How the Third Education Revolution Is Shifting Our Approach to Learning

Spring 2019

By Donna Orem

Earlier this year, news broke that the first blockchain-powered university, Woolf University, will launch in 2019. If you don’t know what blockchain is or what it has to do with education, you are not alone. Put simply, it’s a digital ledger that cuts out the middleman so that consumers and suppliers can connect directly in a secure environment. A group of academics at the University of Oxford are using the technology to create what they refer to as the first truly borderless university. Through this effort, they hope to offer greater access to higher education, improve personalized teaching, and increase stability for and the salaries of academics.
A Woolf education, described as “consisting of personal tutorials that develop autonomy and original thinking,” won’t be like other digital universities. “It will facilitate personal teaching through channels like Skype, and will equally support traditional, face-to-face meetings.” It aims to cut costs by either eliminating or automating administrative tasks. Students connect online with a tutor and use an app to check in and begin the session. That check-in will send payment to the instructor.

The Three Revolutions in Education

Is this the Airbnb of higher education? Will others follow? Will K–12 see similar disruption? I believe we will see many new models of education as we enter the Third Education Revolution, ushering in a time of continuous learning. The first two education revolutions brought major changes to the structure of education institutions and teaching and learning approaches. Many researchers who study systems note that changes in education systems usually follow major changes in the economy, and this third revolution is no different.
In a March 2018 article in The Atlantic, author Jeffrey Selingo writes, “Previous shifts in how people work have typically been accompanied in the United States by an expansion in the amount of education required by employers to get a good job. In the early 1900s, the ‘high-school movement’ turned secondary schools into a nationwide system for mass education that provided training for life instead of small-scale institutions designed to prepare a select group of students for college. In 1910, just 9 percent of American youths earned a high-school diploma; by 1935, 40 percent did.” According to Selingo, the second revolution began when “President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Higher Education Act, which bolstered federal aid for higher education.” Community colleges also flourished during this time, further expanding access to higher education. Now, two interdependent forces are driving us into the third revolution—the rise of smart machines and the decline of the full-time, career employee. This revolution will impact both K–12 and higher education in similar and different ways.
We know that the rise of smart machines will disrupt some jobs, but how many and in what way depends on society’s response. Some forecast that more than 50 percent of current jobs will soon be accomplished by machines while only the very highly skilled will retain positions. Others see the future as one where people and machines will partner in very effective ways, leaving humans to do what they do best. Historically, such shifts demonstrate that new jobs are created as others are eliminated, so jobs will emerge for humans that we can’t even conceive of today. Whichever direction these new forces drive us, all workforce forecasters agree that people are likely to need training throughout their lives to keep up with the pace of change.
A design team at Stanford’s explored what this revolution could mean for Stanford, projecting four different scenarios for postsecondary learning:
Open Loop University:
a move from “a society of alumni to lifelong learners.” Students no longer attend the university for four years during a prescribed time in their lives but rather engage in a continuous relationship where they come back for training whenever they need it.
Paced Education:
a shift from a standard educational year to adaptive learning. This structure offers three phases that are individually paced: calibration, elevation, and activation. Graduates not only gain deep mastery in an era of choice but also acquire a deep understanding of how they learn and can use that to approach future retraining for different careers.
Axis Flip:
a structure in which the axes of knowledge and competency are flipped. In this structure, skill development becomes the foundation. Students are given building blocks to tackle any type of career in a changing economic landscape. Transcripts are replaced by skill-prints, which convey both capabilities and potential.
Purpose Learning:
a scenario in which mission guides learning paths. Students declare their mission to drive their learning path. This structure propels graduates to make significant contributions to world issues such as poverty, health, infrastructure, renewable energy, space travel, artistic and cultural achievement, and so on.
Joseph Aoun, president of Northeastern University, explores the future model of higher education in his book, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. He suggests that we need to adopt a new learning approach that emphasizes three literacies:
  • technological: knowledge of mathematics, coding, and basic engineering principles
  • data: the capacity to understand and use big data through analysis
  • human: the power to communicate, engage with others, and tap into our human capacity for grace and beauty.
In addition to these literacies, he also believes that postsecondary education must equip students with four cognitive capabilities:
  • critical thinking: analyzing ideas skillfully and applying them fruitfully
  • systems thinking: understanding the elements of complex systems
    and applying that information in different contexts
  • entrepreneurship: the ability to push boundaries and invent original ideas
  • cultural agility: a mega-competency that enables professionals to perform successfully in cross-cultural situations

The Future for Independent Schools

What are the implications for our schools? First and foremost, I believe the value of independent education will be magnified as families seek an education for their children that provides building-block skills for a digital economy. Many educators point to the relevance of social-emotional learning in this new landscape and the importance of acquiring these skills early in a child’s life. Deep self-knowledge, emotional regulation, responsible decision-making, and empathy and perspective-taking will be particularly important. Our schools are uniquely poised to deliver on this and many already are.
“The Future of Learning: Redefining Readiness from the Inside Out,” a 2017 KnowledgeWorks report, underscores other key jobs of schools in this new era, including supporting student self-discovery experiences, helping students develop future images of themselves to guide learning pathways, and ensuring students experience uncertainty, ambiguity, risk, and failure early on. This revolution may also change who we see as students, offering new ways for schools to connect with alumni and parents.
This new era of education is bound to bring continual change as we learn to partner with machines in new ways. I believe independent schools have already paved the way in how they approach teaching and learning today. We need to continually evolve, though, disrupting at the edges in service of our students.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.