The future of education – A course in futures thinking

Funny how these opportunities can present themselves sometimes. I had cleared my year to focus on some writing and, in the span of 3 days, had taken on the teaching of three courses (well… i’m teaching one of them twice). The course I’m going to be teaching twice, once f2f in Singapore next month and as an open course with George Siemens starting in mid-April, is about the future of education. It’s a strange path for me, in a sense, as I’ve always been a little wary of true prognosticating, and normally stick to my silly top ten list every year. The course description got me thinking though… and made me realize that I’ve been doing this all along, I just hadn’t called it by this name.

What is the next wave of technological change? What can educators do to prepare and anticipate trends? Using a method called “future thinking,” this course will look at a variety of trends and provide a series of potential scenarios and future directions. Participants will be actively involved in tracking critical trends, exploring their educational impact, and plan for ways to prepare for important changes. (written by George Siemens as part of emergent tech certificate at umanitoba)

I’ve been mulling over an approach for a while now, but have decided that its time to start firming things up for a course that starts its pre-amble in two weeks. I struggled with it, as it seemed to be a bit presumptuous to claim to be able to prepare people for the future. I started doing some reading… and started grounding the ideas into something a bit more practical… and now have an outline that I’d like some feedback on if you’ve a mind.

(This sketch is for the 5 day intensive course – heavily simplified for discussion purposes… there’s no way the days will be this discrete)
The hope for this course is to bring some structure to strategic thinking around the next 10-15 years of higher education when seen through the lens of the impact of technology. It is not intended as a ‘prediction’ of the future, but rather as sharpening the skills for thinking about the future, finding ways to be prepared for possible futures, and making a best effort to avoid the pitfalls of biased thinking. We’ll take a look at a specific context (in this case the participants in Singapore) and get a sense of existing challenges, thoughts, hopes etc… We’ll move on to talking about decision making and trends. And then finish out the course by some exploratory and then normative forecasting.

Day 1 – Context building
Maybe the key to most learning, but certain essential to talking about the future is to establish a clear sense of the context in which we are discussing things. The difference between looking out over 5 years or 20 years, for instance, could change the focus entirely from a close attention to recent trends to casual blue sky thinking about future tech. I’m also very much hoping to get the participants considering where they work, how their institution fits into the marketplace, where there teaching is, where they hope it will go, what their students are like… Essentially create a picture of who and where they are. For this course, we’ll be doing this part online, starting a week or two before I head over. That’ll give us a chance to get to know each other, as well as allow me to do some last minute research to fill in specific context gaps in the materials we’ll be covering

I also hope that this will be a day of research as well. I’d like to see the participants pulling together info/data regarding their context. Everything from the number of students they may have, what their class size has looked like, access to technologies… whatever they consider important in terms of impact on their context. A good time, perhaps, to also list people’s resources (communities, experience, training opportunities) in order to get a better sense of what options may be available. We’re creating food to feast on over the upcoming days.

Day 2 – Decision Making
This is a day for reflecting on the process of decision making. Some of this will be premised on Gary Klein’s work… as well as things gathered from other locals. One of the frustrations for me in teaching a course that is this intensive, is that I’m wary of trying to get the students to find too much of the content. My preference is the ‘community as curriculum’ route, but given the timeframe, it’ll be tough for them to get the research in. Maybe a combination of both, it’ll depend on the make up of the students.

We’ll be talking about stories of decisions that people make, looking at article like this one by Noah Raford. He talks about a variety of ways in which bias affect group decision making which will be familiar to people who have… uh… been in groups. The ‘tyranny of the past’ ‘expectation bias’ ‘perils of too narrow thinking’ etc… all things that are useful to keep in mind when thinking about the impact of tech in education. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw examples of these out of the students as well, and get a discussion going on how people make these kinds of decisions in the education space.

I should also note that we’ll be covering technologies for communicating as a matter of course. These students are nearing the end of their work in the Emerging Technologies certificate at the university of manitoba, so they will already be familiar with a number of the technologies and have used them in practical ways before we begin.

Day 3 – Trends
We’re all familiar with the major trend publications that get released every year in our field (like, say, the horizon report). There are number of other trend watching websites, companies, and consultants who are willing to go on record on what they think we will be getting to in the future. The advantage of futures thinking and scenario planning for the kind of forcasting that we’re doing is that we don’t need to ‘agree’ or ‘decide’ to choose any of the trends that we find. We need the trends as more fuel for the scenario planning, to create relevant possibilities and think about how one would adapt to those.

If we, for instance, accept that the trend towards mobility in education is inevitable, there are a number of possibilities that can result from it. (decentralization of education, or the instructor, more collaboration) These might find their way into two or three different scenarios, but as we break down the trends into manageable pieces we might find that in each case having educators use a mobile device (maybe with a document management system supported by the university to support courses) gives the educators the literacies they need to adapt to any possible future examined as part of the process. Maybe not a very strong example, but i’m also not trying to seed the exploration process either. The point is that the trend need not be a simple “mobile good, must buy iphones” but rather a search for solutions to multiple possibilities.

Day 4 – exploratory scenarios
Given our context, decision making and trends we are ready to dive into the scenarios in earnest. The first of the two ‘kinds’ of scenarios will be the exploratory ones. These take a look at the possible futures for our context, not including what we’d like them to be, but rather what they might be. I don’t whole heartedly agree with this list, but it is a good example of the kind of thing that one might end up with. A series of six possible futures for education (in this case, not specifically mapped to tech) spanning the gamut from ‘business as usual’ to ‘system meltdown’. Imagine each of six teams developing a scenario and then playing it out for the rest of the members of the class. The respondents would then draw on their own research, scenarios (and work from first three days) to refine the scenario, critique possible conclusions and explore ways to mitigate problems and encourage advantages.

Day 5 – normative scenarios
This is the opposite side of the coin. In this case you imagine the future you would like to see and talk about ways to reach it. What future of education would you want to live in… how would the technology get you there. What would get in the way. etc…

I’ve left a bunch out… but this is the basic sketch of what i’m going to do (i think) I’m still mulling over the decision about whether to use the jargon terms or not for instance. Anyway. your feedback muchly appreciated.

note: i should add that much of the better content in this post came from george siemens’ suggestions in our discussion around this topic, the original course description is his.

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

22 thoughts on “The future of education – A course in futures thinking”

  1. Envy the opportunity to teach a course like this, don’t envy the intensive part though.

    Like the focus on context building and reflecting on the problems around decision making.

    When looking at the trends stuff. Might be useful to have some trends reports from 10/15 years ago to use as a reality check on this sort of process and also to illustrate some of the prediction/decision making problems you talk about in prior sessions. If you could draw on Singaporean predictions from 10/15 years ago you could probably link it to context as well.

    My only other suggestion – and a bit of a hobby horse – would be to work in discussion of different types of process. Too many folk don’t realise that there are alternatives to strategic planning etc and that strategic planning type processes have inherent flaws. Not to mention that there is a huge body of literature talking about this.

    The table on this page points to some of the literature

  2. Hey, Dave! Sounds like a really good course… I wish I could be there!

    Coupla thoughts:

    Might be interesting to end Day 5 with an “action planning” bit where they try to situate the work of the past 4 days in a “what am I going to do Monday” (or next week/month) to kick the process off.

    You could do something with obstacles/enablers… things that might get in the way of the vision of ed. and things that would support it. For example, where does Singapore sit in the global community among political/social/economic forces?

    Might be interesting to have students generate an overview of education today on the first day, then go back to it to reflect/revise on the last.

    WRT jargon… unless it’s current in what the students will encounter after the course, leave it. Too often jargon just glosses over clear and effective use of plain English (or whatever language). On the other hand, sometimes it helps us reach concepts that have not been expressed before…

    Minor things, all of them. Have fun!

  3. i like Sandy’s idea of ending w/action planning…some opportunity to break things down to the tangible immediate future (as part of a larger vision) – lets people leave feeling they’ve gotten something they can clearly articulate out of it, but with that clarity part of the larger picture the class constructs during the week.

    it also might be helpful to spend some of the context-building conversation during the intro period having people identify their current roles in their classrooms, and what part technologies play in those classes, for teacher and students. not just to identify literacies but also the intangibles about how they perceive what their classroom is for and what learners are free/encouraged to do in it. because those are things that will be changing for many of us over the next 5 yrs, let alone 15: can we scaffold lateral learning/daydreaming/contribution activities for our students sitting in class with laptops and iphones ready to go, instead of just assuming half of them are on facebook?

  4. Only 5 days? Too bad, if you had 7 you might be able to invent heaven and earth 😉

    Can you talk about the future w/o understanding the past? Not necessarily in terms of the innovations, inventions, but the ideas that got us to this stage.

    And what about roles in making the future? People will enter with their own eye view as teacher, administrator, techie, etc- it would seem necessary for them, maybe in scenarios, to appreciate the drivers on decision makers and the ways (or as someone mentions above, the processes) the future happens.

    For exercise, it might also be using or looking at the market-based simulations for ed tech futures that Bryan Alexander is running for NITLE

    Good luck, 5 days. Can you invent wings for humans?

  5. Dave:

    Too supplement my tweet:

    1) If they know what you’re presenting, then the things that can be accomplished during the days increase. We have been trying to divide learning into procedure and technique as we prep our course creation, and this may be along a similar line?

    2) Managing the information that comes in and what you’ll discuss will probably be pretty huge. I imagine with that many participants you’ll end up with tons of data.

    Create data clouds so that people’s ideas can easily be thrown together/apart to be discussed instead of using f2f time for that

    3) A collaborative doc to write out what/ why you’ll cover in the f2f time?

    I know this may get out of hand, but as a good facilitator(s) it shouldn’t be too hard, right? I mean, if anyone(s) can do it, you and GS can, yes?


  6. Hi,
    sounds good — I was in a course recently that used “The Future of Higher Education: a Scenario Evaluation of Its Prospects and Challenges” by Avila and Leger for something similar to your action planning exercise. you might want to check it out…


  7. Hi Dave,

    Sounds like a fantastic class. Let us know how it goes. I’m glad that you got some value out of my white paper on cognitive bias and scenarios.

    You and your readers might be interested in a small experiment I’ve got running on crowdsourced approaches to scenario planning. It’s still quite basic, but you can check out and contribute to the project below.

    MIT experiment in crowdsourced scenario planning

    Thanks again and good luck!

  8. I think this sounds like an exciting idea! However, I’m not sure it’s a particularly productive line of thought. Even people in the industry are notoriously bad at predicting future technological trends. Educators can try, but I’m now sure how far we’ll get.

    I think taking a serious look at current trends and technologies can be worthwhile, but only if we look at how current technology is actually being implemented in schools (both mainstream and alternative forms). Then we can analyze how (or whether) specific uses benefit student learning, see how they change teacher-student and student-student relationships, and why some technologies have gained more traction than others. I think those questions are more practical to ask, not only in terms of our ability to answer them, but also in terms of the applicability of our answers.

    I apologize if I’ve misread or if I’m just missing something. That’s certainly possible! I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on this.

  9. Sounds like a great class and definitely a popular topic these days (at least in the U.S.). In my research on the use of technology for learning in both workplace learning and education, the biggest obstacle appears to be the culture change that needs to occur in the organization for successful technology integration.

    We hear so much about the great benefits of technology but there is alot of fear around these tools and the effect they will have on people’s careers and lifestyles. In his book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicts human and technology will be merging very soon in some form. I don’t anticipate Cylons emerging in the next few decades, but the thought of it sets off many emotions.

    Change is an important topic in this area. I’d have the students look for best practices or case studies on the successful integration of technology in education (internationally) and discuss the change component.

    I also love Chris Dede’s article, “Neomillennial” Learning Styles: Implications for Investments in Technology-, which gives a great overview on how the learning styles of the current and future generations require new educational approaches.

  10. Hiya Dave.

    I have a radical idea for you. What if you flipped the whole thing on its head and ran at least 3 of the 5 days as a Scenario Planning exercise (See the GBN folks – I mean a specific process here), then use the last 2 days for reflection, synthesis and planning. Upend the traditional analytical approach.

    (Btw, the striped background on the blog on my screen is a bit vertigo inducing… why not all blue? Be kind to migraine prone people!)

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