I was recently approached to speak to a group of students on the future of education. No, not the future of education like we often discuss. I mean THE FUTURE! In other words, what might Higher Ed look like 25 or 30 years from now? I must say, it's the tastiest future presentation I've ever worked on. I've watched trends year over year for a decade and even created a short film about 'best education' five years out. But 2050 is...big time! Time to relinquish my magic 8 ball and invest in a real crystal ball. Want to peer together? Let's see what we might find.
As our planet speeds toward 10 billion people (likely 9.5 or so by 2050), it's not hard to believe all life will look differently. Struggles for oil, food, and other resources will provide a myriad of challenges we've never seen. Parts of the coast may be marshes if not sea bottom, seeing major losses in parts of Florida and the gulf coast. More people with less land will be an issue. The massive shifts in weather will also produce super storms requiring different defenses and strategies. So, I guess it's worth asking - will colleges and universities be relevant in 2050? It’s an important question to ask.
Education is, at the heart, a place to learn how to fix problems and live well. We will see some grand challenges indeed in 25 years - there will be plenty to fix. But luckily, we'll also have some tremendous breakthrough tools and assets by which to combat them. But I suspect more than anything, our belief in what education beyond high school is, will be quite different.
After all, there are a lot of high paying careers out there for which there are very few workers. From plumbing to electrical work and far beyond, there are extremely lucrative career paths that people seem to look down on today. So much so that there are major shortages in some of these professions. These are professions that could easily generate six figure salaries today, yet people seek education so that they don’t have to work in them. So, I suspect by 2050, we will be at least a decade or two into a rethinking of what training and education look like beyond high school. For some, it may be formal college or university settings. But for others, especially those for whom college is just not the right fit at 18, there will likely be more options than ever before.
Universities will likely still be at the forefront of research and practical application for new ways to produce...well, everything. We have learned a number of lessons about the research produced from biased sources, and non-commercially-funded universities will often be the only way to break a tie between two competing research studies. One major area where such biased studies can be seen today is food, which we will likely need to rethink. From how much meat we really need to use of bugs and plants for optimal nutrition, 2050 will require new models and new thinking. Hopefully that will come in part from education.
Speaking of research, by 2050 it will likely become so apparent that the majority of studies cannot be replicated, we will see replication research institutions. These institutions will only perform replication studies, debunking a lot of bad science or poor experimentation models, but also help us get to what is accurate and what is not. It is not good that most research we have today cannot be reproduced, so in the future, we will tackle it head on and find more stasis.
Just like we see new food based programs and recycling degrees, we'll also see 1 in 6 adults on our planet over 65. So, medicine and health degrees will be even more valuable than today, especially when you include the administration of new systems that do truly personalize medicine and connect patients to care anywhere. As well, a whole industry of artificially intelligent aids will need to be built, managed, and troubleshooted. So, from programmers to data analysts to doctors and nurses - and whatever that means at that time - medicine will be huge.
As most campuses will be commuter campuses, again utilizing face-to-face technologies as much as in real space, the college experience will look different. But while the concept will grow seeing many more modalities and the blending of experiences therein, some students will still need college simply to grow up. So, while you're likely going to see schools in places unseen today, like the Harvard office suite atop a London office building or a Michigan State food science degree on a farm in Iowa, there will still be some campuses. (Especially the schools with massive endowments. They aren’t going anywhere for a long time.)
Will those campuses have football? Interesting. Many predict what is today's 'America's game' will go the way of boxing. Too many concussions and punishment of children's bodies may give way to lacrosse or ultimate frisbee taking new spots on Saturday tv as fewer and fewer parents allow their children to play, thereby cutting off the feeder pool.
Likewise, we're bound to see more and more schools with no sports at all. Some of those colleges may even be huge, 'Company' schools. (Is Google U really that much of a stretch?). Will those schools be accredited? Probably better is to ask if the accreditors can stay relevant - many likely merging while others disappear. But transferability is an important question. Of course, with so many schools around the world competing so legitimately with the US, Britain, and other notable brands today, the concept of transfer will likely get trickier before it gets better. After all, the notion that Comp 101 is taught better by a State school than by a Community College in that state is pretty silly - especially when the same professors teach both sections. Well imagine that debate with the University of Tesla or Motorola College. Students go there for the promise of a job upon graduation, but parents will struggle if the BIO 101 class their daughter took won't transfer anywhere.
But 2050 should find us with systems that are actually adaptive, with computers legitimately mapping skills, progress, cognition, and behavior. eLearning will be all learning. Just like health, education will finally see systems that follow a single student throughout their learning career. Those AI systems will provide learning architects with invaluable triggers and dimensions of personality, learning preference, pathways, and connectivity.
It's easier (for me) to believe that this possible future painting is more conservative than progressive. We may actually achieve all of this in 2030! But, while everyone's dream of the Jetson's flying car will likely still not be reality - how long will we have to wait for that? - there will be plenty of 'amazing' to go around. Some research schools will likely be playing with chips by which to upload learning into a brain, if it's not already available. So, whether a student attends school through their implanted contacts thereby creating an augmented reality, by actually driving there in their computer-driven car, or from their office in India or Israel, learning options will be mixed with plenty of old and new.
I hope it doesn't come across as Eutopian - there are bound to be plenty of political battles, turf wars, and arguments about what actually constitutes "best" learning. And by 2050 we may see the swing going the other way with regard to standardization, which might be seen as the antithesis of things like brand, innovation, and personalized learning. But regardless, the landscape will look different than it does today. Here's to hoping we get more of it right than wrong.
Good luck and good learning.