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The Case for a Next-Generation Learning Platform

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

Is higher education responding effectively to the changes going on all around us? Here, education futurist Daniel Christian reminds us to keep our "heads up" and urges the development of a next-generation learning platform.

"Given the new, exponential pace of change, time is not on our side." 

       — Daniel Christian

Mary Grush: You've said that higher education needs a next-generation learning platform, to respond to change happening all around us. Is the pace of that change increasing?

Daniel Christian: Yes, the pace of that change is increasing! You might even say the pace of change has changed — the very nature of what we are dealing with is not what it once was. 

Some would say that's our blind spot; that we have to wake up to a new reality. If we were to chart the pace of change, we would see that we no longer have a gradually inclining trajectory. Rather, we now are living with an exponential pace of change.

But are we really aware of, actively acknowledging, and responding to this new pace of change? We need to be, as this relatively new challenge — responding to off-the-charts changes — has major ramifications for societies throughout the globe.

Grush: What do you see as major indicators of this change?

Christian: As a primary example, take the increasing development and usage of artificial intelligence (AI), algorithms, automation, big data, and robotics. In a report earlier this year, McKinsey [Artificial Intelligence: The Next Digital Frontier?, McKinsey Global Institute, June 2017] estimates that tech giants spent up to $30 billion on AI in 2016 alone. It's interesting to note that machine learning received the lion's share of the investments.

Grush: Then what are some of the implications you could draw from metrics like that one?

Christian: As we consider all the investment in those emerging technologies, the question many are beginning to ask is, "How will these technologies impact jobs and the makeup of our workforce in the future?"

While there are many thoughts and questions regarding the cumulative impact these technologies will have on our future workforce (e.g., "How many jobs will be displaced?"), the consensus seems to be that there will be massive change.

Whether our jobs are completely displaced or if we will be working alongside robots, chatbots, workbots, or some other forms of AI-backed personal assistants, all of us will need to become lifelong learners — to be constantly reinventing ourselves. This assertion is also made in the aforementioned study from McKinsey: "AI promises benefits, but also poses urgent challenges that cut across firms, developers, government, and workers. The workforce needs to be re-skilled to exploit AI rather than compete with it…"

Grush: Enter higher education! So will higher education be able to respond to that exponential rate of change you talked about?

Christian: That is the big question: Are our current systems of teaching and learning going to be able to address and handle this new pace of change? Based upon what I have been seeing with the majority of traditional institutions of higher education (certainly not all of our institutions), the answer is no. Not a chance. Too often we operate in a reactive mode vs. a proactive one. Instead of actively surveying the various landscapes of our world, we seem to have our heads and eyes pointed straight down, unaware of the changes going on around us. So we aren't responding; at least not in significant ways.

Put another way, if the world were a car, we would be racing that car along at 180 mph. But the crazy part is that we would be still gazing at the hood of our car! Instead, we need to peer into the horizon to see what's coming at us down the pike — and then respond to those developments as quickly as possible.

Grush: Of course we do have a lot of amazing work being done on emerging technologies...

Christian: Yes, of course! I applaud the work being done at the NMC with their Horizon Report, and the many other research and development efforts within higher education… along with some very bold programs we see implemented today. I only hope our actions are fast enough, and significant enough, given that exponential rate of change. Will higher education respond effectively to the challenges before us?

Grush: Of course, these are not purely technology changes… 

Christian: Oh, yes, for example — speaking of responsiveness — the credentialing systems within higher education aren't responding nearly as quickly as we need them to be in this new pace of change. These systems either need to change radically — upshifting 2-3 gears and to do so by yesterday — or new alternatives to traditional institutions of higher education will continue to appear on the landscape and will gain major traction in the future. And these alternatives will be strengthened by students looking for lower-cost methods of reinventing themselves.

Grush: What would you wish for, given all we've been talking about? And who will be driving all this response to change?

Christian: My wish? Besides what I've already mentioned, several things come to my mind, but I think what would be most highly effective would be a next-generation learning platform.

About seven years ago, I began tracking a vision for a global, next-generation learning platform that I called "Learning from the Living [Class] Room". I officially documented that around 2012. In fact, you might recall, Mary, that you and I worked on a related piece for Campus Technology back in 2013. Many new pieces of the puzzle have begun to appear since we did that piece.

Yet, no one is pulling all of the pieces together. Who will put it all together remains a great question. Will it come from inside higher education? Will it come from the likes of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and/or Apple? Will it come from some of the vendors currently serving the higher education space? Will it be an open source effort with many contributors? Will it be a combination of those players? Or will it be a brand new player such as the one futurist Thomas Frey, a senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute think tank, discussed with Business Insider’s Chris Weller: "I've been predicting that by 2030 the largest company on the Internet is going to be an education-based company that we haven't heard of yet." [Business Insider, 27 Dec. 2016]

Still, given the new, exponential pace of change, time is not on our side.

Grush: Do you have a sense that some of this change could be driven bottom-up — just by the sheer volume of individual interest?

Christian: Yes, and that's very helpful. Each of us needs to constantly enhance our individual learning ecosystems, especially in regards to tapping into the streams of content that are constantly flowing by us. RSS feeds, Feedly, Google Alerts and numerous other tools can help us tap into relevant streams of content. And tools like Twitter, WordPress, and LinkedIn can help each of us to contribute to those streams.

If we are tapping into multiple streams of content, we have a better chance of seeing emerging trends and potential issues. We begin to better see what's truly on the landscape. I would argue that each of us needs to be pulse-checking what's out there, and putting relevant things on our radars. Such a skill is becoming critically important…especially when we're traveling along at 180 mph.

The challenge is huge, and the rate of change is exponential. Again, we have to ask, is higher education up for the challenge? I certainly hope so, for the sake of our future learners. Heads up!

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