Flexible learning pathways could gain sway over fixed school-based curriculum. Social-emotional learning and metacognition could come to be seen as foundational skills that help people navigate rapid change. Education could come to focus on helping learners make real impacts in the world during their studies.
An Era Shift
It can be hard to imagine how we might arrive at these scenarios, especially since education tends to be a very stable sector. As education futurists, my colleagues and I think that we are on the cusp of an era shift. We call the emerging era one of partners in code. While many factors contribute, central to this shift is our increasing ability to develop new uses for and new relationships with machines that are increasingly wearable, connected and smart.
Already, we are seeing signals of this era shift in everyday life. If you wear a Fitbit, ask Siri to talk you toward your destination, or use an app to guide yourself in meditating, you are partnering with machines in ways that were not possible a decade ago. These shifts extend beyond the personal. Uber is piloting self-driving cars in Pittsburgh, with human drivers in the cars simply to increase riders’ comfort; The New York Times is using an algorithm developed by Google to manage hate comments on its website; doctors are using machine learning to help diagnose illnesses; and a venture capital firm, Deep Knowledge Ventures, includes an algorithm on its board.
The Changing Nature of Work
As artificial intelligence and machine learning become more sophisticated over the coming decades, they will be increasingly capable of performing many of the cognitive tasks that have seemed exclusive to humans — and which are central to much current knowledge work. Combined with increasing taskification — or the breaking up of full-time jobs into discrete tasks that can be dispatched among many individuals — and globalization, they could dramatically reconfigure what work looks like by 2042. Indeed, many argue that we are on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution.
As highlighted above, we are already seeing the impacts of automation in work and in our daily lives. In those examples, smart machines serve primarily as helpers that make things easier for people. In other instances, smart machines are impacting industry structures in deep ways. For example, journalism has changed dramatically as a result of digital disintermediation, to the point that artificial intelligence can write some news stories and Facebook and Google are pioneering algorithms that cull fake ones. When factories come back to areas left behind by the global push for cheap labor, they tend to be dark factories run primarily by machines, with only a few people tending them.
A great deal of uncertainty swirls around the long-term impacts of artificial intelligence and machine learning on work: they could replace people in certain — or many — jobs or tasks, or they could augment human intelligence, potentially freeing us from many menial tasks and leaving us to focus on what is uniquely human. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University study suggest that 47 percent of current middle-class American jobs could be lost over the next two decades as computers take over cognitive tasks in areas such as management, science, engineering and the arts. In contrast, James Bessen of Boston University argues that automation has historically redefined jobs instead of destroying them, freeing economic capacity for companies to expand or provide new services. The World Economic Forum projects net modest job growth accompanied by high skills instability, with 65 percent of children entering elementary today working in job types and functions that do not exist today.
Automation aside, the structure of work is changing due to taskification, which is driven in part by the lowered coordination costs that the Internet affords. Today, the average adult holds 11.7 jobs in his or her lifetime, and the number of people participating in the “gig” or project-based economy is around 91 million. That number is expected to rise, with the McKinsey Global Institute projecting that the independent workforce could reach as much as 50 percent. Generational differences could help fuel this growth: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation reports that one-half to two-thirds of Millennials are interested in entrepreneurship and that 27 percent are already self-employed, and research from Upfront Analytics shows that 61 percent of Gen Z-ers in high school today would rather be an entrepreneur than an employee after college.
As these shifts highlight, we can expect to see significant changes in what jobs entail and how they are structured. A critical uncertainty is the extent to which people will be displaced as we transition from today’s world of work to the employment landscape of 2042.
The Only Constant Is Change
Times of transition can be difficult. The final destination often feels uncertain, and it can be hard to see what new structures will help create social and economic stability. Given the importance of work and wage labor in many of our lives, we can expect to face considerable turbulence during the next 25 years. In past industrial revolutions, it took decades to adapt skill delivery systems; to add to the challenge; the current rate of change is exponential, putting the stable education sector at risk of lagging far behind workplace realities.
To make matters more turbulent, the world of work is not the only facet of our lives in transition. Broadly speaking, we are entering a time of shifting landscapes. Factors such as climate change, political shifts, and changing economic paradigms promise to cause volatility to spike. Public school districts that rely on size and scale might find themselves increasingly susceptible to system shocks, and funding for public infrastructure such as schools could decline, at least in some places.
In face of such challenges, individuals, communities and institutions are going to need to develop resilience strategies. As a society, we face some critical choices: will we pursue bold social innovation to help mitigate the effects of rapid change in work and other aspects of life, or will we take a more laissez-faire approach, leaving people to navigate as best they can?
Four Scenarios for 2042
These big economic and societal questions might seem far away from most classrooms. But the students crossing their thresholds — or seeking education in some other way — will be impacted by them. The adults working in education will be too. We need to begin responding to the changes on the horizon now so that we design the future of education with intention.
To help guide our collective responses, the four mini-scenarios below explore possible impacts of these changes on education. They are set in the year 2042, with present-day examples signaling how we are beginning to move toward them today.
Cultivating Interconnected Learning Ecosystems
Looking beyond discrete organizations to explore the potential for interconnected learning ecosystems comprised of many kinds of organizations and resources could help communities respond to shifting landscapes and enable greater personalization of learning. Digital tools such as web-based platforms, artificial intelligence, and brokering and curation algorithms could make it increasingly easy to link people, services, organizations, and other resources together in flexible, learner-centered ecosystems. What if education organizations and community partners cultivated flexible regional learning ecosystems and enabled learners to move smoothly among them?
- West Virginia’s collaborative Universal Pre-K program combines state, federal and private funding to offer free pre-K in a variety of settings, including public school buildings, private childcare centers, churches and Head Start buildings.
- In creating Next-Gen Learning Hubs, six U.S. regions are building off cities’ assets and bringing together partners to create innovative student-centered learning ecosystems.
Enabling More Flexible Approaches to Learning
To meet learners’ needs in a complex and rapidly changing world, we may need to reshape today’s educational institutions or manage them in more flexible and responsive ways. By 2042, school formats could become more fluid, relying less on fixed administrative structures and more on network- and relationship-based structures that reflect learners’ needs, interests, and goals. Algorithms; artificial intelligence; and augmented, virtual, and mixed realities could help tailor school structures and match learners with the educators and learning experiences that best support their learning. What if going to school meant registering for a network or ecosystem instead of setting foot on a single campus?
- The Tiny Schools Project initiative of 4.0 Schools supports entrepreneurs in testing new types of schools at small scale, with 10 to 15 students and their families giving high-frequency feedback on pilots that challenge fundamental assumptions about how school works today.
- Some higher education institutions are enabling or exploring relatively flexible learning pathways. Among them, Northeastern University orients its offerings around experiential learning; Olin College of Engineering uses an interdisciplinary, project-based approach; and the Stanford 2025 project envisioned, among other possibilities, an open-loop university that would enable students to access six years’ worth of learning opportunities across their lifetimes.
The changes on the horizon for work will require us to redefine our current notions of college and career readiness. Even if the economy adapts quickly, people can expect to be learning, relearning and unlearning as we strive to keep pace with increasingly smart machines. Focusing on social-emotional learning and metacognition promises to provide people with foundational skills for lifelong, on-demand learning and more specific skill acquisition. What if curricula were designed to support individuals through a lifetime of learning and re-learning?
- The Readiness Project of the Forum for Youth Investment is drawing upon learning science to define what readiness looks like and to explore what conditions and contexts influence whether a young person is ready, with the goal of making readiness a right for every young person.
- New entrants into higher education, including stackable nanodegrees and boot camps such as General Assembly, are helping would-be employees rapidly learn valuable workplace skills.
Educating for Impact on a Global Stage
As landscapes become more volatile and complex problems reverberate globally, the need to help young people think innovatively will become increasingly pronounced. Education could support learners in developing as innovators and problem solvers who actively shape the world around them during their studies. What if school social impact scores became critical metrics for attracting funding, partnerships and community engagement?
- Ashoka Changemaker Schools foster empathy, teamwork, leadership, and problem solving, helping learners develop as changemakers who make a positive impact on the world.
- Middlebury College’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship encourages students to apply their learning beyond the classroom by identifying and addressing real-world problems through ventures created with the help of staff, mentors and community partners.
Shaping the Future of Learning
These four scenarios suggest some ways of responding to the changes on the horizon. Nearer term, some starting points for shaping the future of learning to work well for all learners include:
- Re-tooling schedules and responsibilities to enable educators to focus more fully on educating the whole person
- Giving learners opportunities to practice academic and non-academic skills in real contexts
- Finding ways to connect learners’ individual needs, interests and goals with community needs
- Creating incentives and opportunities for learners to participate in authentic and meaningful work beyond school walls — and finding ways to measure its impact
- Designing for equity, with a focus on considering how well those changes might work for traditionally underserved learners, including those learners in decision making, and genuinely engaging diverse stakeholders
- Looking beyond graduation day to help broaden definitions of success and prepare learners for the future.
These strategies exemplify just some of the ways education stakeholders can influence the trajectory of change. Despite the sense we sometimes have that change is happening to us, trends are not inevitabilities. We can shape, mitigate and enable them. As one educator recently observed, “We must stop talking about changing education and start doing it. The world is different — just look around.”
What do you want learning to look like in 2042?