The future of education

Image source: Photo by Michael Prewett on Unsplash

I’ve spent some of the time over the past few days preparing for two conferences that are coming up next week – the first being the NPDL Southern Deep Learning Lab in Christchurch, and the second being the huge ULearn conference – being held this year in Rotorua and expecting nearly 2000 educators from all over New Zealand. Each event provides an opportunity for educators to delve more deeply into the things they’re interested in and to be exposed to a wide range of new ideas and new thinking that they can translate back into their context.

As I look through the abstracts and programme for ULearn this year, I am heartened to see a distinct change in the themes and topics that are the focus of the three days. Alongside the usual array of workshops sharing new ideas for using technology in the classroom, there is a more significant focus on the ‘bigger picture’ issues impacting our education system – consistent with the themes of the conference , and the focus on Transformation that is common across this year’s keynote speakers.

Seems to me that now, more than ever before, we need to create room in our busy lives to take time for this sort of thinking, as now more than ever before, we’re facing times of exponential change in all facets of our lives – including education! In these exponential time we are faced with a number of wicked problems that will require much thought, consultation and innovation. They cannot be solved by the simple stroke of a politician’s pen to implement some new strategy, neither will the be solved by learning about some new app that one can install on a tablet to assist with reading.


As part of my preparation for the conference I’ve been reviewing a number of the ‘big ideas’ that are impacting education at present – and pondering these in light of the various political agendas that seem to be driving change at present. One of the things that set me thinking along these lines was the release of the draft report from the Productivity Commission on New Models of Tertiary Education (PDF). Not surprisingly the draft report has drawn immediate reaction from a wide range of people – including politicians, universities, tertiary teacher unions etc. as it makes some very bold recommendations for what might happen in our tertiary sector.

What interests me in the report are the key messages that have emerged through the process of consultation so far, and how these have influenced the recommendations being made. These include…

  • Need to agree on the purpose of education – focus on developing personal skills to live an enriched life, but includes public benefits too: a stronger civic society.
  • Students are disempowered in the system – there needs to be a strong focus on placing students at the heart of the system, recognising the agency of learners, and the need to meet the needs of all learners, from diverse backgrounds and with diverse goals.
  • High levels of regulation and compliance have the effect of perpetuating traditional approaches to tertiary education.
  • A high degree of central control [of the system] stifles the ability of providers to innovate,
  • Providers are more responsive to the government than to students.
  • While some teachers and providers innovate, core business models have persisted i.e. there isn’t evidence of innovation at a system level.
  • Inertia is an emergent property of the system – and government control is pervasive.
  • Quality is a concern – the system appropriately seeks to ensure minimum standards are met, but overall the system lacks a mechanism for rewarding quality or responsiveness to students.
  • The system is educating fewer students over time and continues to serve some population groups poorly.

Astute readers will recognise that many of these points are also made about the compulsory schooling system – in fact, similar points are made in almost all of the reports about education systems around the world at present. Not surprising then, are the familiar kinds of recommendations that have emerged, including…

  • allowing more providers into the market – including those providing for international qualifications and those with different approaches such as MOOCs etc.
  • breaking open the EFTS (currently measured in hours of ‘seat time) – allowing the introduction of innovative models of delivery
  • giving institutions more autonomy and responsibility – including over all of its financial concerns
  • promoting student access and mobility – mix and match courses from multiple providers to build their qualifications

Whether or how these recommendations are acted on will depend on the feedback in the next round of consultation – what we can be more certain of, however, is that the rate and pace of exponential change will continue to impact on us, demanding that changes are made to our system – and these must be transformational in nature, not simply incremental.

The video at the top of this post is a salient reminder of the types of issues we face – not because it is necessarily an accurate prediction of what the future may hold, but because of the way it captures and illustrates the potential futures that may emerge based on the actual present and recent past events that are a part of this exponential change in society. There are a lot of important indicators embedded in this video that are consistent with the messages coming through the Productivity Commission’s report, and as educators we will do well to deeply engage in the debates and issues – not devote all of our energy to the superficial themes that are distributed by the ‘sound bite’ journalists in the media.

The salient point of this video comes right at the end where the narrator attempts to conclude that there are two possible directions the future may take. The predictions are concerning at the very least, and verging on apocolyptic at worst – but serve to illustrate the point I am trying to make, that in the times ahead, the times that will define the future for the kids in our schools, for our own kids and grandkids, the challenges we face will be wicked problems (problems that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise) and to address them will require that we all are proficient in the skills of critical thinking/problem-solving, creativity, communication, and collaboration, and that we demonstrate the character qualities of curiosity, initiative, persistence/grit, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness.

The fact is that we’ve needed to steer this course for some time now – but the fact is that our pace of change is being outstripped by the pace of change in the world in which we live and in the lives of our students!

As we make our way to the various conferences and events we have lined up over this student break, let’s be prepared to raise the level of our thinking and allow ourselves to be challenged, made uncomfortable and to engage deeply in the issues that we most urgently need to address. Or, as the move above warns, we will by default subject ourselves to the decisions of ‘the leader’ (whoever or whatever that may mean!).

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