Learning in 2069?

Why our digital learning community should talk less about technology and more about the larger social and economic trends.

January 9, 2019

My school's alumni magazine recently published a piece about what the institution will look like in 2069 (in which I have some quotes).

If we narrowed our focus to learning, what can we say now about how things will look in 2069?

Faced with the question of coming up with plausible scenarios learning 50 years hence, we may be tempted first think about technology. Surely by 2069, we will have generalizable artificial intelligence and virtual/augmented reality implanted into our eyeballs. Our brains will be wired directly to the digital network, with information retrievable at the speed of thought.

Or not.

If the past 50 years has shown us anything, it is that predicting the pace and direction of technological advancement is exceedingly difficult. A technology-first approach to thinking about what learning might look like in 50 years will inevitably lead us to a vision of The Matrix, with all of us plugging our brains directly into whatever comes after Google.

A better approach to unpacking the future of learning in 2069 may be to think about the impact of long-term trends as they play out over the next 50 years. We can talk about demographic trends (the aging of the population brought on by lower fertility and longer life expectancies), environmental trends (climate change and the resulting increase in extreme weather), and economic trends (wealth growth combined with rising levels of inequality).

Of these three trends, the clearest one likely impacting learning in 2069 will be demographic. It is doubtful in 50 years if the first thing that we think of when someone says “higher education” is 18- to 21-year-olds. Today’s reality is already one where 18- to 21-year-old students account for the minority (42 percent) of all those enrolled in higher education. In 50 years, when between a fifth and quarter of the population will be over 65, most universities will likely be educating mostly middle-aged and older adults.

The way for colleges to prepare for tomorrow's older population structure, and for a future where U.S. fertility may fall to levels of Japan or Korea or Italy, is to start designing programs for older learners today. How many traditional universities have created leadership roles around aging? How many traditional colleges are thinking systematically about what it may mean for their business models when the primary demand for postsecondary education comes from older adults?

What about the question of the relationship between climate change, the growth of extreme weather events and the future of learning? Have we thought about how climate change might influence higher education? I worry about the resiliency of many residential colleges and universities to survive the sort of extreme weather (hurricanes, floods) that we are all likely to experience in the next 50 years.

Online, blended and low-residency education should not only be thought of as a new and different way than residential teaching to offer programs and serve students. Instead, leadership at residential schools should be thinking of digital learning as a critical element of business continuity planning and institutional resilience. There is far too little planning going on at our schools to ensure that teaching and learning operations can continue if students and professors can’t make it to campus.

Looking at the learning in 2069 through an economic lens is perhaps the most interesting, and also the most worrying. Thinking about the economy of 2069, and therefore about the relationship between economics and higher ed, requires us to grapple with two seemingly contrasting realities. The first reality is that the U.S. will be much richer than it is today. In our age of worry and insecurity, it is hard to come to grips with the idea that our grandchildren will be wealthier than us. Is not downward mobility a thing?

What is going on is that our brains are not wired to comprehend compound growth. The impact of time and even modest growth, however, can be astounding on both income and wealth. Even if our economy only grows at very moderate rates (2 percent or less), U.S. GDP per capita will be around $90,000 (in today’s dollars). Population growth in the U.S. will continue, but national wealth will grow more quickly.

The other reality, however, that we need to keep in mind is that wealth is likely to be more concentrated in 2069 than it is today. Our future society will be much wealthier, but that wealth will be mostly held by a small percentage of the population.

We will see these wealth and inequality growth trends play out in extreme fashions across colleges and universities. The magic of compound growth will mean that today’s wealthiest institutions will be almost unimaginably more wealthy in 2069 than they are today.

Take the example of Stanford University. Stanford’s endowment increased from $318 million in 1971 ($1.96 billion in 2017 dollars) to $24.7 billion in 2017. Today’s wealthy universities may be 10 times as wealthy (in constant dollars) in 2069 as they are today.

At the same time, the vast majority of colleges and universities will continue to struggle to find economic models that will enable them to stay in business. Demographic, cost, political and competitive trends are all conspiring to destroy legacy revenue models built on tuition and public funding.

What will the combination of unprecedented wealth accumulation and wealth inequality mean for learning in 2069?

Are we likely to see a further pulling apart of the “college experience” between those able to access wealthy institutions (via their own resources or by merit), or will the wealthy few schools find ways to support the larger higher ed ecosystem? Should our thinking about the future of higher education focus on the vast majority of students, or on the minority of those attending a few (ever-wealthier) institutions?

Those of us in digital learning would be smart to direct at least some of our focus away from technology trends and toward the broader social and economic trends that will determine the context for the future of learning.

Our digital learning community should be talking less about tools and technologies -- and more about economics, demographics and policy.

What forces do you think will most shape learning in higher ed between now and 2069?


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