21st Century Learning Tipping Point – When?

The legacy of the industrial education model is strong. There is little dispute that the model must change at a system level, but progress towards and evolution of the needed changes are still glacially slow. Inspiring examples of a 21st century model are present today, but the imperative to build an education model that is open, connected, engaged and personalised has not yet reached its tipping point.

What is changing?

Much money and effort is being spent today treating the symptoms to address the increasing irrelevance of our education systems, rather than addressing the underlying and fundamental dysfunction now emerging. Issues around retention, engagement, the learning experience, the way classrooms are designed and how technology is integrated are being addressed by tweaking the existing model rather than reinventing it. And reinvention is what is needed. Yet we see much resistance in the mainstream and reluctance to reinvent.

Right now, open – and free – content is the strongest driver of change.

Recognition that all elements of the learning process – from content sourcing, packaging, delivery, facilitation, engagement, assessment and improvement – must change is gaining traction.  Right now, open – and free – content is the strongest driver of change.

The Khan Academy was perhaps the first mainstream provider of online educational content – established in 2006, it now has over 3000 videos on maths, science, finance and humanities, all available for free. Academic Earth was another early player, providing videos of lectures from some of the most prestigious universities in the world – think Yale, Princeton, Harvard, MIT. Coursera was established in 2011 by two Stanford Professors to deliver free online courses from Princeton, Stanford, UC Berkeley, the University of Michigan and The University of Pennsylvania.

Then came the first sign of that the tipping point was approaching. Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig from Stanford University offered ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ online for free – 160,000 people enrolled for free and 23,000 chose to graduate, and pay. Much of the course management was an experiment in artificial intelligence, which suggest these ‘massive open online courses’ are the way of the future. In January 2012, Sebastain Thrun resigned from Stanford to set up Udacity, an online university which is already offering courses – rocket speed compared to the usual process of approving and delivering courses within traditional universities.

But, having access to a huge range of high quality and free content is one thing, knowing what to do with it is another. The role of the academic/ teacher will remain pivotal in the learning experience but their roles will change – from content creator to content facilitator, from ‘sage on stage’ to ‘guide on the side’.

The tipping point is near.

Why is this important?

The shape of 21st century learning is starting to emerge today, thanks to the efforts of innovators across the world, who are beginning to build its key elements of structure, process and systems.

The biggest challenge today is in changing the minds of those now in power in our schools, universities, colleges and in government. Agreeing that change is necessary is one thing, but being willing to provide the investment, commitment and time necessary to make major widespread changes to the industrial education model that all these decision makers grew up with is not straightforward.

Thinking about educational change from a global perspective is needed to allow us to let go of our now outdated beliefs about education models that are creaking under the weight of change. Only then will the isolated efforts of educators across the world gain enough support and acceptance to reach the tipping point needed to send the education world into the new learning space.

By Maree Conway

About the author


Maree Conway is an associate of Shaping Tomorrow who also runs her own strategic foresight practice, Thinking Futures, which helps people to think long term, to move beyond business-as-usual thinking, and to build robust, sustainable strategies for the future. She uses a combination of desk and original research plus workshops to challenge their current thinking and see beyond the constraints of today. With Shaping Tomorrow she runs a series of educational futures ‘webinars’ on using various futures tools and techniques, provides ongoing Horizon Scanning on a range of topics, and specific research support for projects such as a ‘Issues affecting long-term animal health management’. In 2008 she conducted a yearlong review of ‘the state of futures’, and previously spent 30 years in the university sector providing strategic support.

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