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Dec 29, 2012 1:00 PM by David Houle

Predictions for the next decades of education

When people find out that I am a futurist, they ask me what that means. In speaking and writing, I act as a catalyst to get people, the market and the world to think about the future, then facilitate a conversation about it.

There's one area that's desperately in need of that conversation: education.

In the next decade, there will be more transformation at all levels of education than in any 10-, 20-, or perhaps 50-year period in history. Generational forces at play will accelerate these changes. The aging baby boomers - who I call the "bridge generation," as they have bridged education from the middle of the 20th century to now - are retiring in ever increasing numbers. They have held on to the legacy thinking about education, remembering how they were taught. Their retirement opens up the discussion about transformation.

At the same time, we have the rising digital natives as the students of tomorrow. This generation, born since 1997, is the first that was likely to grow up with a computer in the house, high-speed Internet, parents with cell phones and often a touch screen app phone as their first phone. They are the first generation of the 21th century with no memory of the 20th. They are the first generation born into the information-overloaded world; for them, that's simply the way it is. The digital natives are different than prior generations and need new models for education.

Let's take a quick look for all levels of education to see what some major transformations will be:

Preschool

A child born in 2009 is one of the younger digital natives. In upper-middle class households, they are the first children for whom all content can be found on screens. They are using touch screen and other interactive computing devices starting as early as 2, and therefore walk into the first day of preschool or nursery school with a level of digital skills. This will spark greater use of digital devices and interactive learning at this first level of education. Classrooms will increasingly have interactive touch screen devices.

Neuroscience is in a golden age. We have discovered more about the working of the brain and for the sake of this level of education the development of a child's brain in the past 20 years than in all time prior. It will become clear that, to the degree that we can bring this knowledge into pre-K education, we can more fully develop the minds and learning of young children.

K-12 education

The elevation and integration of digital interactivity is soaring in K-12 education. School districts are setting up cloud computing to provide always-available information for always-connected education communities. Schools that used to make students turn off cellular devices during the school day are allowing them to remain on and become an integral part of the classroom education. If all of the world's knowledge and information are just a few keystrokes away, why make the classroom the only unconnected place students experience?

Self-directed learning - the interaction of the student with learning courses on a computer - will accelerate education and provide more students with the opportunity to learn at a challenging pace. Connectivity will bring the world ever more into the classroom and will allow for the grammar school and the high school to be more involved in the local community and the larger global community.

Higher education

Higher education is approaching bubble status. The costs have risen rapidly, beyond the ability of most families to pay. Debt is being taken on at unprecedented levels and in an economic climate that is not providing the high-paying jobs necessary for that debt to be retired. At the same time, employers complain of a skills gap: the inability to hire employees with the skills needed to perform these new technologically demanding jobs.

Given these challenges, I can see three major changes coming to higher education during the next decade:

First, there will be a dual level of degree granted. The traditional path, costing more than $100,000 with four years of being on campus, will continue. The nontraditional one, perhaps initially a certificate rather than degree program, will cost perhaps $10,000 to $20,000 and will rely on the taking of video and online courses and the passing of exams. This will allow the student a financially viable choice, the university with a new revenue stream and the employer with a comparative choice for hiring. It will also open up higher education to a vastly greater number of people, young and old.

Second, this comparative choice will drive the educational institutions to increase efficiency, adaptability and relevancy to the standard degree. The university model is centuries old and in need of transformation. This is about to happen.

Third, the two-year associate degree from a community college will become more exalted. This will provide trained job applicants who are less worried about being educated and more concerned with up-to-date training that will provide immediate employment. Everyone does not need or should go to college. The 14-year education will become more respected as our society becomes ever more technologically based.

We're already beginning to see some of these changes, in the rise of MOOCs - massive open online courses - and the integration of tablet technology and cloud computing in the classroom.

In the past two years, I have met dozens of superintendents who are creating fundamental change at the local level. Such local leadership will increase dramatically in the coming year, while, in higher ed, the consumption of high quality MOOCs will double.

The year 2013 will bring about the first steps in a transformation that, by 2020, will leave education at all levels profoundly different from it is today.

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