Radical Thinking: Re-Imagining the Future of Education to the Year 2067


by Senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

What follows is an edited version of a presentation I gave to an audience at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario on the occasion of their 50th anniversary. They asked me to speak about the next 50 years in post-secondary education. I was delighted and honored to be asked to do so.


Whenever it’s appropriate, or whenever I’m asked, I tell my audiences that if you talk long enough about any aspect of the future, you will eventually wind up talking about education. Education is the fulcrum on which the future of humanity, and the future of individual humans, moves.

If we get education right, we have a chance to deal with the other problems we are facing. If we get education wrong, then we have no chance at all. Education is literally the key to the future.

How to look out to the year 2067

I doubt if I will surprise anyone by saying that the changes coming over the next 50 years will be radical. Many of these changes won’t be smooth, continuous changes, either, which is what even the most sophisticated planners generally prepare for.

Instead, I expect we’ll see discontinuities, sharp breaks with past experience in many areas of post-secondary education. My purpose is to try to identify the issues we should be considering, discussing, and deciding in order to plan and prepare for the uncertainties in education ahead of us.

But in doing so, I hope to leave you with more questions than answers because I think questions are more important than answers. A good question can lead you many places, whereas a good answer tends to limit you to one.

So please consider what I say as a starting point, rather than the definitive word on what’s going to happen over the next 50 years. And let me caution you that much of what I’m going to tell you is going to seem far-fetched, or more like science fiction than a hard-eyed look at the future. One of the major reasons for this is that we have a fundamental lack of imagination about the future. We have a natural tendency to believe that tomorrow will be like today, and, by extension, that 2067 will be similar to 2017.

I disagree. I believe 2067 will be dramatically different, and if you can accept that premise, then you start to look at things differently. So let’s start by looking at the most predictable wild card: technology

Computers & Technology

I can’t really imagine how much more powerful computers will be in 50 years, except to say by an incredibly large factor, perhaps trillions of times. We may be reaching the limits of Moore’s Law with today’s technology, but that’s happened four times before, and each time we’ve leapt to new technologies.

It may be that the next move will be to quantum computing. It’s hard to say how much faster quantum computing will be because it’s just different! It would be a bit like asking how much longer peanut butter is than blue paint – it may not be a useful comparison.

Regardless, I am quite sure computers will be immensely more powerful in 2067 than they are now. And they will be much smarter & more sophisticated, too. Based on what we are already seeing with Fog computing, evolutionary algorithms like Genetic Programming, and Deep Learning (which involves neural networks), computers are already getting much smarter, and very quickly.

Meanwhile, communications will become even more ubiquitous. Augmented reality and virtual reality will become routine parts of our lives, and will enable us to make extensive use of telepresence, which will be similar to (but not quite the same as) being in the same room with someone.

We will attend events virtually, including conferences, sporting events, and concerts, with augmented views of the events but with the feel of being there in person.

And we will be able to experience data in context and in real time, and see dimensions of reality with relevant data superimposed. For education, this will mean that physical presence will become less and less important – but not meaningless. After all, would you rather see your favorite actor, singer, or celebrity in person, or through a really good screen?

Next, we will have computer genies, which have also been called butlers, avatars, or virtual assistants, that will act as our guardians, agents, and alter egos in cyberspace. They will learn our likes and dislikes, and, through Deep Learning and related techniques, begin to anticipate our wants and needs.

The pedagogical significance of this is that computer-assisted learning (“CAL”) systems will be able to judge whether a learner is engaged, and even how well she is comprehending what is being presented. And if a learner is not engaged, or doesn’t get it, then the system will be able to use another approach until it finds the best way to present a given body of material.

The net result is that CAL will become dramatically more effective, and, in conjunction with a human mentor/tutor, massively more effective than today’s lecture-based instruction.

Tomorrow’s Society

Now let’s turn to what society will be like in 2067.

Global population will be somewhere around 10 billion people. Canadian population is projected to be something around 52 million, and the majority will be non-white, including a large number of immigrants who have arrived within the previous 2-3 generations.

How long will we live? It’s been said that within the next 20 years, life expectancy will go up by 50% – at least if you can afford the technologies involved. And what we are finding is that as life expectancy goes up, quality of life persists longer than in the past.

It turns out that decrepitude is more closely related to how near you are to your death than how far you are from your birth. In the 19th Century, someone in their 40s might well have been decrepit. Today, decrepitude typically comes in the 80s or even later, while people in their 70s climb mountains and run marathons.

So, just suppose you’re going to live to 120. When should you retire? Is 65 still the finish line? Will you continue to work, and in the same occupation for another 50-60 years? Or will you get bored and want to do something else? And if you do something else, do you think you might need some a different education than you have now?

My point is that I strongly believe that people will choose to work longer, and may choose to change occupations. And, in my mind, this means you will have more people in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond seeking to learn new things.

The Changing Workplace

How will the workplace change? I believe the world will divide into two principal kinds of economies:

  • National economies that are integrated into a somewhat lumpy, but fundamentally homogeneous global economy, accompanied by a global labor force, and
  • Protected national or perhaps regional economies that have pulled back from globalization and created a “walled garden”, protected by trade barriers in order to protect jobs and domestic industries.

Protected economies will be much smaller, relatively backward, and distinctly poorer, but may have a more even distribution of wealth than those nations integrated into the global economy. I’m sure some people will disagree with this contention, but that represents a discussion for another day.

Within the global economy, wages will be more or less equal around the world for equal work. Inequalities due to gender, sexual orientation, race, age, or other irrelevancies will largely have vanished under the force of one, massively overwhelming question: What can you do for us today?

Who you are will be much less important than what you can do. It will be closer to a merciless meritocracy even than today’s world, where you can be a highly-paid superstar one day, and unemployable the next. You can already see this starting today.

However, competition between humans will be much less of a factor than competition from automation. Computers will be (potentially) billions of times faster, and will be substantially smarter than they are now, as I said a few minutes ago. Over the next 10 years, computers will likely get 1,000 times more cost-effective, and this will lead to dramatic changes. And everyday robots will become part of our daily lives.

Already, Watson, which is IBM’s AI (Artificial Intelligence), is available through the Cloud, and on a retail, transactional basis for anyone who wants to experiment with AI, but without having to make a major investment in creating one.

As a result, automation is already spreading rapidly. All routine work is gradually (and sometimes not so gradually) being eliminated. Physical work will increasingly be done by capable robots.

For example, right now, hamburger flippers are being replaced by things like Momentum Machines’ Burger Bot, which can make a burger every 10 seconds (if there’s a human to load ingredients and fix problems). And Moley Robotic Kitchen copies the movements and preparation skills of a human chef.

Mental/white collar work will increasingly be done by AIs. Legal research is now being done by ROSS, a system that uses IBM’s Watson, and law isn’t the only white collar field that will be decimated by automation.

So, if routine work of every kind is being eliminated, what will be left? Clearly, the only thing left will be non-routine work, which is creative, innovative work. This is one of the reasons for the rise of the Maker Movement, and for online merchants like Etsy.

As automation rises, humans will need to fall back on those things that are uniquely human like creativity, innovation, leadership, teamwork, inspiration, communication, persuasion, craftsmanship, pride, and the ego necessary to believe you can create unique and valuable works. In other words, the soft, human skills will become ever-more important as automation becomes more widespread.

What Should Learners Learn?

Understanding will be much more important than facts.

When was the Magna Carta signed? Who cares? (1215). What was its significance? (Much more important – and more difficult.) One is a fact, the other is an interpretation of the implications.

Facts will be cheap and relatively unimportant. Anything you can look up on the Internet – or have your computer genie look up for you – will be almost valueless. Understanding the context and implications of facts will be crucial.

This will mean that the individual making the evaluation will need to have a body of knowledge, but will also need to place it into context.

Next, we will need to focus on our own unique humanity: our interests, talents, and passions. And we will need to practice creativity. At the moment, our society labors under the delusion that you have to be some kind of artist (which includes things like author, playwright, performer, painter, etc.) to be creative. In fact, everyone is creative to greater or lesser extents, but few of us practice creativity.

To be sure, some people have more creative talent than others, but creativity is also a skill anyone can improve. And people will need a broad background to enable them to discern when they need to dive in and learn things in an apparently unrelated field.

For example, I was a math & science nerd in high school and university, and took art courses in high school only because they were required. Little did I know that I would need to learn many of the basic principles of art, like color, balance, proportion, form and so on, to create presentation slides to make my living.

I suggest that we will need not just math, physics, and technology, but history, art, music, performance, psychology, sociology, economics, and more. I believe the successful student of the future will need to be well rounded as well as deeply educated, with the ability to learn quickly and evaluate new fields critically

Who Will Tomorrow’s Students Be?

As our needs to be creative grow, we will increasingly need to turn inward to find what we will do to make a living. And as that happens, the education we need will be more individualized. Fortunately, the technology will make this not only possible, but immensely preferable.

And if public education moves towards individually tailored education, then a young student’s age won’t be as relevant. Customized, computer-assisted education implies the end of the class-grade system. We will have “Tommy Smith grade” or “Cai Eng grade” instead of “11th grade”.

Some of your future college students will be young people who today would be considered to be high school students. Those who can do the work, and need the background and challenge you can provide, will study with you despite their age or location.

And “lifelong education” will become a reality instead of a cliché, especially if mature workers look to retool rather than retire. You will have people much older as well, including people who would otherwise be retirees. And you will have students in between, looking to upgrade specific skills, acquire new ones, and gain additional credentials. These have been described as “portable and stackable” credentials, and may come in bite-sized portions requiring hours, days, or weeks of study rather than 3- or 4-year degree or diploma programs. And they will need to be available when and where the students are available, rather than having the students schedule their lives around classroom timetables.

Meanwhile, young adults are already starting to question whether investing the time and money for a degree or diploma is worth it. Many students are leaving post-secondary education deeply in debt, and are still unable to find worthwhile employment. And as automation continues to eat its way up the food chain, more potential students are going to question whether what colleges and universities have to offer is worth the cost in time and money. So longer lives, a radically changing workplace, and differing needs are going to make your student population substantially more diverse, even as their needs become individualized.

What’s the Best Way to Teach Something?

The best way to learn something depends on:

·      Who is doing the learning.
·      What they are trying to learn.
·      And who (if anyone) is doing the teaching.

So, the best way to help someone learn depends on the student, her style of learning (e.g., visual, auditory, or kinesthetic), and how her brain processes information. Hence, if two students are engaged in learning the same material, the approach or presentation of that material might be dramatically different.

Pause for question: Does that sound like today’s classroom lecture to you?

But now let’s bring things down from a height of 30,000 feet to something closer to ground level.

What Will Be the Role of Post-Secondary Education in All of This?

Fanshawe’s motto, “Always changing, always relevant” is entirely relevant to the future of education. But how should you change to remain relevant? Should you teach anyone anything, or should you specialize in specific topics, specific fields, or even specific kinds of learners?

Don’t be trapped into thinking that you have to do the things you are doing now, like classroom lectures or even seminars. And don’t be trapped into thinking you have to approach learning and education in the traditional ways, say by subject matter, or the age or the educational attainment of the learner.

Perhaps you would be better off helping people with specific kinds learning styles rather than people who want to learn particular subjects. Maybe you will specialize in helping kinesthetic learners rather than auditory or visual learners. Or perhaps you should specialize in facilitating people whom we currently describe as autistic rather than neurotypicals.

Perhaps you should recruit specific individuals who have a particular or even unique talent or skill set, and build your offerings around them rather than set the curriculum and then recruit people who are merely good at teaching it. In a sense, you might franchise the brains of your instructors.

Or perhaps you would be better off working with learners from anywhere around the world rather than just the ones who make the trek to your campus.

And, as an aside relevant to the next 10-20 years, I think there is an enormous potential for offering higher education and certification to people around the world who want it, especially when it comes with the Canadian brand. And that brings us to some of the more obvious obstacles you face, and they opportunities they create.

Obstacles and Opportunities

Government funding for post-secondary education will be severely threatened in an age when health care costs threaten to gobble up government revenues. The boomers are currently between the ages of 50 and 70, which means the biggest generation in history is now entering the high rent district of health care.

Governments are going to be pressed to find enough funding to serve the aging, and politically active, boomers. But with reductions in government funding come opportunities to find other sources with fewer strings attached. Provincial governments will be looking for ways of off-loading expenses, and might be amenable to new funding sources if proposed by Ontario colleges.

Distance Learning & Competition

As technology emerges, making distance education more effective and cheaper, and technology makes customized education simpler and more effective, you’re going to have to face an old question, but now on steroids: Why should anyone want to be educated here?

You will be competing not only with other Ontario colleges & universities, and other post-secondary institutions around the continent, but with online courses and offerings from places like Udacity and MIT.

So, let me ask some of the questions I would be asking if I were Fanshawe, and considering the next 50 years.

  • What will technology be capable of doing, and how might we be able to use it to help students / learners?
  • What will the workplace be like, and what will individuals need in order to create an income and live fulfilling lives?
  • Who will be interested in learning? What will be their ages, stages, and needs?
  • How will credentials change, and how will people want to gain them?
  • How might you decide what credentials to offer, to whom, and when?
  • What aspect(s) of education should you focus on?
  • What can you provide learners that is better than they can get anywhere else? How can you provide that learning experience in an effective manner?
  • And if you can project where your college might be in 2067, how should you plan to move from where you are to that future?

Finally, I would strongly suggest that you consider more than one possible future by doing some scenario planning.

How Do We Cope with the Future?

How do we cope with a rapidly mutating future? How do you prepare for tomorrow’s world?

I don’t have all the answers, but I can tell you one answer that won’t work: trying to maintain the status quo.

I wish you good luck, and God speed. Thank you.

© Copyright, IF Research, June 2017.