The future of learning transcript

Daniel Ridge: The world we live in is changing at a fast pace and what we teach and how we teach is also evolving rapidly. What do our tech futures look like and how can we embrace developments to ensure positive teaching and learning experiences with improved outcomes? How can our education systems be reshaped to foster learner first approaches while also keeping up to date with the growing demands of the 21st century?

In this episode we speak with Dr John Moravec from Education Futures and look at the recommendations he provides.

Can you begin by telling us a little bit about yourself and your research?

John Moravec: Yeah, I'm an education futurist and I do research, some writing, I provide some technical assistance to schools, universities, government ministries, international organisations around the world on innovation and new futures and education, and I'm also the editor of the journal On the Horizon.

0:23 DR: Cool, well obviously things have really changed a lot with education in the last year because of COVID and doing things online, and doing online courses and such. I'm wondering do you think that this will help democratise education and learning?

JM: Well I think that's an interesting question. I think it's one that that really seems hopeful that we can engineer a break from the status quo where everything is structured from the top down, and focused on the imposition of power. But democratised learning happens when members of a learning community are really empowered to teach each other, regulate for that top down stuff to peer to peer or just doing stuff together, or at least provides mechanisms for where it can happen if members desire, democratic education plays students have an active say in the choices regarding the learning, including how their schools are run, how and when they learn and really all other aspects of daily life or everyday life. Students are afforded liberties to pursue educational opportunities and approaches for learning that are appropriate for them, as long as their decisions do not infringe on the liberties of others to do the same. And I'm not really seeing much evidence of the COVID-19 crisis as promoting democratisation, but I see a few patterns emerge that reveal some ugly truths, I think. I think that the first one is just really obvious, is that nobody knows what to do, really, despite our best planning and thinking, a year into this leaders are still debating on whether to keep schools open or closed, whether we want to go online or get creative with school scheduling and so on. Another reality is that, that's really emerged is that school is daycare. It allows parents to work and keeps kids off the street. Then, I suppose the third point on that would be that online learning's been mostly disappointing for folks. There are many learning management systems, but there's an author Justin Reich, and he wrote a book, Failure to Disrupt just before this crisis, a couple of years before the crisis. And he really pointed out that they pretty much all do the same thing, virtually the same way, instead of having different features out there, they'll converge to the same set of features and tasks and roles. And so this entire ecology of systems doesn't behave like an ecology, rather they kind of rubber stamp out teaching and learning frameworks and there just isn't any applied creativity out there to do things differently. And same like less democratised doesn't fix anything than itself, it doesn't give a clear guidance on what to do, it doesn't solve a daycare problem and there's a nice software out there to support it. So, that said, I really think that the crisis serves as a wake up call to folks, I really believe that there's a tremendous opportunity that should be seized upon here.

DR: Yeah, I'm wondering what this means to university campuses and physical campuses for schools since everything's moving online?

JM: As university campuses, move on line, increasingly online, I see it as a stopgap measure, rather than a full fix for this, I think there's been a lot of talk about this really signalling the end of the formal university campus, as it were, kind of the idea that the move to online is inevitable and it’s just how the things are going to be. I suppose that say, Hey, really, is this really the end of the university campus, and in a sense, no I really hope so and I hope not at the same time, I think the bottom line of this is that traditional higher education is grossly unsustainable, and I think that this crisis is just really making things worse. This morning, I read from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, that undergraduate spring enrolments and 2021 are down four and a half percent or in the United States over the previous year, and this especially impacts underrepresented students. Community colleges are down 9.5% That's a huge drop in one year.

DR: That’s a huge drop, yeah.

JM: And it's not, it's not really that, because things are moving online it's just people are moving away from higher education at the moment, and universities have to be responsive, they simply can't put their heads in the sand and wait for the crisis to end, there's just so much work that needs to be done.

DR: When you're talking about crisis, what, what particularly do you mean. Are you talking about the cost of education?

JM: Yeah, I think cost of education is a big piece of it. William Baumol wrote over half a century ago that about cost disease and labor sectors that do not experience gains and productivity because they're inherently human centered. They’re not getting the same gains out of technology based work. And so his work was focused on the performing arts, but the same principles I think could be applied to education. We simply cannot get the same gains of productivity over time from human systems as we get from machine systems or technology driven dependent systems like automotive production or information processing. So as a result, costs increase while productivity lags behind in a world that's outpacing them. And it's difficult to be slow and expensive when you're tasked for graduating the world's foremost thinkers, and the next generation of leaders.

DR: So despite COVID, we'd still be moving away and having the same issues, you think?

JM: yeah, I really think so I think that COVID is, is put a wrench in things, I think it's redirecting things, but some of these declines in enrolment may be temporary, but we really need to look at the numbers, but we can't just sit back, we have to take action on this.

DR: Yeah. Does this mean that universities are going to have to be more competitive to bring people in, how can universities respond to this if they're losing all these students, what can they do to bring them back?

JM: I like the open university concept a lot, as well as other initiatives that try to open access to higher education, but opening the access is, as much as it is bringing students in, the MOOC movement that that was big a few years ago and kind of fizzled is starting to see a resurgence now. And some places are simply trying to make a quick buck with online offerings, but others like say the Open University, I think they're more student centered, and to do online education right, at least the way that universities think is the right way, it's still a very human centered experience. Courses are expensive to develop, server racks have replaced buildings, somebody needs to provide human oversight of learning, in addition to all that software support, a management of all this, and good students demand personal attention, it's all really expensive and inefficient. Yeah, but I think there's also hope. And I think that the reality is that we've really allowed ourselves to be fooled into thinking that students learn from the top down, university lecturers from the memorisation of facts, and for most people in most fields that really doesn't work. And I think that real learning happens from sensemaking, and this happens within the contextualised application of what we know to do something new, and it also happens when we communicate and collaborate with others. So in this sense, we could talk about universities under pressure, COVID shutting things down but university quads, student unions, neighborhood bars have tremendous value in this as part of their ecology where, where real learning probably really happens. And so much of the sense making and learning happens outside of formal instruction, and this is something that we need to look into as we think about how we can innovate within higher education, whether we do things within virtual universities or go back to campus.

DR: Well are universities having to compete now for students, is this increasing competition?

JM: Yeah, I think that it's increasing competition, and universities will need to become more competitive, but I think that there is also and very historically so been very little motivation for doing so, they're competing against each other and not new entrants to the market, and in those rare cases where something new enters, now they fight heck to discredit them, and this might explain the slow crawl towards quality online courses. There just isn't that sort of motivation to do anything truly different. There's obviously room for that and there's a real need for disruption, but it's an uphill battle. I think also, relaying back to your earlier question, I'm inspired by smaller and boutique like schools, there's a Kaospilot Design and Business School, in Aarhus in Denmark. There's also the Nomads Business School in Amsterdam. Now both of these things started outside the system. Kaospilots eventually decided that they wanted to integrate into a credentialed higher education option approved by the government, but the Nomad school opted to stay out, and they figure that having the Nomads tattoo has about as much value as a regular diploma. It's probably true, but I think that in this space, you know for new entrants and real innovation, though there are some serious credentialing questions in addition to public acceptance and regulatory approvals of these sort of these new modes and approaches. So we really have a lot of work to do in this regard to open the space further.

DR: Well, my experience has been with conferences this year that everything going online with conferences and, for example, I attended a conference that had over 7000 attendees when they normally would have had maybe two or t at three thousand at most. So there is that certain exposure that more people have access to it but it is like what you're saying that the real types of things happen outside of that conference itself when you're having coffee with somebody when you're having lunch. So those seem to be in education those learning experiences that we have. I'm curious, what schools have you seen doing this well, in responding to COVID and adapting to online but still trying to maintain a culture?

JM: I really don't know yet. I think we have to see who's really been leading that I, I think that at the end of this we're going to come together and be able to reflect back and see who had really great experiences. I think there have been some, some more open, conferences, I'm seeing more workshops and stuff and more opportunities in those area that, as you said are attracting more people, but as to what works and what doesn't work and the sort of outputs that we get out of it, it'd be curious to, to see how we reflect on things. I think that people who are traditionally disadvantaged by the system are probably still disadvantaged, worried about academic output, where that's going, and especially academic output by women who are under greater pressure than anybody else during this crisis.

DR: Well going forward and after COVID looking back, going back to campuses, how do you think things will change. Do we need schools, the same way that we have in the past?

JM: That's a good question, and since none of us have really been to the future yet, we really don't know, but I think we could start getting an idea of what the answer might be if we get down to the basics and really start asking, so what are we educating for, why do we do it, for whom do our education services or systems serve? If we were to ask these questions around purpose to somebody, and this really expands to or extends to all levels of education, that person's likely to respond the way that they were told in school, what it’s about or were taught to respond to the question of so what is education for, such as building good citizens. A couple of years ago, I really wanted to get some insight into what people really thought about what we've been taught to believe it versus what they really feel in their hearts, what is the purpose of education, so I conducted a small survey exercise and reached out to my LinkedIn contacts and others in my network so it's horrible methodology is it has no, no real scientific validity on that, everything was done at arm's reach, but I was really surprised to see real, great diversity and geography, and also the backgrounds of people that provided responses and they were really candid, some that were like really thoughtful. My big question to them was, so does a future need schools? And, yes or no and that was it, just one required question and then there are two more questions, which is why or why not, which is optional, and the other one is asked so ‘What's your occupation?’’ or ‘What's your background?’, and I was really astonished to find that 98% of my 164 respondents had something more to say on this than just yes or no. And they wrote back volumes, and they were just really feeding back. In other words, what schools are for whether if they needed them or not. And so these included areas around socialisation, how are we gonna learn to socialise with each other, unless if we have these formal spaces, or providing a space just for learning, having structures for learning, that, that people need structures to learn, providing opportunities to learn together so that we can transfer knowledge of providing foundations, that you otherwise wouldn't get at home, because it's good to get out the house to learn, and in some people even talk about social economic liberation, and of course I think that, I think it's important to point out that quite a few respondents believe that schools are really obsolete or oppressive, right, and primary and secondary level and structures, represented a significant proportion of this group, and that really surprised me that the teachers themselves were the were the ones that, at least in this non scientific study, they're the ones to say that something really needed to change. And another interesting thing was that you’d think that having this sort of open question thing like do we need schools or not, would invite a lot of sarcasm or sarcastic responses right, but only five of the 164 came back within a sort of level of sarcasm. And I believe that 43% of them called for a need to change or evolve learning, or, and some even offered some pathways forward.

DR: So what sort of things did they offer. I'm just really curious about some of the feedback that you got.

JM: Quite a few people talk about democratic education, informal, non-formal approaches were highlighted, we had a few, ‘connecting with nature better’ doing more to connect with nature and more social experiences within nature. Yeah, those were some of them.

DR: Could you tell me about your book Emerging Education Futures?

JM: Right so Emerging Education Futures, is constructed as a snapshot of where we are, where our thinking is on, on the future of education, but I wanted to connect as much on the practitioner side, as well as people who are really doing some thinking on this, and it was really just an open call for it. So a little study thing or informal study that I just talked about a bit. We've got a write up in there, and you get the book at your favorite bookstore if you order it or an Amazon, but it's also a free download at education, or if you can't find it, you just email me at [email protected], I'm happy to send you a copy, it's just a it's just a nice way to present a snapshot of where we were and are thinking.

DR: Well what is some of the research that stuck out to you, in this collection?

JM: To be honest, I think that what really stuck out to me was the sense that we're not thinking too creatively about the future, quite yet, that we're talking about, about educational contexts that are more or less static that we're pretty much just rearranging things around, or looking at using technologies and ways, but not really making huge changes, and I think that for me, the one thing I got out of that book process is that it just really highlighted how hard it is for us to imagine education futures that are any different.

DR: Well, talking so much about the future, how are students having to adapt, and educators as well what skills do you think that they need?

JM: Well I think that one of the key challenges for education, is that the world is changing so quickly that schools and universities are just simply having a hard time keeping up. Yeah, in essence, we're really entering an era where graduates are already obsolete by the time that they graduate in so many fields. And there's been so much talk about the soft skills or the 21st century skills, and I strongly agree that's where we need to prioritise our focus and education. If you don't have the hard knowledge necessary to land you a job in the rapidly evolving landscape of your field, maybe at least you've got the soft skills to survive a job interview. And these could include some very basic things like being a nice person. And also, more complicated things like entrepreneurship, intercultural competence, computational thinking. And I think that this is more than just learning how to behave, and learning how to think but also creating a continuous practice of learning, like learning how to learn. And these are really hard to teach in formal education, and also hard to measure, experiential non-formal, informal approaches, sometimes we learn serendipitously, can be very meaningful, but we just haven't placed the same value on them over formal instruction. So, I really think that this is something that needs to change. And I really view it as the responsibility of educational administrators to just enable these opportunities. It's a student's responsibility however to maximise them and develop these skills and make use of them in their lives.

DR: Yeah, we keep talking about the future I'm curious. I'd also like to know what key aspects of schooling and education do you think need to change?

JM: You know, I think that's a really loaded question, I think we could spend forever, discussing and debating it, but at the end of the day, I really think that it just comes down to power, it's all about power, are we educating for the benefit of students, are we educating for the benefit somebody else. So think that, how do we talk about this or alluded to a little bit earlier, today's students are afforded low agency. And what I mean by that is that agency is being allowed to do what they want to do. And it's simply a wonder that some of them are able to operate with a high level of self-efficacy, that's, you know, believing themselves that they can learn and do the stuff anyways. The future is built around nomadic jobs and roles, it's not static, we don't need any sort of packaged brains anymore. And the problem is, we want people who are creative, we want people with individual level talent, we want people who are curious. We want people who dream. We need people who can take on the jobs and roles that software and robots cannot replicate, that's where the jobs are. That's what the future is. And you asked earlier about democratising education. And I think that if we’re to democratise, we really need to attend to student’s agency and self-efficacy, right. It's the intersection high levels of both that I think are going to really achieve a sort of sense of Nirvana, right, and this is going to really require a rethinking of schooling, and like this gets to a second point here that I touched on a little bit earlier, there's just very little imagination, on what teaching and learning could be apart from what we currently practice. Schools made with boxes, you know they're boxes with kids in classrooms, they're separated by age and desks, they operate from 7:45am to 2:37pm  with a teacher with absolute authority and supposedly knowledge, these are all holdovers from the industrial era. And so today we really fool ourselves into thinking that we're disrupting the model by replacing desks with round tables or bouncy balls, substituting blackboards for Smart Boards, replacing university lecture halls with with Moodle, we're just not changing anything. We're just simply re mixing the same old stuff, and presenting it in almost exact same way. And when you consider just how obsolete things really are, we are truly rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and this is a hard mentality to to get over because a school is a school, it's just so ingrained in our minds, it's so ingrained in our cultures that we simply cannot imagine anything different

DR: That is funny, you know, I taught for several years for, a decade at Vanderbilt and, you know, there was always a push to use more technology in the class, and there were times where I'm using PowerPoints and things like that but I always kept coming back to using the chalkboard.

JM: Right, Yeah, use what works, and if you're using PowerPoint to replace the chalkboard it's just expensive chalkboard is what it turns into.

DR: That's what it ends up being and that's how I felt about it.

JM: You got to really think about, think differently and this is, it's a problem for all of us, we've got a real problem imagining anything different, schools of the future that we imagine like in science fiction or speculative fiction I think they are great sources for ideas, we could do amazing things, we could travel through space or time, engineer all sorts of wonderful things but whenever when we depict schools in these things, they all look the exact same thing, they do now like school if you're watching Star Trek looks like a school, it's recognisable within a fraction of a second, even the book Ender's Game, which is a book about schools. The school looks really no different than it does today. So maybe some elements are upgraded or switched around, but a school is still recognisably a school. The reality is that the elephant in the room is that we have a crisis of imagination here, we just cannot imagine education futures that are any different.

DR: Well what about pedagogy itself, I'm just curious about other colleagues that you might be working with through your center that other aspects of pedagogy, they might be exploring and how that might be adapting to the future as well.

JM: For people I work with in my network I think that the most interesting work, if we're talking about pedagogy, at all levels whether working with kids or working with adults, it's really been looking at the Democratic schools, and, and how they function. And I've really been somewhat obsessed by the Sudbury type schools, because they still make no sense to me because they break out of my imagination of what schools are supposed to be just a little bit they push me enough I'm like, how could that possibly happen. And these are schools that embrace democratic behavior at their core, and they provide each students an equal voice, and an equal vote among staff members and other stakeholders as to what they learn, how their schools are run, students spend time together without age or grade separation, and they decide how to spend their time at the school. So let's talk about agency, this is an approach for high agency. Right? But there are also checks and balances and they're so like central to the school's operation or school meetings, and those students and staff members make key decisions in a process that's focused on participatory democracy. Everybody's got an equal vote. So in these schools, students are afforded tremendous freedoms together, their personal and really a collective responsibility to make the best decisions possible.

21:55 DR: Actually you know I'm like if you could tell me a little bit about your journal the work that you do on your journal.

JM: Yeah so, On the Horizon, it's an international journal, it's been in existence for nearly 30 years, and it explores the issues that drive new futures for learning and possibilities for human development. So it's not just a journal for a futurist but it's really a journal for anybody who's interested in the future of education or innovation and and human development, it's looking at foresight, looking into the roles of technology that it has, we're looking at interplay with societies as well, it kind of like the social, economic, environmental and cultural needs as well as policies and practices that need to take place. And as we need to get creative about education or think creatively, also looking to non formal and informal type of approaches as well.

22: 52 DR: Who's your readership, are these mostly professors that are also teaching, that are involved in education.

JM: I am so happy you asked that, it is largely an academic readership, but really pushing to, to make this more accessible to practitioners, that's one of the things I like about about working at Emerald on this stuff, going through the structured abstract, I think allows for more practical applications, but there are practitioner experiences out there that I hope that we can capture a whole lot more. As we move forward with this journal.

DR: Great, well thank you so much for joining me today.

JM: Yeah, thank you for talking to me today.

DR: Thank you for listening to today's episode. You can find a transcript of this show as well as more information about John Moravec. I'd like to thank Sanna Zahoor for her help with the show, and Alex Jungius of This is Distorted.