Q&A: KnowledgeWorks’ Jason Swanson Forecasts Education’s Future

Posted: September 7th, 2016

Jason Swanson (2)ACT Foundation partner KnowledgeWorks is one of the country’s most effective advocates for advancing innovative solutions to challenging social issues, particularly regarding education. The organization provides tools, training, and assistance to school leaders, teachers, and community stakeholders. We recently posed questions about the future of education to Jason Swanson, Director of Strategic Foresight at KnowledgeWorks, where he helps lead the organization’s research into the future of learning. Jason holds a BA in Public Policy from West Chester University and an MA in Foresight from the University of Houston, is a fellow with the Royal Society of Arts, and is a board member of the Association of Professional Futurists. His views offer fascinating insight on the state of education and where it is headed.

ACT Foundation: Why do you believe it is necessary to fundamentally reform how education is delivered? What are the risks inherent in the perpetuation of the status quo?

Swanson: While I think educational reform has merits, my belief is that we need to move beyond reforming our current educational system and consider how we might transform it into something entirely different. The world is already a much different place than the world for which our current education system was designed, and in the future, the world will look very different than our current reality.

To look more closely at those differences, the ways in which learners access knowledge and supports have evolved dramatically. We have technology that can weave together what would otherwise be siloed learning experiences into coherent learning journeys that make traditional classroom walls increasingly porous. In addition, learners face increasingly uncertain employment prospects, and despite our best efforts, we still have glaring inequality issues. We now have the tools and resources to transform education fundamentally so that it puts the learner first. In other words, we can create an educational system that is designed around the needs, interests, and goals of learners rather than the needs and interests of adults or institutions. We simply need the will to do so.

The risks of perpetuating the status quo are many. Without intentional systems transformation, we risk creating a fractured landscape in which only the learners and their families who have access to resources and time will be able to engage in true personalized learning. Such a fractured landscape would create an even wider gap between the educational experiences of those who have the resources and time to find and engage in relevant learning experiences and those who lack such resources and are probably already shut out of or marginalized by our current education system.

At a much deeper level, we risk our collective futures. We need a system of education that can not only prepare the workforce of tomorrow, but also prepare the global citizens of tomorrow. We need students who can embrace complexity and uncertainty, who can think critically, who can learn, unlearn, and relearn, and who can change the narrative of the student from a receiver of knowledge to an active agent of change as the world grows increasingly more complex and uncertain.

ACT Foundation: Why would an education system based on blockchain technology be trusted more than the current system?

Swanson: It wouldn’t necessarily be, but blockchain offers promise. Creating trust in a system is a big job. I think that blockchain could help create trust. One way that might play out is illustrated in the Faster Horses scenario from our Learning on the Block publication. In this scenario, a blockchain-powered administrative platform is used for a lot of back-office type functions. The immutability of blockchain helps keep student and testing data from being tampered with. Such an administrative platform could also be used for accounting, creating a highly transparent public ledger. These are just two small examples of how blockchain might be used to increase trust in the current system. However, even in these two examples, the public would first have to accept a system that is immutable.  In other words, the public would have to be comfortable with a permanent student record which really is permanent and in which youthful indiscretions are captured and recorded in a way that cannot be altered or erased. It would also have to be okay to put items on a publicly viewable ledger, even if what is being put on that ledger is limited to the financial transactions of a school district and even though student-level data would be psuedonomyous.

ACT Foundation: Might the expanded use of technology in education delivery and credentialing exacerbate and already widening digital divide?

Swanson: That is always a danger, though if we take the long view and think about the exponential curve that digital technologies are on in terms of advancement, one of the interesting things we see is that, as technologies get more capable, they also get cheaper. Take GPS, for example. The cost for the first commercial GPS receiver in 1983 was $150,000.  In 2014, the cost of a GPS receiver was under $12. My hope is that, as technology continues to become more powerful and more affordable, we will see platforms for education delivery and credentialing emerge that can meet learners’ needs and create new possibilities for learning.

One such possibility might take the form of a learning log that would take advantage of the increased data capture capabilities of something like a smartphone and the reduction in cost over time of memory for the phone. Your phone might run something like xAPI, software that captures both formal and informal learning. With your learning log capturing all of your learning instances, the very experience or act of learning could become a credential. If you needed to prove a competency, you would simply skip to the place in your learning log where you had a learning experience that showed you mastering that competency. Such a system could dramatically change the nature of learning and credentialing, creating low -to-no cost credentials that would not require tuition (if thinking of higher education) of any kind to earn.

ACT Foundation: KnowledgeWorks has identified five drivers of change that will affect us all in the future—optimized selves, labor relations 2.0, alternate economies, shifting landscapes and smart transactional models like blockchain. Besides smart transactional models, what will the other drivers of change mean for a future where working and learning intersect?

Swanson: Great question! Each driver of change presents many possible futures for where working and learning intersect, each with its own implications and considerations. Out of the five drivers, there are two that I feel have direct impact:

·  Labor Relations 2.0: Labor Relations 2.0 considers how the advancement and proliferation of artificial intelligence and automation are changing how we work. If we consider the intersection of working and learning, this driver points both to changes in how we work and to a changing context for how and why we pursue education. In one possible future, many people might find themselves at the intersection of working and learning permanently, constantly learning and upskilling as they pursue and engage in work even as work itself is reconfigured. A key question that this driver presents that is very relevant to the intersection of working and learning is “Where will humans deploy smart machines to achieve greater human insight and wisdom, and where will we be dispatched to perform menial tasks?”

·  Shifting Landscapes: Shifting Landscapes focuses on the need to innovate in volatile conditions due to factors such as resource depletion, environmental instability, and the turbulence created as we transition from old systems and societal institutions to new ones. We can include education and the role of wage labor among those systems that are in a period of transition. One implication is that there will be a need to create strategies and structures for navigating the turbulence. As it relates to the intersection of working and learning, one such strategy might be a solution such as implementing universal basic income in the face of widespread technological unemployment. Such a mechanism could lead people to have a much different relationship to work and to reexamine the purpose of education, in effect redefining the intersection of working and learning.

For those who want to dive deeper into the drivers of change I highlighted, as well as the other three (Optimized Selves, Alternate Economies, and Smart Transactional Models), I invite you to read our full forecast on the future of learning.

Follow Jason Swanson on Twitter @jasonswanson

For more information on KnowledgeWorks strategic foresight work, please visit http://www.knowledgeworks.org/future-learning.