The Future of Education

Words by Katie Puckett

The Future of Education - Title in blue

Education is booming, the results of a growing global population with a keen thirst for knowledge. But how can today's schools and universities prepare students for a world that doesn't yet exist?

Education is a trillion-dollar industry …

… and it’s getting bigger. OECD countries devote 11.3% of public spending to education, an average of US$10,493 per student per year. Spending per student on primary and secondary education has increased by almost 20% since 2006.

UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goal 4 is that every one of its 193 member states spends 4-6% of GDP and/or 15-20% of total public expenditure on education by 2030.

It’s growing because there are more young people to be educated. But also because the level of education among the global population is increasing. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals aimed for universal primary education by 2015.

By 2015, 91% of children in developing regions were enrolled, up from 83% in 2000 — an increase of 43 million children.

People are making the link between education and economic success.

The OECD evaluates 72 national school systems using the PISA targets, testing 15 year olds on science, mathematics, reading and problem-solving. It estimates that if every child met the targets, the GDP of upper-middle-income countries would be 16% higher over the next 80 years. The GDP of lower-middle-income countries would be on average 28% higher over the next 80 years.

Since 1970, there has been a massive expansion in tertiary education around the world. As universities have become more accessible, enrolment has soared. On average, 36% of today’s young adults in OECD countries are expected to graduate at least once from tertiary education before they are 30.

The greatest expansion has taken place in Asia. Korea has the highest proportion of graduates: 67.7% of 25-34 year olds have been through tertiary education.

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Education must adapt to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Technology is transforming how we live, work, play and think. And it’s happening more quickly, and on a larger scale, than at any point in human history …

Education needs to equip today’s young people with the skills to thrive in tomorrow’s world. Even if we don’t know what it looks like yet.

Computers can not only be programmed to fulfil many human tasks, but learn how to do things for themselves, applying their processing power to massive datasets. Within just a few years, developments in technologies such as artificial intelligence, robotics, nanotechnology and 3D printing will transform most occupations.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Survey, “a wide range of occupations will require a higher degree of cognitive abilities — such as creativity, logical reasoning and problem sensitivity — as part of their core skill set. More than half of these do not yet do so today, or only to a much smaller extent”

“This will lay the foundation for a revolution more comprehensive and all-encompassing than anything we have ever seen”

World Economic Forum

“Half of today’s work activities could be automated by 2055.”
Less than 5% of occupations can be automated completely, but 60% could see 30% of their constituent activities automated.

This is a very different world to the one our schools and universities were designed to serve. Formal education came into being around the time of the first Industrial Revolution, and early schools were less about improving children’s minds than producing a punctual, obedient workforce for the new factories. As a conveyor belt for sorting, training and disciplining future workers, they were a kind of factory themselves.

“If you look at early images of the factory and early images of the school room, there’s not a lot of difference,” says sociologist and education specialist John Holm at SocioDesign in Australia. “The children are in rows, they’re facing front and they’re looking unhappy.”

“Mass education was the ingenious machine constructed by industrialism to produce the kind of adults it needed … to pre-adapt children for a new world — a world of repetitive indoor toil, smoke, noise, machines, crowded living conditions, collective discipline, a world in which time was to be regulated not by the cycle of the sun and moon, but by the factory whistle and the clock”

Excerpt from ‘Future Shock’ by Alvin Toffler

In many respects, things have changed little. In today’s classrooms and lecture theatres, students are still expected to sit in rows, listening to the teacher.

This “industrial classroom” is no longer fit for purpose, argues educationalist Erica McWilliam:  “Schooling as a preparation for the future continues to anticipate a social order that is on the wane.”

We need to reshape it for the 21st century.

How do you teach a digital native when they can just Google it?

“Now that information is widely available, we see the student taking an increasing amount of ownership and guiding their own learning, with the teacher providing mentorship and context along the way”

Jason Lembke, DLR Group

With a world of readily searchable knowledge at our fingertips, we don’t need to memorize facts any more. In fact, many things we traditionally learned at school might start to feel a little pointless in the digital age: handwriting, the rules of spelling and grammar, foreign languages …

But we will need new skills to help us manage the formidable tools at our disposal. We need to know how to interpret search results, critically assess the quality and veracity of information and make ethical judgements about how to use it, and we’ll need to think creatively to come up with solutions to increasingly complex global problems.

In the future, work will be structured around projects, not processes. That’s an important trend in education too.

“Active” or “problem-based” learning seeks to engage students’ natural curiosity, rather than simply presenting them with information. “That’s the big shift in the way we’re teaching: we’re starting to mix things up,” says John Holm at SocioDesign. “Instead of just saying ‘here’s stuff to remember’, it says ‘here’s a problem to solve’ and the students get involved in that problem.”

“When my children decide they’re interested in something, I’m amazed at how much relatively unstructured information they can hold. They both went crazy for Pokémon Go and they could tell you the properties of 150 little creatures. That’s because they’re motivated. That’s where we’re getting to as educators. We know that if we mix different ways of engaging with information, we get a better learning outcome. We also recognize that learning is a social process and that learning with others seems to have better outcomes.”

That means blurring traditional curriculum boundaries. Instead of splitting learning into different subjects, topics are taught in a more holistic, real-world way — so a lesson on the Vikings might include learning about history or geography, writing stories or working in a group to design and build a boat.

This is “phenomenon-based learning”. It emphasizes skills such as communication, creativity and critical thinking, and better prepares students to apply their knowledge in the 21st-century workplace.

It’s big in Finland. Long recognized as having one of the world’s most successful education models, Finland is adopting phenomenon-based learning for an increasing proportion of teaching time.

Under its National Curriculum Framework 2016, students will participate in at least one interdisciplinary module each year — which they will help to plan and assess themselves.

In this new world, the teacher plays a very different role. Today’s students are the first generation to have grown up with the internet, and the first to be educated by it. For both students and teachers, this new learning journey is uncharted territory. So how can the teacher lead?

Educationalist Erica McWilliam has characterized a shift from the teacher as the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side” to the “meddler in the middle”. The meddler in the middle learns alongside students, challenging them to expand their horizons.

“They just looked at me, flabbergasted. They said, ‘We never do anything for an entire afternoon’. The concept was totally foreign to them”

Next-generation learning spaces will be ‘flipped’.

The teacher-as-meddler doesn’t need to stand at the front of the class to impart their wisdom, and students don’t come to class just to listen. So they don’t need to sit in rows facing the front. And why do we even need a “front”?

In the education system of the future, homework will happen before the lesson. “Teachers can record structured content for you to absorb at your own pace,” says John Holm at SocioDesign. “Then when you come into the classroom, they can help you solve the problem.”

This is the “flipped” classroom. It’s bigger: Holm says that traditional desks in rows allowed around 1m2 per student. In an active learning space, that rises to 3m2. And it’s totally wired: multiple monitors allow students to review course materials and look things up on the internet as an intrinsic part of the classroom experience. This combination of traditional teaching and online media is called “blended learning”.

Schools and universities will need a much wider variety of places for learning — from spaces where large groups can work together to secluded corners for concentration, and everything
in between.

“We have moved away from the notion of students in rows reverently listening to a guru at the front, to more interactive, technology-rich learning environments where the relationship between teacher and student is radically different”

Stefan Jakobek, HOK

Collaboration will be a core skill.

As routine tasks are taken over by computers, workers will be valued for the creativity and intuition that only the human mind can offer (for now). They will be prized for their ability to innovate, communicate and collaborate in global teams.

For universities, innovation is crucial as they compete for funding — scientific breakthroughs can be patented and licensed, and a high research ranking helps them to attract fee-paying students. “They’re beginning to break down the silos for faculties and departments and instead talk about the need to glue people together in different ways,” says Philip Ross, founder and CEO of consultant Unwork.

“Design is about creating ways to bring people together, who may not be used to the idea, into a rich, collaborative environment,” says Stefan Jakobek, education lead at HOK. “The idea is to put disparate people together in one place, so maybe if a person studying Ebola bumps into someone focused on the human genome, they might have this great conversation and new ideas are sparked.”

“You don’t just learn in the classroom or lecture hall, you learn from each other, you learn outside, at the dining table or the coffee shop. Two or three students sitting around a table with their laptops is a wonderful learning environment”

Stefan Jakobek, HOK

Much of this work must take place in secure labs. “So you create layers of space, some of which are discrete and others more collaborative. At one end, you might have a secure laboratory, at the other a social space where researchers from different disciplines can just sit and talk about the meaning of life. We’re looking to interconnect people physically and visually — the atrium at the Crick Institute in London allows users to look up or down at what’s happening. Ideas happen in the corridor almost as much as the laboratory. What you don’t want is a building full of enclosed spaces.”

This is a common theme for university design. HOK is currently designing a College of Computer Science and Engineering for the University of Kuwait to combine five disparate departments: computer science, computer engineering, software engineering, information systems and bioinformatics. “The university leadership understands that all science is now computer science. If they are to move the university forward they know they must create a new cross-disciplinary college to influence thought across every discipline on the campus. It must become a catalyst for new ideas.”

More social models of learning also work better as tertiary education has expanded, says Holm. “When my generation was at uni, there were 60 people in a lecture and 10-15 in a seminar. These days, there might be 300 people at a lecture and 60 at a seminar. Previously the person with all the knowledge could engage with everyone in the room. Now most of our systems are too large for that personal connection to work. So moving to small group learning reflects an acknowledgment that the old style of didactic teaching isn’t working any more.”

“Work is no longer a place that you go, it’s something that you do, and it’s the same for learning. We’re moving away from fixed technologies that anchor you down to a piece of wood. There’s still a need for specialized spaces for different activities, but the emphasis is now on a mix of spaces and giving people a choice”

Philip Ross, Unwork

Technology is at the heart of the learning space of the future.

“When technology arrived in the classroom, all it was doing was enhancing the blackboard or the whiteboard or the projection surface,” says Roneel Singh, technology systems director at WSP in Australia. “We wanted to look at how it could enhance the content or the role of the teacher, rather than just having the teacher behind a Starship Enterpr-style control panel.”

In the mid 2000s, Singh’s team started working with the Association of University Technology Managers to develop technology in teaching spaces, taking inspiration from some unlikely sources — such as U2’s pioneering “in-the-round” staging from the 360° tour.  “It was all about changing the style of teaching, to make it more intuitive and interactive. To make lectures as valuable as possible while people are there, so they’re not just listening to something they could have watched on a video. They are actually able to immerse themselves in the environment.”

In this new kind of learning space, students use multiple media sources simultaneously, sitting alongside people from different disciplines who are solving very different problems, alone or in groups. “Learning shouldn’t be a one-way flow of information,” says Singh. “The technology needs to support real-time student-to-student, teacher-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction. Today we can use the flexibility of data networks and software to create dynamic learning environments, without the huge cost and rigidity of traditional AV infrastructure.”


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We are entering the age of the “superlab”. The future is also about teaching at scale. Superlabs are multidisciplinary, saturated with technology, able to accommodate much larger groups but also much smaller ones without wasting any space. The first opened in London in 2006, at London Metropolitan University. It could hold up to 280 students taking part in 12 simultaneous classes.

But other kinds of teaching space are getting smaller, as students no longer need to be in the room. WSP designed the building services for One Parramatta Square, a 14-storey “vertical campus” for Western Sydney University. It built up rather than out, right in the city centre so local workers can access courses easily. “There is no lecture theatre, just lots of 48 and 60-person seminar rooms,” says Singh. “They’re expecting another 20 or 30 people to join remotely. The intent is to create a seamless environment. They’ll be able to ask questions and be part of the session as well. The lecturer can walk around and write on any whiteboard, and it’s all captured on cameras and microphones all around the room. So the whole room is a live session.”

The next frontier is a totally immersive teaching experience. Tools for 3D models and visualizations already exist — now we just have to make them work at scale in the classroom or lecture theatre: “Being able to take 3D models and interact with them will become the norm,” says Singh. “We’re maybe five, at most eight years away.”

“Every screen we put in, the first question we get asked is whether it’s a touchscreen. If not, why not? Universities have to use stickers saying ‘This is not a touchscreen’ because people are so used to being able to walk up and do stuff”

Roneel Singh, WSP

Transforming education will be expensive. How can we pay for it?

We need more, better quality education buildings saturated with the latest technology. As education expands in the east, there is a need for new teaching spaces to accommodate a rapidly growing student body. Meanwhile, the schools and universities of the west — many built in the immediate postwar period or the 1960s and 70s — are ill-suited to new learning styles and in need of refurbishment. But who’s going to pay?

To meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on education, an additional 26 million teachers will be needed by 2030.


Use standardized buildings

Stockholm is Europe’s fastest growing city, its population expected to rise by 20% by 2020. Every day, it has 100 new residents — and demand for school places is soaring. This has prompted SISAB, which builds and maintains 600 of the city’s schools, to look for more efficient ways of doing it.

One answer has been a standard template for preschool buildings, for children aged one to five, which can be configured for five, six or eight classes. “A lot of elements are already designed, especially internally, so we don’t have to start with a blank sheet of paper each time,” explains Claes Magnusson, SISAB’s chief executive. “We can build more quickly and economically, and at a higher quality as well, because when we designed the template we took the best parts from all the schools we’d done.” So far, it has built eight, there are seven more under construction and a further 20 planned. Magnusson would like to apply the same methodology to schools for older children — but that’s more difficult. “The buildings are much larger, so they’re more difficult to fit into their environment.”

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Use facilities more efficiently

Schools and universities could open up their facilities to the community. “Today, many schools are used well before and after the bell rings every day,” says Jason Lembke, principal and K-12 educational leader at DLR Group. “Communities aren’t necessarily willing to put forth large sums of money to multiple government constituencies, such as K-12 institutions and universities. They are looking for commonality and congruency in what those spaces can do for them.” Combining those resources can make them go further.

Another option is to displace school activities to buildings off-campus. Fredrik Bergström, analysis & strategy director at WSP in Sweden, has noticed schools experimenting with new models of provision, particularly in the independent sector: “It’s expensive to build a whole gym, so instead students might use the facilities in a local gym instead. Some schools no longer have a canteen, they give pupils money to eat in discounted local restaurants. They even come to the restaurant in our office.”

A 2006 study of UK universities found that the median space utilization rate was just 27% over the core teaching week. Rooms were used for just over half the time, and when they were used, they were just under half full.

“The challenge for governments is how to finance all these new schools and universities when they also need to finance a lot of other things”

Fredrik Bergström, WSP


Forge stronger links with industry

By engaging with corporate interests, institutions can secure funding and new opportunities for their students. The University of Warwick’s Manufacturing Group is building a National Automotive Innovation Centre where its academics will work alongside researchers from industry. “It’s a move away from the traditional ‘us and them’ approach,” explains Jonathan Jones, associate director at WSP. “Organizations such as Jaguar Land Rover are seeing a bunch of guys beavering away in universities and they’ve noticed that they’re doing the same as their R&D teams. So they’re collaborating with them directly and funding their experiments, by creating new posts and research projects, and therefore new teaching environments. For the university, it allows them to create a better graduate experience.”

The line between corporate and academic interests will continue to blur. We will see new players, new alliances — and perhaps the expansion of “corporate universities”, established by tech giants to ensure a supply of talented graduates.

“The possibilities are endless,” says Yasser Tufail, project director at WSP in the UAE. “As tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple expand, so does their need for specialist knowledge. Conventional education has largely been unable to meet this demand, as the technology sector has evolved so rapidly. One scenario could be that students are channelled through a structured, tailored corporate curriculum, to become career professionals almost seamlessly. This will not happen overnight and there won’t be a total shift, but it will be part of the mix.”


Use public-private partnerships 

In the public-private partnership (PPP) model, a private company builds the facility and rents it back to the public services provider for an agreed period and cost. PPPs are often viewed as an innovative way to provide education for all, and to expand or improve education systems efficiently. But there are also concerns about accountability and their true impact on learning outcomes and access, quality and cost. As a recent UNESCO report noted: “Evidence on the performance of PPPs in providing social goods and services as compared to traditional state provision is highly contradictory and, ultimately, context-specific.”

“The big push is to get more schools places to meet the increasing size of the population, and the maximum quality for the minimum cost”

Jonathan Jones, WSP


Ask students to pay more

The most significant trend in global higher education is a shift from free to fee-paying models. As governments seek alternatives to public funding, policymakers in many countries are contesting that those who benefit most from education — the individuals themselves — should bear more of the costs. Students and their families are contributing a greater share via tuition fees, and foreign students often pay significantly more than domestic students.

Rather than beneficiaries of a service, students are now paying customers — which puts them in a far more powerful role. To survive, each university must compete to attract the highest-paying students in a marketplace that is more fluid and more demanding than ever before.

Between 2010 and 2014, 10 out of 25 OECD countries introduced funding models that increased tuition fees. In OECD countries, 30% of funding now comes from private sources — a much greater share than at lower levels of education. Two-thirds is contributed by households.

“It costs a lot to build new schools. PPP is not necessarily cheaper in the long run, but it’s cheaper in the short run because municipalities don’t have to put up the money immediately”

Fredrik Bergström, WSP

In the new global marketplace, institutions must compete for students.

Students are more mobile than ever. International experience is prized, and a qualification from a prestigious institution abroad is highly desirable for the growing middle class in the east. Between 1990 and 2014, the number of students who enrolled abroad tripled.

Universities have leapt at the chance to boost enrolment — and their coffers. On average, foreign students pay US$8-10,000 more in university fees than domestic students. To attract them, institutions have been investing in new facilities and student accommodation, and promoting themselves in key markets.

“Economic growth and technology are globalizing the education sector and it’s having a profound impact on leading universities: their biggest challenge today is adapting their estates”

Yasser Tufail, WSP

Traditionally, the top destinations for students were the US, UK, France, Germany and Australia. In 2014, OECD countries hosted three foreign students for every one of their own citizens studying elsewhere. But western universities will face growing competition for these visitors. Asia is also becoming a destination, particularly for students within the region. The number of Indonesian students in China has grown by 10% every year since 2010. The number of South Koreans more than doubled between 2003 and 2012. In 2011, China became the world’s third most popular destination, beaten only by the UK and US.

Universities travel too. Many have set up international branches, often part-funded by governments to build their “soft power” abroad. Today, institutions from 33 countries have branch campuses in 76 host countries. The biggest source countries were traditionally the US, UK and Australia, and their hosts were in the Persian Gulf and, more recently, Asia.

In recent years, the appeal of the branch campus has waned, with questions over enrolment numbers, quality, return on investment, and reputational risk. Forty-two have closed.

There are less risky ways to internationalize. Global partnerships can increase institutions’ appeal in the domestic market, or make them more attractive regional destinations.

Sten Wetterblad is a developer of university buildings in Sweden. His daughter studied at Stockholm’s KTH, but her degree was also awarded by Stanford. “She only went to the US twice, for two or three days. Her exam discussion with her professor was in person, but the rest of the time she had her lessons from Stanford online. She has friends from South Korea, Serbia, Germany — they met just twice but worked together online.”

“We see smaller communities reaching out through technology to e-mentors that might exist anywhere in the world,” says Jason Lembke at DLR Group. “Students can access opportunities beyond what might physically exist in their own communities.”

In the future, institutions could have multiple sister campuses around the world, he adds. “So I’ll be based at my home campus in Nairobi, but I might do a stint at my sister campus in Boston. That will allow me to take greater ownership of my academic career, because the cultural experience I get from travelling and interacting with others beyond my home campus further broadens my perspective.”

“If I have the choice to study a module from my local institution or at MIT out of Massachusetts, there’s a huge differential in terms of prestige”

John Holm, SocioDesign

When you can study online, why would you want to go to a campus?

Institutions can have a global presence just by putting their courses online. And students can study at a globally renowned university without even leaving the house. Massive online open courses — or MOOCs — are distance-learning programmes with no entry requirements, completed via the internet, and available to an unlimited number of participants.

MOOCs were invented in 2006. Stanford began offering them in 2011. In 2012, edX was founded by Harvard and MIT, to offer courses from the world’s best institutions. It now has 90 global partners, and more than 1,500 courses. “MOOCs will change the landscape and make this a global market,” says SocioDesign’s Holm. He predicts the education sector’s many small and medium providers will eventually consolidate into a few market-leaders. “Globally branded universities will start to become true global brands. That hasn’t happened before because you always had to go and sit in class.”

Top five MOOCs providers by registered users

1. Coursera: 23 million

2. edX: 10 million

3. XuetangX: 6 million

4. FutureLearn: 5.3 million

5. Udacity: 4 million

Or to put it another way, the physical buildings and their surroundings will become more important than ever …

In 2016, 58 million students took 6,850 online courses from 700+ universities. 23 million people registered for a MOOC for the first time.

So how can local institutions compete? By focusing on the experience of going to university. State-of-the-art learning spaces, inspiring architecture, affordable but high-quality accommodation, a good atmosphere on campus, a strong sense of community, cafes and bars, sports, leisure and retail … oh, and great teaching too.

As Alex Solk, partner at Sheppard Robson, puts it: “If the collaborative campus experience was optional instead of being essential to a university’s educational offer, wouldn’t the Open University model dominate the marketplace?

“We need to make campus areas attractive, so that you get something more than you do from your computer,” says Wetterblad. “In the future, it’s going to be hard for universities that are not attractive, that do not have a good reputation or a nice campus.”

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