moment that revises even how we imagine good leadership should be incarnated—everywhere, not just in schools. Society is eschewing hierarchies, and these value changes are seeping into schools as pedagogy, where they contact a world of technological possibilities.

In Alberta classrooms, assessment for learning is using differentiated instruction to create problem-based curricula where teachers help students engage knowledge to match student strengths and interests. Teachers are helping their students become more metacognitive about their own learning through classroom conversations that replace the sage on the stage with the guide on the side. Teachers I’ve spoken to in Alberta call these pedagogies life changing, both for them and for their students. Students are gaining knowledge and skills but also hope. They are becoming efficacious and engaged students who are encouraged to learn. Big-picture insight reveals these changes to be marriages of philosophy and possibility. We not only can imagine it; we can do it.

What do such changes augur for the future? It’s relatively easy to envision advanced roles for the Internet where students learn outside classrooms and beyond homework. It is also easy to envision combining face-to-face learning with online learning and increased use of wireless technology to aid student learning. Popular platforms like text messaging and social networks will become ubiquitous, with students empowered to learn on their own with coaching from teachers. By 2050, students will have become self-directed learners and teachers will have become other-directed facilitators—coaching students as they build their own projects and time schedules.

Already educators are talking about new kinds of textbooks and even e-textbooks. But e-textbooks are a vestige of old thinking that controls the information that students engage. They don’t fit today’s possibilities. Instead, curriculum will be built around inquiry projects that access information more widely and encourage learners to control their own access.

The Internet has already begun to change pedagogy and curriculum in Alberta—the newest social studies program of studies is a case in point. At first glance, the changes seem philosophical, but they at least partly respond to what technology now allows students and teachers to do that they could not do previously. The work of social studies teachers has always been to help students engage information. That information must come from somewhere. For the past century, that somewhere has been textbooks—basically compendiums of information. The Internet allows project-based learning because compendiums of information already exist online, where students can easily search, collect, order and even remix information.

Students will need places to gather that have an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where they can pursue and discuss deeper meanings under the counsel of experienced teachers who help them further access expansive knowledge resources. Classrooms will become iterative spaces where learners access, network and discuss knowledge—online and in person. Schools will become collective intelligence centres, if only because people need places to socialize.

As noted, digital education has already begun to disrupt textbook publishing and promises to revise teaching. Young teachers who embody the use of new digital tools will implement further changes. Imagine being able to quickly link all the information ever generated. Although I cannot imagine cybernetic implants that place students in tactile 3‑D holodeck experiences (Star Trek: The Next Generation–style), I can imagine other exciting advances in how students engage knowledge.

Educational Resources

Likely, most educational resources will be free. The evolution toward free is already happening, thanks primarily to computers and Internet technologies that have enabled the growth of digitization over the last three decades. Such digitization reshapes ideas of scarcity. Traditional theory posits that when something is used, it is gone and cannot be reused—hence, scarcity. In the digital world, used means copied, shared, remixed or connected to another something. The result is that more items are now available. Rather than increasing scarcity, scarcity decreases.

This revision of scarcity explains how digitization can create free educational resources. Already a variety of businesses and industries offer free products. For example, a recent Future Shop ad offered a free computer to anyone who signed a term contract for a mobile Internet stick. The Wall Street Journal and Wikipedia are free online information sources. Many books can be downloaded free. VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) calling is free via Skype; Google e-mail with unlimited storage is free; and many online games and music downloads are free, as is photo sharing from Flickr.

Intel cofounder Gordon Moore’s 1965 forecast (known as Moore’s law) that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years could, theoretically, shave the cost of a laptop to virtually nothing. Digitization and technological advancements such as nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence and bioinformatics (combining biology and information technology) will increase resource, production and transportation efficiencies with economies of scale that further shave costs. This transition to free business models has already begun. Companies such as Google, Amazon and Kijiji all make money offering free services. Conversely, companies that struggle to hang on to business models based on traditional theories of scarcity (for example, the Recording Industry Association of America) are losing members, revenue and credibility. Although it might be difficult to conceive of resources being abundant and free, the writing is on the computer screen.

Conclusion

There is much one could envision for education in the future—the rise and fall of nation-states, changes in global values and financial systems, developments in nanotechnology, rethinking private/public space, or changing aspirations for living standards that might influence a child’s work ethic. Unimagined global possibilities exist. The European Union, created from an economic vision, has broadened its agenda to include social justice (the power to legislate against discrimination), environmentalism and security. Such global communities suggest changes in how nations might come to share values. Canada may soon be invited to merge global cultures. Perhaps the aroma of colonialism is too difficult to fumigate, but time will tell if Star Trek’s vision of a United Federation of Planets will come to be. All of this shapes education.

The sun rises and sets. Things change and remain the same. As I look to education’s future, I trust my experience that humans will do what interests them. In education, learning has always succeeded when students actively engage in projects they care about.

Bibliography

Aguilar-Millan, S., A. Feeney, A. Oberg and E. Rudd. 2010. “The Post-Scarcity World of 2050–2075.” The Futurist (January/February): 34–40.

 Anderson, J. 2010. “Remaking Education for a New Century.” Interview by P. Tucker. The Futurist (January/February): 22.

Egan, K. 2008. The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

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Jim Parsons is a professor in the Department of Secondary Education, University of Alberta. He is a regular contributor to the ATA Magazine.