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The Future of Education - Pt I August 4, 2020

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In a few weeks, the holidays will be over and students will start to go - or rather Zoom - to school again. As education will only become more important, we asked our network to weigh in on what they think will be the Future of Education. Since they were so numerous in responding with a unique vision, we decided that this ought to be a two-part piece. This is part one. Part two will appear on August 6.

Peter Hinssen, author, keynote speaker and Partner at nexxworks

One of the McKinsey post-pandemic briefings summed it up brilliantly: 'We jumped ten years forward in 90 days’ time. In almost every geography in the world, and in virtually sector we went from 'The day the earth stood still' to Hyper-Acceleration. The virus has fundamentally changed business, travel, shopping, work and entertainment. Many companies saw their online ambitions for 2025 realised in a few months. Almost everything we know was fundamentally warped into the 21st century. Everything, except maybe, one of the slowest moving facets of society: education.

Sure, we had to close down schools and set up digital platforms for online education and virtual learning. But many of us, as parents, only saw the magnified cracks in the system. We could witness first hand that schools were not prepared, that technology was NOT the new normal in education, and that the fundamental skills were lacking to maximise learning both from the teachers and the students. We muddled through one lockdown, only to realise that we have to step up the game, in a major fashion.

I hope we can use this momentum, for a fundamental rethink. This is not where we throw technology at the problem in hope of solving the issues. Just as in the rethinking of the future of the workplace, it's not about laptops, and networks, and tools like Zoom or Teams. It's about fundamentally rethinking how to trust employees to add to the business, instead of controlling whether they show up at 09:00 in the office.

Why do we educate the next generation? What is the very nature of education? In my opinion, the fundamental core of education is to prepare for the future. Many of the current schooling and learning systems in place today are unfortunately preparing people for the past. This is visible in the complete spectrum of the educational landscape: it makes no sense to score youngsters on memorising nation's capitals in a world where Google Maps was around before they were born, and in the same fashion the training that managers get in an MBA course seems to be stuck in the 20th century, instead of preparing for the VUCA world of hyper-acceleration and technological progress of the current age.

More than ever, we have to re-craft education to instill an unstoppable hunger for learning, a passionate drive for curiosity, and a relentless desire to keep knowing more. This could be the century with more progress and change than in any other time in history. Where the next generation will live through incredible challenges in terms of technological, societal, geopolitical, biological and ecological seismic shocks. If we want society to thrive, and rise to the occasion, our only hope is to reset the base, re-craft education for continuous learning, and truly warp into the 21st century.

The future of learning is about self-simulation, by Randy Swearer, Senior Fellow at Autodesk in the Strategic Foresight group

The educational institutions of today were built during the Enlightenment to serve an industrial society, according to the ideals of that era: efficiency, hierarchy, specialization, and the compartmentalization of knowledge. In this world, the student’s journey through knowledge resembled a canal: a slow, stable, linear path from point a to point b. Every year (freshman, sophomore, etc.) the learner encountered the canal locks along the journey that artificially raised them up to the next level—and the journey continued the next year.

But here’s the problem: today the controlled world of canal learning makes no sense. The stable knowledge stocks that gave rise to most majors (and I am obviously focusing here primarily on professional majors) have given way to shifting currents of knowledge that interweave, eddy and ripple into and across each other. Like an ancient river that coils back on itself, these currents sometimes trick us by pinching off reservoirs of professional knowledge that appear fixed for a time but will inevitably evaporate. All that appears solid eventually melts into air.

Learning to simulate our future selves

In this post-industrial world of learning, helping students imagine their futures is a much more complicated thing—and yet it should be one of the core functions driving learning. Self-simulation,the ability of students to constantly and richly imagine the futures they might inhabit, and their impacts on those futures, should be a core purpose of learning. To be clear, self-simulation is not just an avenue toward self-actualization: how a student might be more or less fulfilled by pursuing different learning pathways. That’s the least interesting part of the equation.

Self-simulation is about value exchanges

The deeper purpose of self-simulation is to teach students to examine what they know, understand what they don’t know—and identify what they need to know to have impact on the world around them.So self-simulation is really about helping learners imagine and reimagine the possible ways they might exchange economic, social, or cultural value with the collective world around them that is in constant flux. And by the way, the ability to continually reimagine value exchanges between you and the world around you uses the same metacognitive skills that drive economic, artistic, and social innovation across our economy and society.

As I mentioned above, the problem is that universities are still organized with all of these early 20thCentury ideas that prevent them from bringing self-simulation into the center of the university experience—or even framing it as an issue. In many ways the entire framework of the modern university would have to be dismantled, including the ways knowledge is organized and accredited and the idea of a bounded period of learning followed by graduation into the “real” world.

A final thought about self-simulation and convergence

First, I’m not a technological determinist. I don’t believe technology alone determines the ways our world develops—or that it can solve all problems. But I’d like to end this piece by making a simple point. The urgent need to teach self-simulation to students across disciplines and throughout their university experience occurs as data processed by machine intelligence is contributing to the reshaping of our world: merging and morphing entire areas of our economy and society, eroding the barriers to accessing information and making sense of it, helping us predict and simulate things we could have never imagined 25 years ago. These convergencetrends will powerfully contribute to remaking higher education, but they will also help students imagine and simulate how what they learn could impact they ways they exchange value with a world that is in constant flux.

What if, for example, micro-credentials certifying learning experiences were machine learning agents that could detect how students flowed through them—where they came from and where they went? Looking at this from a career perspective, imagine a vast network of these intelligent credentials detecting massive student flows across multiple universities and at the same time incorporating the remarkably nuanced data from job trend forecasting companies like Burning Glass. This isn’t science fiction; it could be done at scale right now. In this world of convergent learning, a student could create their digital twin, simulating with great fidelity how different sets of learning experiences might lead to certain professional outcomes. A set of credentials could “say” to a student for example, “move through me and you could end up in a professional experience at the intersection of sectors x and y. There is no job category yet for this work but people in these roles report being fulfilled and challenged with high rates of learning.”

To be clear, self-simulation isn’t just about technology—it’s as much about things like pedagogy, the organization of knowledge at universities, rethinking and the discrete, time-bounded nature of the student experience, and integrating learning from places and sources far beyond the university campus. But the ways data contributes to the relentless reshaping of our world will both make self-simulation imperative for students to master—and offer them ways to make this process richer and more intimately connected to their unique lived experiences.

Read the long version of Randy’s post here.

The Future of Education Must Focus on Agency and Adaptation, by Heather E. McGowan, Keynote Speaker, Author and Future of Work Strategist

“Human beings are a work in progress that mistakenly think they are finished,” according to Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert. Chris Shipley and I opened our book, The Adaptation Advantage (Wiley, April 2020), with this because it captures the greatest challenges in rethinking not only in education but work as well.

Gilbert also states, “most of us can remember who we were ten years ago, but we find it hard to imagine who we are going to be, and then we mistakenly think that because it is hard to imagine, it’s not likely to happen.” It is in that space, between work in progress and finished, where we all find ourselves today. We are incredibly well prepared for the past and woefully unready for a future of work that is yet to be defined and that is rapidly changing. Who, for example, could have foreseen the radical and immediate changes to our lives brought on by the global pandemic?

We are often asked to provide a skills roadmap based on the outdated model of education that focuses on pouring pre-determined and codified skills and knowledge into the heads of future workers. But here’s the problem: the world is simply moving too fast for that process to work effectively. By the time we understand new knowledge or skills, let alone convey it to learners, the world has moved on.

Right now, is the slowest rate of change for the rest of your life. Since we have made our greatest leaps in human longevity at the exact same time the velocity of change has accelerated our career arcs will be longer and more volatile. How do we stay ahead of this?

We must embrace a future of work that is focused on learning and adaptation and to do that we need to focus on motivation and agency. Where we once learned in order to work, we now must work in order to learn continuously (Fig 1). Occasional reskilling or retraining isn’t enough. Instead, we must embrace a continuous process of learning and unlearning, upskilling (deepening your skills and knowledge) or reskilling (expanding your skills and porting your knowledge) (Fig 3).

And here’s the good news: humans are a highly adaptive species; we can make this change.

Outside of the global pandemic, everything we predicted in The Adaptation Advantage remains true, except for the speed of change. The virus dramatically accelerated the transformation from analog to digital structures, speeding timelines from years to weeks—this is evidence of our superb ability to adapt. Afterall, digital transformation is really human transformation. The pandemic may just be the greatest catalyst for human transformation when you consider the speed at which previously resistant education systems from primary schools up through corporate learning went all online and the agility with which entire companies became distributed workforces. While not perfect, distributed learning and work become new tools.

So the question becomes, how do we make these rapid shifts in the absence (preferably) of a pandemic? How can we become adept at adaptation?

The first step is to shift our focus from skill to will—essentially motivation. And as Dan Pink proved a decade ago in his seminal book Drive, sustainable motivation must be internally driven (Fig 2). Rather than acquiring specific skills, we need a foundation on which we can learn and adapt for life. The corner stone of that foundation is developing internal motivation and agency. Curiosity, passion, and purpose are both the fuel sources to keep our lifelong generator running and how we develop agency (Fig 3). Collectively these forces become our handrail to the unknown but rapidly emerging future.

So how? First, we must begin by shifting our focus from what we do to why and how we do it. We ask young people to pick a future self when most of their future options either do not yet exist or will be dramatically reshaped by technology, globalization, and even a pandemic. We ask university students to pick a major based upon the thin slice they have been exposed to in high school when studies suggest less than a third of people work in the field of their undergraduate major. We ask each other “so what do you do?” as our social ice breaker. This obsession with occupational identity casts our identities based upon the application of skills and knowledge at a moment in time. That time is speeding up and those skills are quickly expiring. Instead of asking young people to pick a future what, allow them to explore while asking them to pay attention to what interests them (curiosity). Instead of asking university students to pick a major before stepping foot on campus (or dialing into zoom), ask them to explore areas of interest through encouraging more transdisciplinary, investigative, action-based educational experiences through project-based learning that requires propositional thinking will help students understand what motivates them (passion). This may mean breaking up rigid degree programs, breaking down courses into mini courses and sprints, and, finally, linking learning experiences into stackable credentials. (note: the credit hour was never intended to be a unit of learning but instead a means of allocating faculty pensions). Instead of asking each other about our occupational identity when job loss can require a longer recovery than loss of a spouse, ask open ended questions like “Tell me about yourself”. Moving away from defining ourselves by a rigid occupational identity is essential for more of us to adapt across the longer, more volatile career span that will undoubtably include many, many more jobs. For organizations to transform into agile and nimble learning organizations we need to screen for talent not based upon past skills and experience but instead by culture and values alignment (purpose) coupled with learning agility. Individuals who know what motivates them and who continuously upskill and reskill based upon their own internal drive will be the greatest competitive advantage in the future of work. Education needs to focus on building highly adaptive and internally driven lifelong learners rather than codifying and transferring any set skillset or existing knowledge as that is the only way we will be build a workforce capable of surviving this pandemic and thriving in the next one.

Education is no longer a Place, by Donna Eiby, Academic & Creative Director at The Future Work Skills Academy

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 21stcentury learners ‘will need to navigate through…uncertainty, students will need to develop curiosity, imagination, resilience and self-regulation; they will need to respect and appreciate the ideas, perspectives and values of others’[i].

Despite us being almost 25% through the 21stcentury, few inroads have been made to shift education from the 20thcentury model of producing compliant factory workers unprepared to navigate the asynchronous, VUCA world of 2020. Whilst the myriad reasons for this lack of progress have been endlessly discussed it is a distinct possibility that the needs of 21st century learners far exceed the capacity and capability of the traditional education model to deliver. That the system isn’t agile enough, adaptive enough, fluid enough, diverse enough. It belongs to another age.

‘During liminal periods of all kinds, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt’[ii]This liminal period is no different; the pandemic has been a catalyst for a changing perspective on what constitutes education.

It is unsurprising that online learning marketplaces Teachable and Udemy’s businesses have grown exponentially in 2020, course content creator platform Thinkific has doubled its members to 40,000 plus in 3 months; that is 40,000 non-traditional education providers. MOOCs have followed suit expanding their offerings significantly, even Netflix is moving into the education space through its documentary library. In 2020 monthly podcast audiences in the US crested 100 million and many of the 2 billion monthly users on YouTube partake in lessons from as diverse as how to boil an egg and python for coders.

Beyond the obvious solutions to meet the immediate demand for digital learning assets and platforms is the rise of non-traditional sources of education that have the potential to collectively serve the needs of 21st century learners.

The Nord Anglia International School Dubai delivers the International Baccalaureate diploma; a program focused on creating the 21st century learner envisioned by the OECD. When Deputy Principal Graeme was charged with developing the School’s moral education program rather than rely on internal resources he began a global search for solution providers. He discovered the Nomadic School of Business and was drawn to their programs based on the ancient wisdom of nomadic tribes. With the pandemic shifting the School’s services into the cloud Nord Anglia students are able to avail themselves of programs focused on developing purpose, clarity and agility all delivered by Maasai warriors in Nairobi, Papua New Guinea tribal chiefs and nomads in Mongolia.

When the pandemic hit, Felipe Guarin and Catalina Lotero from the design firm Whatever Works were immediately concerned for their fellow Colombians. They were aware that those in remote communities had little access to traditional modes of communication such as television or the internet (largely due to a sporadic electricity supply) and were unlikely to be informed about practices to minimise their risk of contracting COVID 19. In their quest to find a solution they discovered that one constant in all villages was fast moving consumer goods (FMCG). Their winning entry in the MIT COVID design challenge used product labels (designed for application to beer, rice, oil) as media to communicate medical education messages developed by Harvard Medical Students. Designed to teach hand washing, social distancing and DIY mask fabrication these labels extend beyond Public Service Announcement and into education. Felipe and Catalina are expanding their focus to develop sustainability education campaigns with LATAMs largest FMCG companies.

As this trend continues the role of traditional education will be challenged to move beyond content creation and into content curation. Education will no longer be confined to place.

[i] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)., 2018. The future of education and skills: Education 2030. OECD.

[ii] Horvath, A., Thomassen, B. and Wydra, H., 2009. Introduction: Liminality and cultures of change. International Political Anthropology, 2(1), pp.3-4.

Julian Birkinshaw, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship and Deputy Dean at the London Business School

How is Covid19 affecting the world of business education? Like most of my colleagues, I was thrown into the deep end with online teaching back in April. The learning curve was steep but fairly short, and I quickly figured out how to adapt my classroom based teaching to the weird and wonderful world of Zoom.

Many commentators have marvelled at how quickly business schools shifted to online teaching. But I reckon that was the easy bit. If you know how to structure a lecture or class discussion, and how to respond to student comments, it’s not that difficult to make online teaching work.

The trouble is, business education is about so much more than classroom-based learning. If the purpose of business education is to help executives become more effective in their chosen career, then we need to do three different things. We need to give them new knowledge about how the world of business works – which is what we often focus on in the classroom. But we also need to work on behaviour (i.e. give people the license and self-confidence to do things differently) and on identity (i.e. help them make sense of themselves and how they relate to others). Its these latter two areas where Covid19 is making things more difficult.

Consider the challenge of behavioural change first. A landmark book in the field of learning and development was Morgan McCall’s Lessons from Experience, which famously (if dubiously) claimed that 70% of learning occurs on-the-job through challenging work assignments. Its only when we are thrown into new or difficult situations, the book argued, that we really grow and develop as individuals. And while lockdown has created new experiences for us in terms of how to work from home, it has not encouraged companies to start handing out exciting new jobs for its people. Rather, the bias has been to keep everyone focused on what they are good at already. Which means we aren’t getting a lot of personal development opportunities.

And the same problem exists for those who are trying to shift their personal identity at work. The more senior you become in your organisation, the more your success is achieved “through others” rather than through your own actions, and getting better at working with others requires a lot of introspection and self-discovery. Again, this is just a lot harder to do in a lockdown world. It seems Zoom calls are fine for maintaining existing relationships, but they are not good for difficult conversations, and they don’t work so well when you are trying to forge new relationships.

The bottom line, then, is that business education needs to broaden its horizons and raise its game at the same time. Covid19 forced business schools to quickly embrace technology in their formal learning activities. But the real challenge of helping businesspeople to experiment, reflect and grow as individuals – in this brave new workplace – is only just beginning.

Company Schools could take over traditional education, by Laurence Van Elegem, Content Director at nexxworks

I could see a future in which large corporates will have their own internal Company Schools, where they would train and employ students at the same time (as well as re-train those employees who need to). Much like an internship, but without the school, the temporariness and with a contract. I believe that this is a possible scenario for two reasons:

  • Educational institutions are often (no, not all of them, but many) very slow to adapt to the reality of the market. And what tends to happen to an industry that’s too slow to adapt? Two things, actually. One, the big tech giants slide right in to take a piece of the cake, as so beautifully explained by Sven Mastbooms in his column in De Tijd (Dutch, unfortunately). Two, the market adapts and large players that are often no longer content to stay within the lane of their own sector (a cross-industry trend that is only increasing), will find their own solutions.
  • There is a war for talent raging out there. And lifelong learning is becoming the norm. If you add these 2 things together, you’ll understand that those companies that can ensure employees that they will keep them relevant and valuable by (re-)training them permanently (instead of firing them when they need people with different skills) will win that war and attract – and keep – the best talent.

Now, it’s not because I could foresee such a scenario that I am a fan of it, because this will increase the power of companies over their employees by an order of magnitude. Training and shaping young and impressionable people into the mould of their ‘culture’ and ‘indebting’ them because they will have provided them with an ‘affordable’ (affordable, but not free of emotional cost) alternative to education, could potentially be detrimental. If this is where we are heading, we should definetly keep an eye on the consequences.

This is the shortened version of a longer piece that I wrote (I also talk about quantum education and hierarchies), which you can read here.