Education 2020

Author/Producer Stephen Heppell
Published in Newsletter No 10, Spring 2008
Date Published 28 February 2008


An article exploring where technology is taking us in the next decade and beyond


Looking back, one huge impact of technology in learning has been to lower and soften all the barriers that had previously been erected in the age of factory learning. Today, we talk about lifelong learning, project based work spans the artificial divides of subject disciplines, learning has spilled out of dedicated institutions into the community, work, the family. New schools are losing their corridors and classrooms in favour of more agile space. Everywhere, there is a blurring of function and detail that is congruent with what is happening in the economy as technology changes the rules of engagement so that, for example, the clear lines around a “job for life” give way to a portfolio career. Make no mistake, it is technology that has allowed this to happen, although arguably the technology of a previous generation – of production lines, specialisation, time-and-motion and productivity – falsely built that partitioning anyway. In the 20th century we built big things that did things for people, like the BBC, the rail network, or a National Curriculum. In the 21st century technology empowers and democratises and the main success stories of this century from Facebook through Google to online communities of practice are about helping people to help each other. That will be education too, and well before 2020.

As computers have become dramatically more powerful (Intel's latest family of chips have 820 million transistors on them almost double that of their immediate predecessor), we have been able to make huge progress in areas previously closed to us decoding the human genome springs to mind. Our understanding of the complexity of learning and cognition is a likely next candidate for a leap of this magnitude.

Performance WILL leap forward. We WILL know a lot more about effective learning. Our students WILL be smarter than us. A joke amongst medical futures experts is that by 2050 you might expect to live to 200, but your great great grandchildren will be so smart that they will probably keep you as a pet!

So what does all this mean for learning? It's relatively simple to look forward, to follow the clearly sign-posted trends, and to imagine what further changes are yet to come. So, let us do just that and list a few certainties. 2020 is not very far away, but this much we know:

1) As a world of one size fits all gives way to a world of personalisation, education will need to follow to survive. Individual, bespoke degrees, tailored to the individual needs of each student are inevitable. It is a student centric, not institution centric, world.

2) This is a global economy we are all in, which will mean global education just as it means world cars. That is not the same as a few UK universities at a student recruitment fair in Beijing! It means fully international learning institutions. We don't have any yet, but by 2020 they will dominate.

3) The traditional breaks in learning will be further eroded. Single organisations might take a learner on a womb to tomb learning journey, rather than jumping from school, to college, to professional qualifications. Those single organisations will not be based on geographical location, but on values, ethos and branding. The most important word in this is community not location.

4) Many teachers and lecturers will pass through education, but not stay. Their experience as learning professionals will be valued and marketable. Many will see a few years teaching in education as a springboard to the boardroom later.

5) Most of what you did at 21 children today do at 16. Inevitably, with new freedoms in place, this will include learning too. Reflect.

6) No doubt you will have watched youngsters playing on Nintendos, PSPs, iTouches etc. Obviously, they won't power-down to enter educational establishments, so if we don't power-up learning they won't come, and Web CT, Blackboard or whatever is NOT powered-up learning.

7) Only a few countries are good at automobiles, only a few are good at designing computers, only a handful have global cinema industries.

It will be the same with education by 2020 a really interesting question for the UK is whether we think we will be one of that handful, or not...

However, 2008 is predicted as the first year when a computer science student’s first year undergraduate work will be outdated before they graduate. We might debate the detail of this, but it is clear that criterion referencing does not sit comfortably with this pace of change. We need new consensual ways to assess both the outcomes of students' learning and of our learning organisations. When Labour came to power in 1997 they commendably wanted education to be ‘better’, but without a vision of future learning that concept of ‘better’ was translated by the Treasury and others into a highly simplistic monitoring of very few variables. Thus, despite a lot of helpful talk about education's pivotal role in building self-esteem, lowering crime rates (‘tough on the causes...’), building a love of learning, engendering creativity and ingenuity, developing citizenship, nurturing healthy eating, cutting teenage pregnancy, and more, the only school output the Treasury recognises is GCSE A to Cs in blocks of five or more and inevitably education's contribution to those other key outputs above was muted.

Without much, much better metrics, contextually and culturally located, of learning outcomes our biggest certainty for 2020 is that whatever happens between now and then will be diminished and undervalued. We have far less than the 12 years until 2020 to get this right. Education is changing rapidly and change is opportunity. If you care about learning, it really is a time to stand up and be counted, in every sense.

For more information about Stephen’s work visit