The School Of The Future

Just writing that title makes me feel like I’m in the 1950’s. I should probably cut my hair.

I don’t like to get into the business of predicting the future, because it’s generally a losing game with a few exceptions (I’m looking at you, Arthur C. Clarke). However, I do love speculation.

What’s the difference, you ask? Prediction tries to determine the sole endpoint of the myriad paths that thousands of people are on. Speculation says, “what’s out there that we could go towards?” Prediction asks you to be certain; speculation asks you to be creative Science fiction is much more speculative than predictive. It’s more fun, you don’t feel like an idiot if it turns out wrong, and, to me, it’s far more empowering.

Allow me to speculate. Let’s posit that online learning takes off the way it looks like it will. Let’s say it becomes no less effective (on average) than in-person education, and is so overwhelmingly cheap that it starts to dominate. What might education look like?

World 1: Minimal Intrusion. Students come to school, sit at desks, put on headphones, do activities on their computers, go to recess and lunch, and come home in the evening. It’s so retrofuture – this could be straight out of The Jetsons. Teachers are there to assist when the “intelligent agents” programmed into the software can’t reach the students, but they spend most of their time troubleshooting, doing tech support, and supervising lunch/snack/recess. Educational design happens primarily at a couple major institutions, because everyone trusts their output. They hire scads of writers, artists, videographers, and programmers, mostly just to put new polish on old content and keep ahead of the Jonses.

World 2: The Educational Kibbutz Approach. Why send your kids to school, with people you don’t know watching them? Instead, have them over at someone’s house, with one of the neighborhood parents to watch over them, help them out, keep them on task, feed them brownies, and such. It’s a decent job if you like working with kids, and if you don’t mind being employed by your friends. It’s not like you need a school to hand out the diplomas, after all, or even do much paperwork. You can get ten or twelve kids together so they can work on projects, help each other out, and socialize.

World 3: Game On. Let’s say gamification also takes off, to the extent where it utterly infects and transforms online education. Nearly everyone plays games of some sort, and with all phones heading towards smartphones and every country looking to increase internet usage (in one way or another), they’ll be more accessible than ever. Imagine that someone cracks “the secret” of sneaking educational content into entertaining games. It’s a bizarre world where Mom says “that’s enough time outside, go play Mario.” You still need someone to mind the kids when they’re young, and an apprenticeship program might be interesting when they get old enough, but we might not need schools to teach students anything.

World 4: Divided Opinion. There may be some benefit to a traditional education that online education can’t match. It might be better in some places, but fall badly short in others. However, it might not be a big enough area to make it worthwhile to go to school, and without economies of scale to keep them open, a lot of schools might close. Private schools might stay “old-school” (sorry, didn’t realize the pun until I wrote it (this time)), with most kids studying in an approach similar to #1 or #2 above. The private/public divide gets even larger.

World 5: Educational Prism. Wouldn’t it be nice if, rather than having a few big companies that produced almost all of the high-quality educational materials, there were a few regulatory agencies that oversaw hundreds of smaller companies, each doing their own things under some fairly broad rules? Sure, there will always be some bigwigs, but this way at least we don’t start making standardized minds. (It’s important for when the brain slugs invade.) Families might have a learning community (local or distributed) that chooses a particular approach, or there might be several options presented by a larger school.

As always, my concern is about whether we can pull off more effective rather than no less effective, but we’ve talked about that before.

If there’s one thing I really see changing in all this, it’s the role of the teacher. Unless online education really slows down fast (i.e. loses a ton of money or gets heavily regulated), it’s going to be a major force for years to come. Imagining how teachers and other education experts might fit into that picture is important.

I’m interested to hear what other folks think. It’s by exploring these possibilities that we get a chance at shaping the future.


About Colin Fredericks

By day I help to create online courses at HarvardX. By night I write roleplaying games.

Posted on April 9, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Among other things, I think you should read Ready Player One by Ernest Cline for an interesting take on how this might go.

    • Thanks! Looks like it could be decent if done well. I swear I’ve seen this elsewhere as well. (Doctorow’s For The Win? Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer?) I bet this is at the MIT sci-fi library. I should swing by and pick it up when I get a chance.

  1. Pingback: Whatever Works « Don't Stop Learning

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