Will We Embrace The Futures of Education? | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

A lot of folks want to talk about “the future of education” these days. With all that’s been surfaced because of the pandemic and social unrest and the other crises we’re currently battling, it should be a topic worth discussing. 

But what if “the future of education” isn’t the right topic?

I seriously doubt that, as that statement suggests, there is one future for schools. The more appropriate phrase might start with “the futures,” as in the many potential paths to becoming “educated” that we’re on the precipice of. 

While education has never been totally standardized, we have to admit that for the vast majority of kids, the experience is pretty similar. Those schools that turn away from traditional structures like age groupings and timetables and set curriculums are seen as “fringe” and on the edge somewhere. The paths forward to “success” as it’s most often defined usually require a stop at college for a degree. Anything else is seen as an “alternative.”

But what if the “alternative” becomes mainstream? 

We can already see the outlines of a massive shift happening in terms of our access to courses and content and teachers and mentors. This age of abundance we live in feels almost more true for learning than anything else, even than shopping or working at home. That’s especially true if we can move beyond the idea that learning only happens in structured environments like schools, virtual or otherwise.

To me, the futures of education depend on our collective embrace of a quote that I read 11 years ago from Stephen Downes, a Canadian educator who is steeped in technology’s impact on learning. Back in 2010, he wrote,

“We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves.”

Stephen Downes, a Canadian educator

Now that is a profound shift in thinking, no doubt. But honestly, isn’t that what’s already happening? 

At its most fundamental level, we’re educating ourselves alone through Google searches and YouTube videos. We can educate ourselves interactively on Twitter and LinkedIn. And we can educate ourselves collaboratively in community spaces like the ones we are building at the BIG Questions Institute. (Join us!) And if we want to be more formal about it, we can even take “classes” at sites like Coursera and Masterclass.com among many, many, many others.

Obviously, purists might not consider such learning opportunities to be the makings of an “education,” the type that comes with courses and grades and teachers and diplomas. And that is true if that’s the way you’re defining it. Credits and credentials still hold powerful sway over the conversation.

But even that is breaking. Last year, EdX launched 11 “micro bachelors” degree programs that over 160,000 people have already signed up for. Faster. Cheaper. Education. Google’s certificate programs are equally inexpensive, take less time to complete, and offer a credential that is worth a $63K starting salary on average. That’s an “education” now too. And there are countless others like it. 

Traditional credentialing structures and “education” narratives are breaking because of cost, irrelevance, and time. Now that we have access to so much knowledge and information and so many teachers, the balance is tipping away from what others package and provide for us to what we ourselves create. Instead of an increasingly irrelevant “degree,” more and more we’re looking at the “educated” as those who can actually do things in the world. Make things and connect things, regardless of how they acquired those skills and sensibilities. 

So, yes. If you’re an educator right now, the salient question is how are you preparing your students for many “futures of education?” What old structures and stories are you choosing to shed, and what new practices and narratives are you choosing to create? Because if you’re preparing kids for the future, the one path, you’re really not preparing them at all. 

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future. In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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