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15 Years Into The Future And On Essays

1 Geopolitics: 'Rivals will take greater risks against the US'

No balance of power lasts forever. Just a century ago, London was the centre of the world. Britain bestrode the world like a colossus and only those with strong nerves (or weak judgment) dared challenge the Pax Britannica.

That, of course, is all history, but the Pax Americana that has taken shape since 1989 is just as vulnerable to historical change. In the 1910s, the rising power and wealth of Germany and America splintered the Pax Britannica; in the 2010s, east Asia will do the same to the Pax Americana.

The 21st century will see technological change on an astonishing scale. It may even transform what it means to be human. But in the short term – the next 20 years – the world will still be dominated by the doings of nation-states and the central issue will be the rise of the east.

By 2030, the world will be more complicated, divided between a broad American sphere of influence in Europe, the Middle East and south Asia, and a Chinese sphere in east Asia and Africa. Even within its own sphere, the US will face new challenges from former peripheries. The large, educated populations of Poland, Turkey, Brazil and their neighbours will come into their own and Russia will continue its revival.

Nevertheless, America will probably remain the world's major power. The critics who wrote off the US during the depression of the 1930s and the stagflation of the 1970s lived to see it bounce back to defeat the Nazis in the 1940s and the Soviets in the 1980s. America's financial problems will surely deepen through the 2010s, but the 2020s could bring another Roosevelt or Reagan.

A hundred years ago, as Britain's dominance eroded, rivals, particularly Germany, were emboldened to take ever-greater risks. The same will happen as American power erodes in the 2010s-20s. In 1999, for instance, Russia would never have dared attack a neighbour such as Georgia but in 2009 it took just such a chance.

The danger of such an adventure sparking a great power war in the 2010s is probably low; in the 2020s, it will be much greater.

The most serious threats will arise in the vortex of instability that stretches from Africa to central Asia. Most of the world's poorest people live here; climate change is wreaking its worst damage here; nuclear weapons are proliferating fastest here; and even in 2030, the great powers will still seek much of their energy here.

Here, the risk of Sino-American conflict will be greatest and here the balance of power will be decided.

Ian Morris, professor of history at Stanford University and the author of Why the West Rules – For Now (Profile Books)

2 The UK economy: 'The popular revolt against bankers will become impossible to resist'

It will be a second financial crisis in the 2010s – probably sooner than later – that will prove to be the remaking of Britain. Confronted by a second trillion-pound bank bailout in less than 10 years, it will be impossible for the City and wider banking system to resist reform. The popular revolt against bankers, their current business model in which neglect of the real economy is embedded and the scale of their bonuses – all to be underwritten by bailouts from taxpayers – will become irresistible. The consequent rebalancing of the British economy, already underway, will intensify. Britain, in thrall to finance since 1945, will break free – spearheading a second Industrial Revolution.

In 2035, there is thus a good prospect that Britain will be the most populous (our birth rate will be one the highest in Europe), dynamic and richest European country, the key state in a reconfigured EU. Our leading universities will become powerhouses of innovation, world centres in exploiting the approaching avalanche of scientific and technological breakthroughs. A reformed financial system will allow British entrepreneurs to get the committed financial backing they need, becoming the capitalist leaders in Europe. And, after a century of trying, Britain will at last build itself a system for developing apprentices and technicians that is no longer the Cinderella of the education system.

It will not be plain sailing. Massive political turbulence in China and its conflict with the US will define part of the next 25 years – and there will be a period when the world trading and financial system retreats from openness.

How far beggar-my-neighbour competitive devaluations and protection will develop is hard to predict, but protectionist trends are there for all to see. Commodity prices will go much higher and there will be shortages of key minerals, energy, water and some basic foodstuffs.

The paradox is that this will be good news for Britain. It will force the state to re-engage with the economy and to build a matrix of institutions that will support innovation and investment, rather as it did between 1931 and 1950. New Labour began this process tremulously in its last year in office; the coalition government is following through. These will be lean years for the traditional Conservative right, but whether it will be a liberal One Nation Tory party, ongoing coalition governments or the Labour party that will be the political beneficiary is not yet sure.

The key point is that those 20 years in the middle of the 20th century witnessed great industrial creativity and an unsung economic renaissance until the country fell progressively under the stultifying grip of the City of London. My guess is that the same, against a similarly turbulent global background, is about to happen again. My caveat is if the City remains strong, in which case economic decline and social division will escalate.

Will Hutton, executive vice-chair of the Work Foundation and an Observer columnist

3 Global development: 'A vaccine will rid the world of Aids'

Within 25 years, the world will achieve many major successes in tackling the diseases of the poor.

Certainly, we will be polio-free and probably will have been for more than a decade. The fight to eradicate polio represents one of the greatest achievements in global health to date. It has mobilised millions of volunteers, staged mass immunisation campaigns and helped to strengthen the health systems of low-income countries. Today, we have eliminated 99% of the polio in the world and eradication is well within reach.

Vaccines that prevent diseases such as measles and rotavirus, currently available in rich countries, will also become affordable and readily available in developing countries. Since it was founded 10 years ago, the Gavi Alliance, a global partnership that funds expanded immunisation in poor countries, has helped prevent more than 5 million deaths. It is easy to imagine that in 25 years this work will have been expanded to save millions more lives by making life-saving vaccines available all over the world.

I also expect to see major strides in new areas. A rapid point-of-care diagnostic test – coupled with a faster-acting treatment regimen – will so fundamentally change the way we treat tuberculosis that we can begin planning an elimination campaign.

We will eradicate malaria, I believe, to the point where there are no human cases reported globally in 2035. We will also have effective means for preventing Aids infection, including a vaccine. With the encouraging results of the RV144 Aids vaccine trial in Thailand, we now know that an Aids vaccine is possible. We must build on these and promising results on other means of preventing HIV infection to help rid the world of the threat of Aids.

Tachi Yamada, president of the global health programme at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

4 Energy: 'Returning to a world that relies on muscle power is not an option'

Providing sufficient food, water and energy to allow everyone to lead decent lives is an enormous challenge. Energy is a means, not an end, but a necessary means. With 6.7 billion people on the planet, more than 50% living in large conurbations, and these numbers expected to rise to more than 9 billion and 80% later in the century, returning to a world that relies on human and animal muscle power is not an option.

The challenge is to provide sufficient energy while reducing reliance on fossil fuels, which today supply 80% of our energy (in decreasing order of importance, the rest comes from burning biomass and waste, hydro, nuclear and, finally, other renewables, which together contribute less than 1%). Reducing use of fossil fuels is necessary both to avoid serious climate change and in anticipation of a time when scarcity makes them prohibitively expensive.

It will be extremely difficult. An International Energy Agency scenario that assumes the implementation of all agreed national policies and announced commitments to save energy and reduce the use of fossil fuels projects a 35% increase in energy consumption in the next 25 years, with fossil fuels up 24%. This is almost entirely due to consumption in developing countries where living standards are, happily, rising and the population is increasing rapidly.

This scenario, which assumes major increases in nuclear, hydro and wind power, evidently does not go far enough and will break down if, as many expect, oil production (which is assumed to increase 15%) peaks in much less than 25 years. We need to go much further in reducing demand, through better design and changes in lifestyles, increasing efficiency and improving and deploying all viable alternative energy sources. It won't be cheap. And in the post-fossil-fuel era it won't be sufficient without major contributions from solar energy (necessitating cost reductions and improved energy storage and transmission) and/or nuclear fission (meaning fast breeder and/or thorium reactors when uranium eventually becomes scarce) and/or fusion (which is enormously attractive in principle but won't become a reliable source of energy until at least the middle of the century).

Disappointingly, with the present rate of investment in developing and deploying new energy sources, the world will still be powered mainly by fossil fuels in 25 years and will not be prepared to do without them.

Chris Llewellyn Smith is a former director general of Cern and chair of Iter, the world fusion project, he works on energy issues at Oxford University

5 Advertising: 'All sorts of things will just be sold in plain packages'

If I'd been writing this five years ago, it would have been all about technology: the internet, the fragmentation of media, mobile phones, social tools allowing consumers to regain power at the expense of corporations, all that sort of stuff. And all these things are important and will change how advertising works.

But it's becoming clear that what'll really change advertising will be how we relate to it and what we're prepared to let it do. After all, when you look at advertising from the past the basic techniques haven't changed; what seems startlingly alien are the attitudes it was acceptable to portray and the products you were allowed to advertise.

In 25 years, I bet there'll be many products we'll be allowed to buy but not see advertised – the things the government will decide we shouldn't be consuming because of their impact on healthcare costs or the environment but that they can't muster the political will to ban outright. So, we'll end up with all sorts of products in plain packaging with the product name in a generic typeface – as the government is currently discussing for cigarettes.

But it won't stop there. We'll also be nudged into renegotiating the relationship between society and advertising, because over the next few years we're going to be interrupted by advertising like never before. Video screens are getting so cheap and disposable that they'll be plastered everywhere we go. And they'll have enough intelligence and connectivity that they'll see our faces, do a quick search on Facebook to find out who we are and direct a message at us based on our purchasing history.

At least, that'll be the idea. It probably won't work very well and when it does work it'll probably drive us mad. Marketing geniuses are working on this stuff right now, but not all of them recognise that being allowed to do this kind of thing depends on societal consent – push the intrusion too far and people will push back.

Society once did a deal accepting advertising because it seemed occasionally useful and interesting and because it paid for lots of journalism and entertainment. It's not necessarily going to pay for those things for much longer so we might start questioning whether we want to live in a Blade Runner world brought to us by Cillit Bang.

Russell Davies, head of planning at the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather and a columnist for the magazines Campaign and Wired

6 Neuroscience: 'We'll be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex'

By 2030, we are likely to have developed no-frills brain-machine interfaces, allowing the paralysed to dance in their thought-controlled exoskeleton suits. I sincerely hope we will not still be interfacing with computers via keyboards, one forlorn letter at a time.

I'd like to imagine we'll have robots to do our bidding. But I predicted that 20 years ago, when I was a sanguine boy leaving Star Wars, and the smartest robot we have now is the Roomba vacuum cleaner. So I won't be surprised if I'm wrong in another 25 years. Artificial intelligence has proved itself an unexpectedly difficult problem.

Maybe we will understand what's happening when we immerse our heads into the colourful night blender of dreams. We will have cracked the secret of human memory by realising that it was never about storing things, but about the relationships between things.

Will we have reached the singularity – the point at which computers surpass human intelligence and perhaps give us our comeuppance? We'll probably be able to plug information streams directly into the cortex for those who want it badly enough to risk the surgery. There will be smart drugs to enhance learning and memory and a flourishing black market among ambitious students to obtain them.

Having lain to rest the nature-nurture dichotomy at that point, we will have a molecular understanding of the way in which cultural narratives work their way into brain tissue and of individual susceptibility to those stories.

Then there's the mystery of consciousness. Will we finally have a framework that allows us to translate the mechanical pieces and parts into private, subjective experience? As it stands now, we don't even know what such a framework could look like ("carry the two here and that equals the experience of tasting cinnamon").

That line of research will lead us to confront the question of whether we can reproduce consciousness by replicating the exact structure of the brain – say, with zeros and ones, or beer cans and tennis balls. If this theory of materialism turns out to be correct, then we will be well on our way to downloading our brains into computers, allowing us to live forever in The Matrix.

But if materialism is incorrect, that would be equally interesting: perhaps brains are more like radios that receive an as-yet-undiscovered force. The one thing we can be sure of is this: no matter how wacky the predictions we make today, they will look tame in the strange light of the future.

David Eagleman, neuroscientist and writer

7 Physics: 'Within a decade, we'll know what dark matter is'

The next 25 years will see fundamental advances in our understanding of the underlying structure of matter and of the universe. At the moment, we have successful descriptions of both, but we have open questions. For example, why do particles of matter have mass and what is the dark matter that provides most of the matter in the universe?

I am optimistic that the answer to the mass question will be found within a few years, whether or not it is the mythical Higgs boson, and believe that the answer to the dark matter question will be found within a decade.

Key roles in answering these questions will be made by experiments at Cern's Large Hadron Collider, which started operations in earnest last year and is expected to run for most of the next 20 years; others will be played by astrophysical searches for dark matter and cosmological observations such as those from the European Space Agency's Planck satellite.

Many theoretical proposals for answering these questions invoke new principles in physics, such as the existence of additional dimensions of space or a "supersymmetry" between the constituents of matter and the forces between them, and we will discover whether these ideas are useful for physics. Both these ideas play roles in string theory, the best guess we have for a complete theory of all the fundamental forces including gravity.

Will string theory be pinned down within 20 years? My crystal ball is cloudy on this point, but I am sure that we physicists will have an exciting time trying to find out.

John Ellis, theoretical physicist at Cern and King's College London

8 Food: 'Russia will become a global food superpower'

When experts talk about the coming food security crisis, the date they fixate upon is 2030. By then, our numbers will be nudging 9 billion and we will need to be producing 50% more food than we are now.

By the middle of that decade, therefore, we will either all be starving, and fighting wars over resources, or our global food supply will have changed radically. The bitter reality is that it will probably be a mixture of both.

Developed countries such as the UK are likely, for the most part, to have attempted to pull up the drawbridge, increasing national production and reducing our reliance on imports.

In response to increasing prices, some of us may well have reduced our consumption of meat, the raising of which is a notoriously inefficient use of grain. This will probably create a food underclass, surviving on a carb- and fat-heavy diet, while those with money scarf the protein.

The developing world, meanwhile, will work to bridge the food gap by embracing the promise of biotechnology which the middle classes in the developed world will have assumed that they had the luxury to reject.

In truth, any of the imported grain that we do consume will come from genetically modified crops. As climate change lays waste to the productive fields of southern Europe and north Africa, more water-efficient strains of corn, wheat and barley will be pressed into service; likewise, to the north, Russia will become a global food superpower as the same climate change opens up the once frozen and massive Siberian prairie to food production.

The consensus now is that the planet does have the wherewithal to feed that huge number of people. It's just that some people in the west may find the methods used to do so unappetising.

Jay Rayner, TV presenter and the Observer's food critic

9 Nanotechnology: 'Privacy will be a quaint obsession'

Twenty years ago, Don Eigler, a scientist working for IBM in California, wrote out the logo of his employer in letters made of individual atoms. This feat was a graphic symbol of the potential of the new field of nanotechnology, which promises to rebuild matter atom by atom, molecule by molecule, and to give us unprecedented power over the material world.

Some, like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, predict that nanotechnology will lead to a revolution, allowing us to make any kind of product for virtually nothing; to have computers so powerful that they will surpass human intelligence; and to lead to a new kind of medicine on a sub-cellular level that will allow us to abolish ageing and death.

I don't think that Kurzweil's "technological singularity" – a dream of scientific transcendence that echoes older visions of religious apocalypse – will happen. Some stubborn physics stands between us and "the rapture of the nerds". But nanotechnology will lead to some genuinely transformative applications.

New ways of making solar cells very cheaply on a very large scale offer us the best hope we have for providing low-carbon energy on a big enough scale to satisfy the needs of a growing world population aspiring to the prosperity we're used to in the developed world.

We'll learn more about intervening in our biology at the sub-cellular level and this nano-medicine will give us new hope of overcoming really difficult and intractable diseases, such as Alzheimer's, that will increasingly afflict our population as it ages.

The information technology that drives your mobile phone or laptop is already operating at the nanoscale. Another 25 years of development will lead us to a new world of cheap and ubiquitous computing, in which privacy will be a quaint obsession of our grandparents.

Nanotechnology is a different type of science, respecting none of the conventional boundaries between disciplines and unashamedly focused on applications rather than fundamental understanding.

Given the huge resources being directed towards nanotechnology in China and its neighbours, this may also be the first major technology of the modern era that is predominantly developed outside the US and Europe.

Richard Jones, pro-vice-chancellor for research and innovation at the University of Sheffield

10 Gaming: 'We'll play games to solve problems'

In the last decade, in the US and Europe but particularly in south-east Asia, we have witnessed a flight into virtual worlds, with people playing games such as Second Life. But over the course of the next 25 years, that flight will be successfully reversed, not because we're going to spend less time playing games, but because games and virtual worlds are going to become more closely connected to reality.

There will be games where the action is influenced by what happens in reality; and there will be games that use sensors so that we can play them out in the real world – a game in which your avatar is your dog, which wears a game collar that measures how fast it's running and whether or not it's wagging its tail, for example, where you play with your dog to advance the narrative, as opposed to playing with a virtual character. I can imagine more physical activity games, too, and these might be used to harness energy – peripherals like a dance pad that actually captures energy from your dancing on top of it.

Then there will be problem-solving games: there are already a lot of games in which scientists try to teach gamers real science – how to build proteins to cure cancer, for example. One surprising trend in gaming is that gamers today prefer, on average, three to one to play co-operative games rather than competitive games. Now, this is really interesting; if you think about the history of games, there really weren't co-operative games until this latest generation of video games. In every game you can think of – card games, chess, sport – everybody plays to win. But now we'll see increasing collaboration, people playing games together to solve problems while they're enjoying themselves.

There are also studies on how games work on our minds and our cognitive capabilities, and a lot of science suggests you can use games to treat depression, anxiety and attention-deficit disorder. Making games that are both fun and serve a social purpose isn't easy – a lot of innovation will be required – but gaming will become increasingly integrated into society.

Jane McGonigal, director of games research & development at the Institute for the Future in California and author of Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Help Us Change the World (Penguin)

11 Web/internet: 'Quantum computing is the future'

The open web created by idealist geeks, hippies and academics, who believed in the free and generative flow of knowledge, is being overrun by a web that is safer, more controlled and commercial, created by problem-solving pragmatists.

Henry Ford worked out how to make money by making products people wanted to own and buy for themselves. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are working out how to make money from allowing people to share, on their terms.

Facebook and Apple are spawning cloud capitalism, in which consumers allow companies to manage information, media, ideas, money, software, tools and preferences on their behalf, holding everything in vast, floating clouds of shared data. We will be invited to trade invasions into our privacy – companies knowing ever more about our lives – for a more personalised service. We will be able to share, but on their terms.

Julian Assange and the movement that has been ignited by WikiLeaks is the most radical version of the alternative: a free, egalitarian, open and public web. The fate of this movement will be a sign of things to come. If it can command broad support, then the open web has a chance to remain a mainstream force. If, however, it becomes little more than a guerrilla campaign, then the open web could be pushed to the margins, along with national public radio.

By 2035, the web, as a single space largely made up of webpages accessed on computers, will be long gone.

As the web goes mobile, those who pay more will get faster access. We will be sharing videos, simulations, experiences and environments, on a multiplicity of devices to which we'll pay as much attention as a light switch.

Yet, many of the big changes of the next 25 years will come from unknowns working in their bedrooms and garages. And by 2035 we will be talking about the coming of quantum computing, which will take us beyond the world of binary, digital computing, on and off, black and white, 0s and 1s.

The small town of Waterloo, Ontario, which is home to the Perimeter Institute, funded by the founder of BlackBerry, currently houses the largest collection of theoretical physicists in the world.

The bedrooms of Waterloo are where the next web may well be made.

Charles Leadbeater, author and social entrepreneur

12 Fashion: 'Technology creates smarter clothes'

Fashion is such an important part of the way in which we communicate our identity to others, and for a very long time it's meant dress: the textile garments on our body. But in the coming decades, I think there'll be much more emphasis on other manifestations of fashion and different ways of communicating with each other, different ways of creating a sense of belonging and of making us feel great about ourselves.

We're already designing our identities online – manipulating imagery to tell a story about ourselves. Instead of meeting in the street or in a bar and having a conversation and looking at what each other is wearing, we're communicating in some depth through these new channels. With clothing, I think it's possible that we'll see a polarisation between items that are very practical and those that are very much about display – and maybe these are not things that you own but that you borrow or share.

Technology is already being used to create clothing that fits better and is smarter; it is able to transmit a degree of information back to you. This is partly driven by customer demand and the desire to know where clothing comes from – so we'll see tags on garments that tell you where every part of it was made, and some of this, I suspect, will be legislation-driven, too, for similar reasons, particularly as resources become scarcer and it becomes increasingly important to recognise water and carbon footprints.

However, it's not simply an issue of functionality. Fashion's gone through a big cycle in the last 25 years – from being something that was treasured and cherished to being something that felt disposable, because of a drop in prices. In fact, we've completely changed our relationship towards clothes and there's a real feeling among designers who I work with that they're trying to work back into their designs an element of emotional content.

I think there's definitely a place for technology in creating a dialogue with you through your clothes.

Dilys Williams, designer and the director for sustainable fashion at the London College of Fashion

13 Nature: 'We'll redefine the wild'

We all want to live in a world where species such as tigers, the great whales, orchids and coral reefs can persist and thrive and I am sure that the commitment that people have to maintaining the spectacle and diversity of life will continue. Over the past 50 years or so, there has been growing support for nature conservation. When we understand the causes of species losses, good conservation actions can and do reverse the trends.

But it is going to become much harder. The human population has roughly doubled since the 1960s and will increase by another third by 2030. Demands for food, water and energy will increase, inevitably in competition with other species. People already use up to 40% of the world's primary production (energy) and this must increase, with important consequences for nature.

In the UK, some familiar species will become scarcer as our rare habitats (mires, bogs and moorlands) are lost. We will be seeing the effects from gradual warming that will allow more continental species to live here, and in our towns and cities we'll probably have more species that have become adapted to living alongside people.

We can conserve species when we really try, so I'm confident that the charismatic mega fauna and flora will mostly still persist in 2035, but they will be increasingly restricted to highly managed and protected areas. The survivors will be those that cope well with people and those we care about enough to save. Increasingly, we won't be living as a part of nature but alongside it, and we'll have redefined what we mean by the wild and wilderness.

Crucially, we are still rapidly losing overall biodiversity, including soil micro-organisms, plankton in the oceans, pollinators and the remaining tropical and temperate forests. These underpin productive soils, clean water, climate regulation and disease-resistance. We take these vital services from biodiversity and ecosystems for granted, treat them recklessly and don't include them in any kind of national accounting.

Georgina Mace, professor of conservation science and director of the Natural Environment Research Council's Centre for Population Biology, Imperial College London

14 Architecture: What constitutes a 'city' will change

In 2035, most of humanity will live in favelas. This will not be entirely wonderful, as many people will live in very poor housing, but it will have its good side. It will mean that cities will consist of series of small units organised, at best, by the people who know what is best for themselves and, at worst, by local crime bosses.

Cities will be too big and complex for any single power to understand and manage them. They already are, in fact. The word "city" will lose some of its meaning: it will make less and less sense to describe agglomerations of tens of millions of people as if they were one place, with one identity. If current dreams of urban agriculture come true, the distinction between town and country will blur. Attempts at control won't be abandoned, however, meaning that strange bubbles of luxury will appear, like shopping malls and office parks. To be optimistic, the human genius for inventing social structures will mean that new forms of settlement we can't quite imagine will begin to emerge.

All this assumes that environmental catastrophe doesn't drive us into caves. Nor does it describe what will happen in Britain, with a roughly stable population and a planning policy dedicated to preserving the status quo as much as possible. Britain in 25 years' time may look much as it does now, which is not hugely different from 25 years ago. Rowan Moore, Observer architecture correspondent

15 Sport: 'Broadcasts will use holograms'

Globalisation in sport will continue: it's a trend we've seen by the choice of Rio for the 2016 Olympics and Qatar for the 2022 World Cup. This will mean changes to traditional sporting calendars in recognition of the demands of climate and time zones across the planet.

Sport will have to respond to new technologies, the speed at which we process information and apparent reductions in attention span. Shorter formats, such as Twenty20 cricket and rugby sevens, could aid the development of traditional sports in new territories.

The demands of TV will grow, as will technology's role in umpiring and consuming sport. Electronics companies are already planning broadcasts using live holograms. I don't think we'll see an acceptance of performance-enhancing drugs: the trend has been towards zero tolerance and long may it remain so.

Mike Lee, chairman of Vero Communications and ex-director of communications for London's 2012 Olympic bid

16 Transport: 'There will be more automated cars'

It's not difficult to predict how our transport infrastructure will look in 25 years' time – it can take decades to construct a high-speed rail line or a motorway, so we know now what's in store. But there will be radical changes in how we think about transport. The technology of information and communication networks is changing rapidly and internet and mobile developments are helping make our journeys more seamless. Queues at St Pancras station or Heathrow airport when the infrastructure can't cope for whatever reason should become a thing of the past, but these challenges, while they might appear trivial, are significant because it's not easy to organise large-scale information systems.

The instinct to travel is innate within us, but we will have to do it in a more carbon-efficient way. It's hard to be precise, but I think we'll be cycling and walking more; in crowded urban areas we may see travelators – which we see in airports already – and more scooters. There will be more automated cars, like the ones Google has recently been testing. These driverless cars will be safer, but when accidents do happen, they may be on the scale of airline disasters. Personal jetpacks will, I think, remain a niche choice.

Frank Kelly, professor of the mathematics of systems at Cambridge University, and former chief scientific adviser to the DfT

17 Health: 'We'll feel less healthy'

The pace of change is mandating that we produce a faster, smarter, better grade of human being. Current systems are preventing that from happening. Future education system will be unleashed with the advent of a standardized rapid courseware-builder and a single point global distribution system.

“Education is now the number one economic priority
in today’s global economy.”
– John Naisbitt, Author of Megatrends

The following is the result of a collaborative research study conducted by the DaVinci Institute, its members and associated research teams.

Introduction

——————————————————————————–

Within two years a radical shift will begin to occur in the world of education.

While many people are making predictions about the direction that education systems are headed, we have found the best predictors to be hidden in the participative viral systems springing to life in the online world, such as iTunes and Amazon. These bottom-up approaches are quick to develop, participant-driven systems that are closely aligned to the demands of the marketplace.

In this paper we will focus on the key missing elements that will cause the disruptive next generation education systems to emerge. These missing pieces will likely be created within the next two years through private funding and will cause a dramatic educational shift in less than five years.

The primary missing pieces are a standard architecture for an organic courseware module and the software necessary to build this courseware. The solution to these missing pieces will be a participative courseware-builder that allows the general public to create courses on any conceivable topic. We expect many companies will attempt to solve this problem, but the market will quickly gravitate towards the one it likes best.

Once the market begins to gravitate towards a favorite courseware-builder, a number of new systems will be developed to grow the courseware library, build integrity, make it universally distributed, archive results, and add functionality.

Lessons from the Ancient World

During the time of the ancient Greek civilization, several mathematicians became famous for their work. People like Archimedes, Pythagoras, Euclid, Hipparchus, Posidonius and Ptolemy all brought new elements of thinking to society, furthering the field of math, building on the earlier work of Babylonian and Egyptian mathematicians.

A few generations later the Romans became the dominant society on earth, and the one aspect of Roman society that was remarkably absent was the lack of Roman mathematicians. Rest assured, the scholarly members of Roman society came from a good gene pool and they were every bit as gifted and talented as the Greeks. But Roman society was being held hostage by its own systems. One of the primary culprits for the lack of Roman mathematicians was their numbering system – Roman numerals and its lack of numeric positioning.

While it’s easy for us today to look at Roman numerals and say that it was a pretty stupid numbering system, it was just one of many inferior numbering systems in ancient times. But the feature that made Roman numerals so bad was the fact that each number lacked specific numeric positioning and was in fact an equation, and this extra layer of complexity prevented people from doing higher math.

Roman numerals were a system problem, and a huge one at that. They prevented an entire civilization from furthering the field of math and science.

Romans were so immersed in their numbering system that they had no clue that it was preventing them from doing even rudimentary math such as adding a column of numbers or simple multiplication or division, a feat still handled by abacus. It also prevented them from creating some of the more sophisticated banking and accounting systems and restricted academia from moving forward in areas of science, astronomy, and medicine.

Ratchet forward to today. We live in a society where virtually everything is different from the days of the Roman Empire. But what seems so counterintuitive to most is that we are even more dependent today on our systems than the Romans ever were. Most of these systems we take for granted – systems for weights and measurement, accounting, banking, procurement, traffic management, and food labeling. With each of these systems we are much like the Romans, immersed in the use of these systems to a point where we seldom step back and question the reasoning and logic behind them.

Our systems govern virtually every aspect of our lives. They determine how we live and where we live, what we eat and where we work, where and when we travel, how much money we will make, the job we do, the friends we have, who we marry, and even how long we will live. But much like fish not understanding what water is, we seldom step back to fully understand the context of our existence.

As a starting point, one question we should be asking is, “What systems do we employ today that are the equivalent of Roman numerals, preventing us from doing great things?”

This simple question is very revealing. It has a way of opening a Pandora’s box full of friction points, inefficiencies, and flow restrictors that we contend with every day. Our systems are what control the flow of commerce, govern our effectiveness as members of society, and create much of the stress we face on a daily basis.

After studying American systems and applying this “equivalency to Roman numerals” test, it is easy to conclude that we, as a society, are operating at somewhere just between 5-10 percent efficiency, maybe less. The upside is huge.

So what are some examples of restrictive systems that are preventing us from doing great things? Here are just a few examples:

  • Income Tax System – The income tax system is currently the mother of all boat anchors, slowing commerce and the pace of business to a crawl. Currently somewhere in the neighborhood of 64,000 pages in length, the United States tax code in use today will stand as a shining example throughout history as one of the world’s most incomprehensible systems.
  • Half-Implemented Metric System – We are using a half-implemented metric system where we are purchasing cars with 3.2 liter engines and filling them with quarts of oil.
  • Keyboards – We use keyboards that were designed to slow the speed of typing by placing the most frequently used keys randomly across the face of the keyboard. Keyboards in any configuration are an extremely inefficient way to transfer knowledge from one person to another.
  • Laws – We now have more laws on the books in the United States than any country at any time in history. There aren’t even any good estimates as to the number of laws on the books in the United States. With each city, county, state, federal agency, and taxing district able to issue their own regulations, mandates, ordinances, rules, and law, we have created a legal snake pit of intertwined and overlapping rules that we are expected to live by.

Lest you think the United States is the only country with system problems, consider some of the major issues plaguing other countries:

  • Chinese Alphabet – The number of Chinese characters contained in the Kangxi dictionary is approximately 47,035, although a large number of these are rarely-used variants accumulated throughout history. Studies carried out in China have shown that full literacy requires knowledge of between three and four thousand characters.

So as you can see, we are a long way from optimizing the systems that govern our lives. The freedom that we value so highly in the United States is only a fraction of what it can be if we begin to seriously reinvent society one system at a time. And the system that we see as the highest leverage point for improving society is our education system.

Eight Driving Forces

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The following are eight key trends that are driving change in the world of education. These trends will eventually define the size, scope, and speed of the emerging new system along with the characteristics needed for a global-scale adoption.
As you read through the following trends, it is our hope that you will begin to feel the forces at play, gain a sense of the undercurrent of influencers, and begin to understand the dramatic changes that will be happening only a few short years ahead.

1.) Transition from Teaching to Learning

Education has traditionally consisted of the two fundamental elements of teaching and learning, with a heavy emphasis on teaching.

Throughout history, the transfer of information from the teacher to the learner has been done on a person-to-person basis. A teacher stands in front of a room and imparts the information for a student to learn. Because this approach requires the teacher to be an expert on every topic that they teach, this is referred to as the “sage on stage” form of education.

While lecture-style teaching has been used for centuries to build today’s literate and competent society, it ends up being a highly inefficient system, in many respects, the “equivalent of using Roman numerals.” For any new topic to be taught, a new expert needs to be created, and this universal need for more and more experts has become a serious chokepoint for learning.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at the example of a new topic that cannot be taught because the expert on this topic lives on the other side of the world. A teacher-dependent education system is also time-dependent, location-dependent, and situation-dependent. The teachers act as a control valve, turning on or off the flow of information.

The education system of the future will undergo a transition from a heavy emphasis on teaching to a heavy emphasis on learning. Experts will create the courseware and the students will learn anytime or anywhere at a pace that is comfortable for them, learning about topics that they are interested in.

In the future, teachers will transition from topic experts to a role in which they act more as guides and coaches.

2.) Exponential Growth of Information

During the time of Gutenberg, people tended to live and die within 20 miles of where they were born, not because they were afraid to travel, but because they had no reliable maps. People during this era had a very limited understanding of the world around them. The flow of information was controlled by just a few elite members of society, and they understood well the concept of knowledge equaling power.

We have gone from that time, just 500 years ago, where information was precious and few, to today, a time where information is so plentiful that we feel like we are drowning in it – information overload.

However, we still see many of the same “information control” issues permeating society today. Elite members of society still control the flow of information, perpetuating the notion that only doctors can understand medicine, only physicists can understand how the universe works, and only teachers know how to prepare us for the world to come.

There are many ways to talk about the rapid growth of information that we have experienced over the past few years. But it is important to pay attention to the changing dimensions of information as well as the sheer volume of it. Information is no longer just text-based, but graphical, musical, audio and visual.

Consider the following statistics

  • The number of songs available on iTunes – over 3.5 million.
  • The number of books on Amazon – over 4 million.
  • The number of blogs available online – over 60 million.
  • The number of entries on Wikipedia – over 4 million.
  • The number of user accounts on MySpace – over 100 million
  • The number of videos on YouTube – over 6.1 million

3.) Courseware Vacuum

After viewing the data above and thinking about the size and shape of information around the world, now consider the number of courses available, either online or in a classroom.

Information is exploding around us in every possible form. Yet, we do not have an easy way to translate these blocks of information into courseware. While some attempts are currently being made to unleash the public on this problem, we remain a long ways from solving the problem.

Open Education Movement – The open-education movement was inspired by the open-source software movement (i.e. Linux). It mixes in the powerful communication abilities of the Internet and applies the result to teaching and learning materials, such as course notes and textbooks. Open educational materials include text, images, audio, video, interactive simulations, and games that are free to be used and also re-used in new ways by anyone around the world.

It is estimated that more than 150 well-intentioned initiatives have been launched in this area. Over time, the increasing levels of attention and activity will cause one initiative to stand out and become the “industry leader.” This leader will, by default, set the standards for everyone that follows.

Some open-education projects are already attracting a large number of users per month. Some, like the MIT OpenCourseWare project and its OCW Consortium, are top-down organized institutional repositories that showcase their institutions’ courses. Others, like Rice University’s Connexions, Wikiversity, and Moodle are grassroot efforts that encourage contributions from all comers.

  • MIT OpenCourseWare makes the course materials that are used in the teaching of almost all MIT’s 1,400 undergraduate and graduate subjects available on the Web, free of charge, to any user anywhere in the world. MIT now claims 1.4 million visits per month from learners “in every single country on the planet.”
  • The OpenCourseWare Consortium is an extension of what MIT began. Students don’t have to register for classes but need only to log on to more than 1,800 potential courses at 12 universities that provide the course materials such as syllabi, video or audio lectures, notes, homework assignments, and illustrations.
  • Connexions claims more than one million people from 194 countries are tapping into its 3,768 modules and 199 courses developed by a worldwide community of authors.
  • Wikiversity is a division of Wikipedia serving as a community for the creation and use of free learning materials and activities. Wikiversity is a multidimensional social organization dedicated to learning, teaching, research and service. Its primary goals are to create and host free content, multimedia learning materials, resources, and curricula for all age groups in all languages.
  • Moodle is a course management system using a free, Open Source software package designed to help educators create effective online learning communities. Moodle claims over 20,000 participating sites listing over 820,000 courses.
  • Curriki.org is an education development resource with over 3,000 members and 450 courses in development.

While we applaud these efforts, there are some critical elements missing. The learning system of the future will have a single access point for all of its courses. Moodle is claiming over 820,000 courses but they are spread over 20,000 sites and many courses are duplicates. We estimate the number of unique and different courses to be less than 50,000, not in the millions like the number of available books and songs.

Using books as a close analogy, it can be argued that every available book has the potential of being translated into courseware and, most often, multiple courses. There are currently far more topics discussed in books than there are courses to teach the material. This leaves an obvious courseware vacuum waiting to be filled, and the key to unlocking this vacuum is the participative courseware-builder described below.

4.) Expanding Gulf Between Literates and Super-Literates

According to the New York Times, there are an additional 20,000 new words added to the English language every year. The primary driver behind this ever-expanding dimension of vocabulary is the ongoing development of science and technology.

Along with the creation of new science and technology comes the need to explain its attributes, its function in technical terms, and its overall purpose. New words and their associated colloquialisms help create meaning and structure around the emerging new concepts as they attract more research and come into focus.

Young students can learn new words quickly: on average, 3,000 new words each year, which works out to 8 words a day. This, of course varies significantly from one student to the next.

In the English language, the 2,000 most frequently used words account for 80-85 percent of the words used in non-specialized written texts and about 90-95 percent in conversational speech.

However, the total number of words in the English language tops out around one million words, and the vocabulary of some of our most gifted scientist and engineers tops out around 200,000 words.

The distance between the functionally literate and the super literate is growing. Some people who have become expert on a specific topic have pushed the envelope of understanding far beyond the comprehension of the rest of the world. And in doing so, have created whole new vocabularies to describe the concepts and phenomenon they encountered. These super experts often live in a research community where they are often the only living person who truly understands the topic of their research.

Until now the primary tool for these super literates to pass along their understanding of research to future generations has been through papers that are published in technical journals. Because of the rigid requirements for publication, these papers often take months to compose, and are written in a vocabulary few can comprehend.

An alternative to publishing papers will soon be the creation of courseware. While developing courseware in the past has been laborious and poorly utilized, the new courseware builder described below has the potential to change all that. Courseware will become an alternative to publishing papers or writing books, and will serve as an additional channel for the super literates to disseminate their understanding of the world.

5.) Our “Touch Points” for Interfacing with Society are Changing

“Touch points” are the places where we come in contact with the rest of the world.

As an example, the average person comes in contact with the physical world through three primary physical touch points or interfaces – the shoes that we walk in, the bed that we sleep in, and the chairs that we sit in. These are the primary touch points for our physical body.

While it is important to study the touch points for our physical body, it is even more important to understand the touch points for our mind. How does our mind interface with the rest of the world, and how can we improve the touch points to improve our abilities and capabilities?

The Classroom Touch Point: There has long been the pervasive notion that learning can take place only in a classroom. Even though schools use field trips and outdoor experiences to enhance education, the classroom remains the dominant central fixture of today’s educational systems.

Classrooms are designed to focus attention, close off the rest of the world, and create a controllable environment where learning can take place. Architects refer to schools as a “place,” and over the years place-makers have attempted to create the ultimate classroom – a place where learning can be optimized and students can excel.

Most educators will argue that the real learning takes place inside the classroom. Even though external activities such as doing homework, reading assignments, or writing papers happen outside the bounds of the school, the primary education interface remains the classroom.

Using classrooms as the primary “touch point” for learning creates many problems. The person or education system that controls the classroom also controls the time when learning can take place, the students who will participate, the lighting, the sounds, the media used, the tools, the pace, the subject matter, and in many cases, the results.

However, classroom-centric education is not necessary for learning.

Learning takes place from the moment a person wakes up in the morning until they fall asleep at night. In fact, learning continues even while a person is sleeping. We may not be learning about math and science while we watch a movie, but we learn about the characters in the movie, the plot, the setting, the drama, the resolution of the problem, the kind of popcorn a theater serves, and how comfortable the seats are.

Indeed some topics like math and science require a more structured form of learning for most students to grasp the information being imparted, but learning is not dependent upon the classroom. In some cases the classroom may be the optimal environment for learning to take place, but most often it is not.

Important new touch points for our mind include our computers, electronic newspapers, video magazines, handheld televisions, cellphones, MP3 payers, video games, artwork, and much more.

6.) Learning Drivers

Why do people need to learn? Why do people want to learn? What are their motivations? What are the drivers that control a person’s desire to fill their minds with knowledge and information?

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Human Needs is a theory in psychology that Abraham Maslow proposed in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation. His theory contends that as humans meet ‘basic needs’, they seek to satisfy successively ‘higher needs’ that occupy a set hierarchy.

Maslow’s initial hierarchy was based on two groupings: deficiency needs and growth needs. Within the deficiency needs, each lower need must be met before moving to the next higher level. Once each of these needs has been satisfied, if at some future time a deficiency is detected, the individual will act to remove the deficiency. The first four levels were:

1.) Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;
2.) Safety/security: out of danger;
3.) Belonginess and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted; and
4.) Esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition.

According to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met. Maslow’s early thinking included only one growth need – self-actualization. Self-actualized people were characterized by: 1) being problem-focused; 2) incorporating an ongoing freshness of appreciation of life; 3) a concern about personal growth; and 4) the ability to have peak experiences.

Maslow later add a new dimension to the growth need of self-actualization, defining two lower-level growth needs below self-actualization and one above that level. They were:

5.) Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;
6.) Aesthetic: patterns, symmetry, order, and beauty;
7.) Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential; and
8.) Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

Our motivations for learning form similar patterns. Maslow’s basic concept is that the higher needs in the hierarchy come into focus only once all the needs that are lower down in the pyramid are mainly or entirely satisfied.

For this reason, our desires to learn, and the topics we want to learn about, transition depending on the situation we find ourselves in. As an example, we will have very little desire to learn math and science if we are worried about survival. However, we will have a great desire to learn about survival topics.

The problem sets that surround us, and our ability to solve those problems, are a constantly refocusing lens into our learning motivators.

Maslow’s basic position is that as people become more self-actualized and self-transcendent, they develop wisdom and automatically know what to do in a wide variety of situations. His ultimate conclusion that the highest levels of self-actualization are transcendent in their nature may be one of his most important contributions in this area of study.

7.) The Age of Hyper-Individuality

As a society we are less and less interested in the status competition involved in “keeping up with the Joneses.” We are not all that concerned about what kind of car our neighbor drives, what kind of TV they are watching, or what kind of cell phone they are using. Instead, we are much more concerned about finding products that will satisfy our own particular needs.

We live in an era where we are approaching 100 million products in the marketplace, and depending on how you define a product, some would argue that we have already far exceeded that number. Suffice it to say that we now have products that are much more aligned with the needs of a very wide range of consumers, and consumers are voting with their debit cards for uniqueness and individuality. So much so that we have dubbed this the age of hyper-individuality.

When the cable TV companies started offering 500 different channels they found that all of the channels had an audience. When Amazon started offering over 2 million different books for sale on its website it found that all of the books had a market. This phenomenon is best described in Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail” which explains how the Internet has driven the cost of shelf space in the online world to a number approaching zero, and in doing so has enabled online merchants like iTunes, Amazon, Buy.com, and YouTube to carry millions of different products.

Our need for hyper-individualized solutions is driven by several factors including our time, our personality, and an overwhelming need to feel special in a world of over 6 billion other people wanting many of the same things.

Today the average person sleeps two hours less than a person in the 1920s. We have gone from 8.9 hours per night to 6.9 hours per night, and many people today, if they could do without, would skip sleeping altogether.

With time being one of our major constraints, we are continually searching for products that will save us time, and if we can find that left-handed, counter-balanced, pocket-sized device that we can operate efficiently on moon-lit nights when the stars are aligned, we will make the purchase.

8.) Transition from Consumers to Producers

As we transition from a predominantly passive society to a more active one, people no longer want to just sit on the sidelines and watch. They want to participate. And a whole new generation of tools and equipment are allowing people to shift their role from consumer to producer.

This transition began with the introduction of comment sections at the end of online news posts. People began to voice their thoughts on whether or not a piece of news was accurate, timely, or in any way news-worthy. Many commenters added additional information.

When Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan’s company, Pyra Labs, launched Blogger (later purchased by Google) in 1999, a major shift began in the world of user-generated content for the Web. Suddenly it became easy for anyone to create a blog site, and millions of people began to experiment.

In July of 2003, MySpace was founded by Tom Anderson, Chris DeWolfe, and a small team of programmers. As a site that allowed users to generate their own website and connection to friends, MySpace quickly became the dominant player in the emerging category of social networking with the 100 millionth user account created in August 2006.

Similarly, when Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim launched YouTube in February of 2005, it became very easy for people to produce and post videos online. As an enormously popular and free video sharing website, YouTube lets users upload, view, share, and rate video clips. As a result, millions of people have transitioned from video consumers to video producers with an average of 65,000 new video clips uploaded onto YouTube every day.

While each of these are examples of runaway success stories, the world of user-generated content is not without its own set of problems. Each has managed to handle the challenges in their own unique way. But what these examples best illustrate is the public’s driving need to participate and lend their own thoughts and ideas to the world around them.

Setting the Stage

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It is easy to fall into the trap of thinking in terms of past top-down approaches. Instead, we need to focus on the key elements, the seeds of innovation, which will allow this new organic form of education to spring to life.

New forms of education are not achieved by putting an umbrella over our existing education systems and networking them with hopes that they will get better. And they’re not achieved by simply recording the lectures for later broadcast. Education in its current state is the equivalent of Roman numerals, a system that is preventing us from achieving great things.

Unlimited Shelf Space

Since most people still believe that education must take place in the classroom, and only educators can create new courses, we have placed a very constrictive valve on the inflow of new courseware.

The retail world had very similar restrictions just a few years ago, with the cost of shelf space being one of the primary constraints to the introduction of new products. But the online marketplace has given us unlimited shelf space at a near-zero cost. This combination of super cheap and unlimited shelf space has caused an exponential growth curve in the introduction of new products.

The notion that education can take place only in a classroom is similar to the notion that purchasing a product can only take place when you see it on a store shelf. Removing the classroom constraints to learning is similar to removing the shelf space constraints to the marketplace.

At the same time that we have been experiencing the exponential growth of information, the amount of available courseware has remained rather static and consequently, our education systems have not kept pace.

Only a small percentage of the information being developed today is being passed on to future generations in the form of classes or courseware. This growing gap between information and courseware is what we call a “courseware vacuum,” where supply has clearly not kept up with demand.

Certifying Accuracy – Truth vs. Untruth

As we contemplated the education system of the future, one of our biggest concerns was finding a way to ensure the accuracy of the information presented. Initially our thinking centered around the idea of selecting a central authority, some sort of governing truth authority, to authenticate the accuracy of information in each of the courseware modules. But this approach became unworkable as we considered the implications.

To begin with, a high percentage of what is taught in classes today is theoretical, ranging from theories of gravity, to theories of evolution, to music theory. None of these topics end up being 100 percent provable, and so from the standpoint of passing muster with a governing truth authority, none of these topics could be included.

Further, we realized that virtually every aspect of society has its own version of truth – religious truths, scientific truths, legal truths, etc.

For this reason we concluded that any governing truth authority would quickly deteriorate into a highly politicized authority, and the politicalization of any aspect of this future learning system will quickly compromise its usefulness.

As an alternative, we are proposing a checks-and-balances system where individual groups can create their own central truth authority and place their tags of approval or disapproval on courses. These tags will be a central feature of the search criteria used by the smart profiler and the recommendation engine.

For example, organizations like the American Chemical Society, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Focus on the Family, American Civil Liberties Union, National Rifle Association, National Education Association, or the Catholic Church can all review the new courseware that is being introduced and make a determination as to whether or not it meets their criteria.

We think that such organizations will quickly gear up to develop their own line of courseware so they can have better control of the content.

This type of tagging system holds value on many levels. First, it creates ways for virtually everyone to participate, and in fact, demands participation. Participation is an essential ingredient in a truly pervasive education system. It allows the learning system to develop organically without any central gatekeepers telling people what they can and can’t learn.

Confidence-Based Learning

While many different learning methodologies will be experimented with, one that holds considerable promise is confidence-based learning. Some experiments in this area have demonstrated a significant reduction in learning time.

The first Confidence-Based Assessment study appeared in the Journal of Social Psychology in 1932 by Kate Hevner. Her goal was to improve the validity and reliability of standard musical assessments at the time. She did so by adding confidence assessment to knowledge. Fron 1932-1967, Confidence-Based Assessment focused on statistical validity and reliability. In 1967 it was discovered that Confidence-Based Assessment also improved memory retention. This is the discovery where people began to realize that the process of taking a test can and will make you smarter.

What started as a breakthrough approach for measuring knowledge and confidence is now moving front-and-center into corporate training centers in the form of a fast and accurate learning methodology. Confidence-based learning is on the rise among organizations that are transitioning their companies from training organizations to learning organizations.

Confidence-based learning is designed to ensure that learning actually takes place and mastery of a topic is achieved. It is much more than simply delivering information to students. It ensures learning by assessing precisely what people know and what they don’t know without guesswork and doubt skewing the results. It then works to rapidly remediate a learner’s gaps in knowledge and confidence.

Here’s a summary of how it works.

Determining what people need to learn starts by understanding what ignorance, doubts and misinformation presently exists. Unlike traditional learning methodologies that measure only how many questions someone answers correctly, confidence-based learning assesses

  • Correct answers that are answered with confidence, indicating competency;
  • Correct answers that are answered with doubt;
  • Correct answers that are total guesses, equivalent to no knowledge;
  • Incorrect answers that are answered with confidence, indicating misinformation.

Distinguishing between a person guessing correctly and one who answers correctly with confidence can have a major impact. An assessment process that is built into the system can capture and validate knowledge confidence because of the unique structure of its multiple-choice questions and detailed analysis.

With the completion of an assessment, confidence-based learning is designed to close knowledge gaps at the moment users are most inclined to learn – right after being evaluated and their own misinformation and doubt has been exposed.

We have speculated that if confidence-based learning is somehow designed into the courseware-builder that the speed of learning can be increased dramatically, by as much as 50% or more.

Archiving Knowledge

While rarely viewed as such, education is a system for archiving a culture by passing down the knowledge of one generation to the next. Museums, written documents, books, photos, videos and audio recordings typically come to mind when considering a cultural archive. But certain aspects of a culture need to be experienced in order to be preserved, and that’s where the notion of education as an archival medium comes in.

Craftsman guilds such as tilers and bricklayers are a good example of trades that require hands-on experience. The intricacies and nuances of piecing together building materials into artistic patterns cannot be adequately conveyed through books or even video. The tactile feel of textures, tapping, testing for hollow spots, and cleaning off excess material are all part of the experiential learning that cannot be conveyed through some other medium.

The concept of archiving knowledge is just one of many theories that will emerge as strategies around the new system begin to develop.

Defining the New, New Era in Learning

As we begin to peel back the layers of the system we are envisioning, we will use a number of different descriptors and definitions to describe the nature of the new, new era of learning.

The key to this whole system is an easy-to-use courseware builder that catches the imagination of the general public and inspires participation. Several features will be necessary to give this system both the range and functionality of a truly rich learning environment.

Twelve Dimensions of the Future Courseware Architecture

We have identified 12 critical dimensions of the future learning system. However, only the first two need to be in place for the revolution to begin.

The two critical components that will define education for centuries to come will be a standardized architecture for developing a courseware unit, and an organic distribution system that allows anyone around the world access to it.

Standard Courseware Unit

In the past, creating a standard was often a long and tedious process where smart people gathered around tables and argued about where to place the comma in a sentence. But times have changed, and so has the development process for standards.

Very likely the development of a standard will happen concurrently with the early testing of courseware modules, with the drafting of the standard document happening in parallel to the testing of the architecture. The final standard may not be finished for several years.

The reason it’s important to create a standard is simply to focus energy. Competing standards can be divisive, creating temporary chaos in the industry, and greatly delaying market acceptance. Also, the path to market acceptance would end up being far more expensive.

So, what will a standard courseware unit look like? The short answer is that it is too early to know, but we have to have a starting point. For this reason we have put together a list of attributes and features that we think will be necessary components:

1.  The Courseware Builder – Envisioned as a smooth, fill-in-the-blanks templated process, the courseware builder will carefully step courseware producers through the design, build, and launch phases of each course.

2.  60 Minute (Approx) Learning Experience – An hour is an international unit of measurement recognized around the globe. We schedule our time in one-hour units, we plan our days in one-hour units, so building educational modules around one hour units makes sense. Some learning experiences may involve a grouping of 2, 5, or even 10 units, but the majority will be centered around the basic one-hour unit.

3.  Modality Agnostic, Language Agnostic – Learning comes in many forms ranging from reading text, to listening to audio, to watching video, to hands-on experiences, and more. The Standard Courseware Unit needs to accommodate all modes of sensory input and learning experiences.

4.  Confidence-Based Learning – All units will use some form of testing to validate competency or fluency in the topic, as well as the student’s confidence in their answers. Test scores that are lower than minimum required proficiency levels will force students to repeat portions of the learning experience until students have achieved mastery.

5.  Smart Profiler – In addition to the basic name and address type of information found in most profiles, students will be asked to participate in regularly scheduled assessment surveys to determine primary and secondary areas of interest. The smart profiler will continually expand the profile of the student throughout their life, recalibrating topical interest levels, building a comprehensive understanding of the individual student as they evolve over time. The Smart Profiler will feed information directly to the Personal Recommendation Engine for prioritizing course selections.

6.  Multi-Dimensional Tagging Engine – Much of the system usability will be driven by the multi-dimensional nature of the tagging engines. Attributes include:

  • Personal rating tags – Upon completion, each student will be asked to rate the courseware. Courses will be graded on accuracy, quality of the learning experience, ease of use, and overall effectiveness.
  • Approval & Disapproval Tags – Each courseware unit will be set up to allow various organizations to either put their stamp of approval or disapproval on it. Since every political interest group will want to influence the direction of courseware development, it will be impossible to build courses around the likes and dislikes of all of the various interest groups. For this reason, each course will allow groups to place their stamp of approval or disapproval on it.
  • Taxonomy Tags – Folksonomy – Folksonomy is the emerging science of user generated taxonomies. Since each courseware topic will be understood differently by each student, it will be necessary to allow students to place descriptor tags on all completed courses. This self-tagging approach will create the necessary taxonomy for the Personal Recommendation Engine as well as other search engines.
  • Prerequisite & Post-Requisite Tags – Knowledge builds on knowledge. As an example, students cannot study literature until they know how to read, and they cannot study computer programming until they know math and algebra. Much of today’s learning needs to happen sequentially. Therefore it becomes imperative to create some system for sequencing courses based on the order of which learning must take place.
  • Comment Tags – Comment sections will allow students to voice their thoughts on each course

7.  Personal Recommendation Engine – Each time the student completes a course, the Personal Recommendation Engine will present a number of possible future courses based on personal interests and past courses. This engine should offer an expanded view of possible directions the student can take, listing a variety of learning options as well as the certification endpoints.

8.  Certification Inputs – Every profession, personal skill, or area of learning has logical points where experts in that field would consider the necessary learning to be sufficiently complete. But every profession or skill is different. As an example, the courses necessary to become a master cigar maker are vastly different than the courses need to become a C+ programmer or airline pilot or registered nurse. Most professions and skills will use a combination of courses completed and a certification exam to validate student proficiency.

9.  New Achievement Standards – Descriptors like grade-level, graduate-level, and undergraduate-level will begin to disappear from our vocabulary. Initially, a set of equivalency units will be used to describe achievements (equivalent to sixth grade, or equivalent to a BA degree). Over time, the systems for illustrating achievement will change with the use of charts and graphs to explain the breadth and depth of a person’s understanding.

10,  Official Record Keeping System – Building a system with impeccable integrity means that the system for archiving the accomplishments of every participant must be secure, private, and managed by an organization with impeccable credentials. While many people will think that a government-run archive is the best solution, the best possible record-keeping system will be one that transcends governmental boundary lines.

11.  Participative Wealth Pricing – The revenue stream generated by each courseware unit will be divided between the courseware producer, distribution company, transaction company, system operations company, and the official record keeping system. Maybe more. Courseware prices need to be kept low to make courseware accessible to anyone interested in learning.

12.  Global Distribution System – Think of the nature and functionality of iTunes with the following features:

  • A single online access point
  • Content aggregator
  • Search/sort capabilities
  • Accepting user generated content
  • Recommendation engine
  • Uniform pricing

Understanding the System Entry-Point

Before a child can tap into a system with courseware as described above, a certain number of skills must first be in place – ability to read, follow directions, and respond to questions. However, once basic motor skills have been mastered, it is conceivable that very young children can begin this type of learning with the aid of some future design of the early childhood workstation.

Since age is not a good way to determine a child’s capabilities, new systems will need to be created to assess the overall readiness of a young student to participate.

Priming the Pump

Creating the initial Standard Courseware Units will be time-intensive, poorly understood, and topically spotty.

People creating the first units will most likely be educators working on a tiny budget. Budget limitations will cause courseware development to happen slowly, and this will leave gaps in many topical areas. Gaps will include areas such as craftsman trades that use more of an apprentice-style approach to learning, personal interest topics such as gardening and home repair, and social system education on topics like water law and import-export laws.

One way to “prime the pump” will be through a system of grants. Perhaps the creation of the first 1,000-3,000 Standard Courseware Units could be funded through a system offering $5,000-$10,000 individual development grants. Once the initial courseware is developed and tested, smaller amounts of grant money could be made available in the range of $2,000-$5,000 depending on whether it’s a new topic or degrees of improvement over past courseware. For example, a Courseware Unit using a combination of video animation, expert interviews, and advance mathematical modeling will naturally provide a superior, content-rich learning experience over a standard text-based course and could therefore be eligible for a larger grant.

With this approach there should be a sufficient critical mass of courseware to inspire other people to begin creating their own courses without grants.

The After Effects

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We are on the verge of radical shifts in our education systems, and not everyone will be happy to see them develop. Teacher unions and other people dependent upon the existing education system will provide much of the early resistance.

Because of the many facets of the architecture outlined above, the system will not be created all at once. It will be phased in, starting with the courseware builder and distribution system, and later followed by the official record keeping system and various groups providing inputs. Adoption will be spotty at first.

We see home schoolers and foreign students as being some of the earliest adopters, followed by private schools and charter schools, and later public schools. Initially these courses will be used to supplement traditional classroom-based courses, but will later develop into a complete learning curriculum.

Learning Camps

Many kinds of learning camps are already in existence, but we will go through an explosive growth in this area.

Many kinds of learning are best achieved through hands-on touch and feeling experiences. Marine biology is best learned through working with marine life in all its many forms. The best way to learn history is to travel to the battlefields, take tours of the castles, walk through the ancient ruins, dress up in the ancient clothing, and sleep overnight in a wigwam or cliff dwelling. The best way to become a plumber is to work with a skilled plumber and perform hands-on work-related tasks to fix real world plumbing problems.

Learning camps, ranging from one-day camps to multi-week camps, will begin to proliferate around specific topics. Some camps will be more academic-related areas of study such as math and science, while others will deal with more skill-related topics like woodworking or auto repair. Each camp will have its own identity, use its own in-house experts, and will focus on a specific learning experience that is tied to courseware with a built-in testing system to validate competency.

The Social Environments of Learning

Much of today’s learning happens inside a social context. When a classmate asks a question, the whole class learns. When one student laughs at a teacher’s joke, all the rest of the students perk up. These are pieces of a learning environment that may disappear if the learning process becomes too hyper-individualized and too much of a solemn, one-person experience.

Technology has a way of isolating people. As an example, many young girls today grab their cell phone and start talking as soon as the final classroom bell rings. This makes them unapproachable to boys who would like to find a good time to strike up a conversation with them. Sitting at a classroom computer or watching a video are other forms of technology isolation created by placing social barriers around individuals.

However, lasting relationships are based on common, shared experiences, and any learning system that does not address the need for building social relationships will be missing a critical dimension of the learning environment.
Learning camps are only a partial answer. Courseware designed around strengthening relationships may address this problem, but the power of socialization and the need for building relationships cannot be underestimated.

Thinking Through the Transition for Existing School Systems

We see the existing school systems going through a complicated transition which may not always be smooth. Below is a description of some of the anticipated changes that will happen to students, teachers, buildings, and school districts or systems.

Students – Perhaps the people who will be quickest to adapt to the new system will be the students. Instead of being forced to learn specific courses that are often of little interest to them, students will be free to select the topics that they are most interested in.

Most students will have the opportunity to travel to various learning camps around the country. As more and more students begin using the system, the demand for new courses will cause more and more people to develop courseware.

School Buildings – Some school buildings will transition into learning centers that are open 24 hours a day, accommodating both child and adult learners, providing support staff to assist people who struggle with the system or on a specific topic.

Other school buildings, or portions of buildings, will transition into production centers filled with the tools and equipment for people to produce new courseware. Staff people will also be on hand to assist in courseware design and creation.

Teachers – Teachers will have many good options to consider as the changes begin to happen. Some teachers will remain with the school buildings and work more as guides, coaches, and tutors for students needing help. Others will move into event planners and experience designers as each facility experiments with re-engineering the social side of learning.

Other teachers will choose to develop their own learning camp or series of camps. Learning camps will specialize in a specific experiential topic that is tied to specific courseware. These teachers will effectively operate their own enterprise with revenues driven by the number of students opting to go to their camp.

Some of the more entrepreneurial-minded teachers may choose to become full-time courseware producers. The techniques for creating good and effective new courseware will be an iterative process going through multiple evolutionary stages as new and better tools become available.

Changing Revenue Streams

So how does all this get funded, and how do the existing revenue streams change to accommodate the new era in learning?

Because of the sheer volume of students that will be involved, it is recommended that the price point for courseware modules be kept very low – as low as 99 cents per module. Some of the more specialized areas of learning will likely charge a higher amount, but general courseware should be pushed to the lowest possible price point.

Initially people will pay for their own courses, or the courses completed by their children. Later, systems for grants and loans will allow a broader range of students to participate. Eventually government money will begin to shift and cover student expenses.

Because the learning camps will demand a more aggressive involvement of people and technology, the pricing of camps will be done on a camp-by-camp basis according to market demand or according to some district or state pricing schedule, possibly with matching funds available to cover costs.

Speculating on government-sponsored funding mechanisms, students could each be granted an account with sufficient credits to complete the equivalent of a college bachelor’s degree, roughly on the order of 20,000 credits.

Once those credits have been exhausted, the students would automatically enter into a loan arrangement where any additionally used credits would have to be paid back over time.

A second dimension of funding may be an annual amount of credits that could be spent on learning camps. Since prices of the camps would vary, student would be allowed to roll over funding from one year to the next.

Existing streams of funding for school district will not go away, but will be scaled to appropriate levels for staffing and maintaining buildings as each phase of the transition takes place.

Conclusions

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The pace of change mandates that we produce a faster, smarter, better grade of human being. Current systems are preventing that from happening. Future education systems will be unleashed with the advent of a standardized rapid courseware-builder and a single-point global distribution system.

Information is growing at exponential rates, and our ability to convert that information into useful knowledge and skills is being hampered by the lack of courseware. We refer to this phenomenon as a courseware vacuum. The primary reason we lack courseware is because we haven’t developed a quick and easy system for creating it.

Once a rapid courseware-builder has been created, and the general marketplace has put its stamp of approval on it, a series of standards will be developed.

With tools for producing courseware becoming widely available, people around the world will begin creating it, and we will see a courseware explosion similar to the dramatic rise of content on YouTube and iTunes.

As part of the rapidly developing courseware movement we will see education transition from:

  • Teacher-centric to learning-centric
  • Classroom-based teaching to anyplace, anytime learning
  • Mandated courses to hyper-individualized learning
  • A general population of consumers to a growing population of producers

Learning will become hyper-individualized with students learning what they want to learn, when they want to learn it. Most of today’s existing learning impediments will eventually go away.

As a result of this shift we will begin to see dramatic changes in society. The speed of learning will increase tenfold because of a combination of the following factors:

  • Confidence-based learning will significantly increase learning speed and comprehension
  • Learning what we want, when we want – shifting away from a prescribed course agenda to one that is hyper-individualized, self-selected, and scheduled whenever a student wishes to take it will dramatically change levels of motivation
  • Technology improvements over time will continually improve the speed and comprehension of learning

The speed of learning will increase tenfold, and it is possible that the equivalent of our current K-12 education system will be compressed into as little as one year’s worth of learning.

In the future, we predict students entering the workforce will be ten times smarter than they are today.

RELATED ARTCLES ABOUT LIBRARIES OF THE FUTURE:

By Thomas Frey, Executive Director and Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute

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NOTE: Additional translations coming soon

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