Welcome back to our "Life in 2050" series, where we examine how changes that are anticipated for the coming decades will alter the way people live their lives. In previous installments, we looked at how warfare, the economy, housing, and space exploration (which took two installments to cover!) will change by mid-century.
Today, we take a look at education and how social, economic, and technological changes will revolutionize the way children, youth, and adults go to school. Whereas modern education has generally followed the same model for over three hundred years, a transition is currently taking place that will continue throughout this century.
This transition is similar to what is also taking place in terms of governance, the economy, and recreation. In much the same way, the field of education will evolve in this century to adapt to four major factors. They include:
- Growing access to the internet
- Improvements in technology
- Distributed living and learning
- A new emphasis on problem-solving and gamification
The resulting seismic shift expected to occur by 2050 and after will be tantamount to a revolution in how we think about education and learning. Rather than a centralized structure where information is transmitted, and retention is tested, the classroom of the future is likely to be distributed in nature and far more hands-on.
To the next generations, education in the future will look a lot more like playtime than schooling!
A Time-Honored Model
Since the 19th century, public education has become far more widespread. In 1820, only 12% of people worldwide could read and write. As of 2016, that figure was reversed, where only 14% of the world's population remained illiterate. Beyond basic literacy, the overall level of education has also increased steadily over time.
Since the latter half of the 20th century, secondary and post-secondary studies (university and college) have expanded considerably across the world. Between 1970 and 2020, the percentage of adults with no formal education went from 23% to less than 10%; those with a partial (or complete) secondary education went from 16% to 36%; and those with a post-secondary education from about 3.3% to 10%.
Of course, there remains a disparity between the developing and developed world when it comes to education outcomes. According to data released in 2018 by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the percentage of people to graduate secondary school (among their 38 member nations) was 76.86% for men and 84.82% for women.
The same data indicated that among OECD nations, an average of 36.55% of the population (29.41% men and 44.10% women) received a post-secondary degree. This ranges from a Bachelor's degree (24.07% men, 36.91% women) and a Master's degree (10.5% men, 16.17% women) to a Ph.D. (less than 1% of men and women).
Despite this expansion in learning, the traditional model of education has remained largely unchanged since the 19th century. This model consists of people divided by age (grades), learning a standardized curriculum that is broken down by subject (maths, sciences, arts, social sciences, and athletics), and being subject to evaluation (quizzes, tests, final exam).
This model has been subject to revision and expansion over time, mainly in response to new technologies, socio-political developments, and economic changes. However, the structure has remained largely intact, with the institutions, curricula, and accreditation standards subject to centralized oversight and control.
According to a 2019 report compiled by the United Nations' Department of Economic and Social Affairs — titled "World Population Prospects 2019" — the global population is expected to reach 9.74 billion by mid-century. With a population of around 5.29 billion, Asia will still be the most populous continent on the planet.
However, it will be Africa that experiences the most growth between now and mid-century. Currently, Africa has a population of 1.36 billion, which is projected to almost double by 2050 — reaching up to 2.5 billion (an increase of about 83%). This population growth will be mirrored by economic growth, which will then drive another sort of growth.
According to a 2018 report by the UN's International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 90% of the global population will have access to broadband internet services by 2050, thanks to the growth of mobile devices and satellite internet services. That's 8.76 billion people, a 220% increase over the 4 billion people (about half of the global population) that have access right now.
The majority of these new users will come from the "developing nations," meaning countries in Africa, South America, and Oceania. Therefore, the internet of the future will be far more representative of the global population as more stories, events, and trends that drive online behavior come from outside of Europe and North America.
Similarly, the internet will grow immensely as trillions of devices, cameras, sensors, homes, and cities are connected to the internet — creating a massive expansion in the "Internet of Things." Given the astronomical amount of data that this will generate on a regular basis, machine learning and AI will be incorporated to keep track of it all, find patterns in the chaos, and even predict future trends.
AI will also advance thanks to research into the human brain and biotechnology, which will lead to neural net computing that is much closer to the real thing. Similarly, this research will lead to more advanced versions of Neuralink, neural implants that will help remedy neurological disorders and brain injuries, and also allow for brain-to-machine interfacing.
This means that later in this century, people will be able to perform all the tasks they rely on their computers for, but in a way that doesn't require a device. For those who find the idea of neural implants unsettling or repugnant, computing will still be possible using smart glasses, smart contact lenses, and wearable computers.
From Distance Ed to MOOCs
In the past year, the coronavirus and resulting school closures have been a major driving force for the growth of online learning. However, the trend towards decentralization was underway long before that, with virtual classrooms and online education experiencing considerable growth over the past decade.
In fact, a report compiled in February of 2020 by Research and Markets indicated that by 2025, the online education market would be valued at about $320 billion USD. This represents a growth of 170% — and a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.23% since 2019 when the e-learning industry was valued at $187.87 billion USD.
What's more, much of this growth will be powered by economic progress and rising populations in the developing nations (particularly in Africa, Asia, and South America). Already, online education is considered a cost-effective means to address the rising demand for education in developing nations.
As Stefan Trines, a research editor with the World Education News & Reviews, explained in an op-ed he penned in August of 2018:
"While still embryonic, digital forms of education will likely eventually be pursued in the same vein as traditional distance learning models and the privatization of education, both of which have helped increase access to education despite concerns over educational quality and social equality.
"Distance education already plays a crucial role in providing access to education for millions of people in the developing world. Open distance education universities in Bangladesh, India, Iran, Pakistan, South Africa, and Turkey alone currently enroll more than 7 million students combined."
While barriers remain in the form of technological infrastructure (aka. the "digital divide"), the growth of internet access in the next few decades will be accompanied by an explosion in online learning. Another consequence will be the proliferation of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and other forms of e-learning, which will replace traditional distance education.
Here too, the growth in the past few years has been very impressive (and indicative of future trends). Between 2012 and 2018, the number of MOOCs available increased by more than 683%, while the total number of students enrolled went from 10 million (in 2013) to 81 million, and the number of universities offering them increased by 400% (from 200 to 800).
Between 2020 and 2050, the number of people without any formal education will decline from 10% to 5% of the global population. While the number of people with a primary and lower secondary education is expected to remain largely the same, the number of people with secondary education is projected to go from 21% to 29% and post-secondary education from 11% to 18.5%.
For developing nations, distributed learning systems will offer a degree of access and flexibility that traditional education cannot. This is similar to the situation in many remote areas of the world, where the necessary infrastructure doesn't always exist (i.e., roads, school buses, schoolhouses, etc.).
New Technologies & New Realities
Along with near-universal internet access, there are a handful of technologies that will make education much more virtual, immersive, and hands-on. These include augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), haptics, cloud computing, and machine learning (AI). Together, advances in these fields will be utilized to enhance education.
By definition, AR refers to interactions with physical environments that are enhanced with the help of computer-mediated images and sounds, while VR consists of interacting with computer-generated simulated environments. However, by 2050, the line between simulated and physical will be blurred to the point where they are barely distinguishable.
This will be possible thanks to advances in "haptics," which refers to technology that stimulates the senses. Currently, this technology is limited to stimulating the sensation of touch and the perception of motion. By 2050, however, haptics, AR, and VR are expected to combine in a way that will be capable of creating totally realistic immersive environments.
These environments will stimulate the five major senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) as well as somatosensory perception — pressure, pain, temperature, etc. For students, this could mean simulations that allow the student to step into a moment in history and to see and feel what it was like to live in another time and place — with proper safety measures (let's not forget that history is full of violence!).
This technology could extend beyond virtual environments and allow students the opportunity to visit places all around the globe and experience what it feels like to actually be there. It's even possible that this technology will be paired with remote-access robotic hosts so students can physically interact with the local environment and people.
Cloud computing will grow in tandem with increased internet access, leading to an explosion in the amount of data that a classroom generates and has access to. The task of managing this data will be assisted by machine learning algorithms and classroom AIs that will keep track of student tasks, learning, retention, and assess their progress.
New & Personalized Curriculums
In fact, AI-driven diagnostic assessments are likely to replace traditional grading, tests, and exams as the primary means of measuring student achievement. Rather than being given letter grades or pass/fail evaluations, students will need to fulfill certain requirements in order to unlock new levels in their education.
The ease with which students can connect to classrooms will also mean that teachers will no longer need to be physically present in a classroom. By 2050, "virtual teacher" is likely to become an actual job description! Ongoing progress in the field of AI and social robotics is also likely to result in classrooms that are led by virtual or robotic teachers and education assistants.
Speaking of robotics, emerging technologies and the shifting nature of work in the future will be reflected in the kinds of tasks students perform. For this reason, students are sure to spend a significant portion of their lessons learning how to code and build robots, take apart and reassemble complex machines, and other tasks that will enhance their STEM skills.
Other professions that emerge between now and 2050 are also likely to have an impact on student education. Given their importance to future generations, students are sure to learn about additive manufacturing (3D printing), space travel, renewable energy, and how to create virtual environments, blockchains, and digital applications.
In addition to adapting to new demands, school curriculums are likely to become a lot more decentralized as a result of technological changes. On the one hand, schools are likely to abandon compartmentalized study — math, science, language, literature, social studies, etc. — in favor of more blended learning activities that cut across these boundaries.
Gaming, Problem Solving, & Incentives
Another major change is the way education is expected to become "gamified." This is the philosophy behind Ad Astra, a private school created by Elon Musk and educator Joshua Dahn for Musk's children and those of SpaceX's employees. Since then, this school has given way to Astra Nova, which follows the same philosophy, but is open to the general public.
With their emphasis on destructured learning and focus on problem-solving, these schools provide something of a preview for what education will look like down the road. As Musk remarked in a 2013 interview with Sal Khan, founder of the online education platform Khan Academy:
"What is education? You're basically downloading data and algorithms into your brain. And it's actually amazingly bad in conventional education because it shouldn't be like this huge chore... The more you can gamify the process of learning, the better. For my kids, I don't have to encourage them to play video games. I have to pry them out of their hands."
This approach is similar to the Montessori method of education, where students engage in self-directed learning activities in a supportive and well-equipped environment. While many practices have come to be included under the heading of "Montessori school," the general idea is to avoid using highly structured and transmission-based methods.
Combined with cutting-edge technology, this same philosophy is projected to become far more widespread and will be possible without the need for physical classrooms, schools, textbooks, etc. In this respect, it is the Synthesis School, another spin-off of Ad Astra, that provides the closest approximation of what the future of education will be like.
The Synthesis School is an open-access educational platform that takes the problem-solving and gamified approach of Ad Astra and Astra Nova and makes it available as an enrichment activity to the entire world (for a fee). In the future, children and youths from all over the world could be following the same process: Logging in from just about anywhere, forming groups, and playing games that develop our faculties.
The growing use of cryptocurrencies and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) will also have an effect on schooling. In terms of the future economy, these technologies could replace traditional fiat money and banking. But in education, they could facilitate an entirely new system of reward and punishment.
Here too, Ad Astra and Astra Nova offer a preview of what this might look like. In these schools, students are encouraged to earn and trade a unit of currency called the "Astra." This system is designed to reward students for good behavior while also teaching them about money management and entrepreneurship.
By 2050, the majority of students around the world may no longer have to physically go to school in order to get an education. Instead, they will be able to log in from their home, a common room in their building, or a dedicated space in their community. From there, they will join students from all around the world and engage in problem-solving tasks, virtual tours, and hands-on activities.
For hundreds of millions of students, this will represent a chance to at a brighter future for themselves and others. For many children, it will be an opportunity to learn about the world beyond their front door and how to facilitate the kind of changes that will benefit us all.
For others, the transformation of education that is anticipated in the coming decades is a chance to fulfill the dream of countless generations. As long as education has existed as a formal institution, educators have wrestled with questions regarding the best way to impart knowledge, foster intellectual acumen, and inspire future leaders.
As Socrates famously said, "Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel." Through technology that allows us to create education that is tailored to the individual, universal in nature, and decentralized in structure, we may finally have found the means for ensuring that every student finds their path to success.