The question of what the future of education looks like is one that educators and researchers have been grappling with increasingly over recent years. In the last thirty years the way in which information and knowledge is disseminated has been revolutionized in a way that we haven’t seen since the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th century. Despite the changes we have seen, we are still at the dawn of the digital age and the field of education is only just beginning to respond to these advances.
At every level technology is beginning to be incorporated into the learning process. Many University lecturers are posting lectures online and finding that the reach of their research and teaching magnifies by a factor of a thousand. Schools are increasingly incorporating online platforms to help manage student’s homework schedules. Students are learning increasingly from online sources rather than traditional libraries. Tutors are working with students in entirely different continents and new fields of study are being established by people who have knowledge of an area that falls outside the boundaries of traditional education.
These are just a handful of examples about what is taking place in relation to how education is delivered. The long-term trend is certainly towards a full integration of the digital realm into education. In the next few years it’s likely that as well as putting free or low-cost courses and certificates out online, we will also see some of the more forward-thinking universities begin to move the modules or even entire years of study online. This could potentially reduce cost for students who may not have to physically move to the university campus until the second year of study. Whether Universities decide to offer full courses and accreditation online is a further question. It may not be in their interests as research institutions to allow all of their high-paying customers (students) to attend at a much lower cost. We may see new institutions spring up or non-research based Universities which only exist to teach undergraduate and Master’s students online. Whatever the outcomes of this revolution two things are clear:
- Education is online now – we’re not going back and in fact this trend is accelerating.
- Access to knowledge is more democratically available than at any point in human history.
The first point is a simple statement of fact. Public institutions and bodies have already embraced this fact and are adjusting themselves accordingly. Beyond this, in the enormous independent sector, niche education businesses and tech start-ups are offering courses in every conceivable field of study – from languages to basket-weaving – there is a course out there on just about anything. Students and researchers are also increasingly collaborating online and teaching each other. We don’t know what the end result of all of this new sharing of knowledge will be, only time will tell.
The second point is also tremendously significant. This democratic access to knowledge is the real reason why the changes brought about by the internet at once complement and surpass those brought about by the printing press. In medieval Europe only a tiny fraction of the population was literate as reading and writing were largely the privilege of a small merchant class, the aristocracy and of course the church. At the invention of the printing press most people were not in a position to incorporate the new potential for learning that this incredible invention allowed. It would take the best part of 500 years and enormous social changes before men and women across Europe would finally benefit fully from the new potential for learning that the printing press offered. Digital learning builds on the developments that eventually resulted from the printing press. The internet hit the ground running in the late twentieth century as it landed in a world that was, at least for the most part, fully-literate. We were prepared to reap the benefits of the digital revolution in a way that medieval Europeans were not – in a sense the internet is the printing press 2.0. Naturally the impact has been far more immediate and explosive. We’re still in the first generation in terms of incorporating this technology into our education system – when you consider what the next 100 years may offer, the possibilities are staggering.
As more and more communities around the world gain access to the internet, the potential for a better educated global population only increases. It’s entirely possible that in 50 years there will be teenagers in Tibet with the same access to high-quality online teaching as those in Europe or the US. There is still the issue of censorship and control of internet access, particularly in the Middle-East and China. Again, it remains to be seen how this will play out. In relation to education however, both the Middle-East and China are regions with increasing activity and interest in online learning. The whole world is logging on to learn – quality teaching, information and research has never been more widely available. Certainly, it’s an exciting time to be a learner.