Imagining education of the future

No more state exams, physical classrooms, teacher-led mass learning. Instead, a curriculum tailored to the individual, learning any time, any where, any age, and from mentors, and also AI.

PHOTO: ST FILE

The speed with which Covid-19 spread round the globe and shifted the normal has been astounding, and we are still trying to figure out how it will affect the way we live, study, work and play after the pandemic has passed.

For schools, the adaptation to home-based learning (HBL) has been swift. Schools were shut down all over the world for two to three months and are only gradually reopening with safeguards against infection, such as safe distancing, temperature-taking, masks, reduced numbers, and so on.

Not every system in the world was ready for HBL with technology platforms, educational resources, adaptable teachers and Internet bandwidth at home. Singapore did well to quickly adapt its Student Learning Space so that students could continue with some learning, though without the social interaction.

What further changes are likely to await us after this experience?

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

First, it's important to look at the existing educational system as it is now.

Today's system, worldwide, is adopted from the industrial model developed in 18th-and 19th-century Europe, designed to produce young workers - children of agricultural workers - for factory owners and industrialists.

The requirement was to produce students who could follow orders, were disciplined, did not question the existing hierarchy, and had basic numeracy, literacy and skills to work in a mechanical environment.

The characteristics of this model were schools and classrooms; teaching by repetition and learning by rote; lock-step progression by age-cohort, and tests to determine learning according to a standardised curriculum.

The pillars of such a system are: schools, students, teachers, a standardised curriculum and assessment and governance.

To a large extent, we have not moved the needle much since those days. Schools and classrooms are still brick and mortar, of standard sizes.

Students continue to attend these physical schools by age-cohort, according to a prescribed daily timetable which comprises individual subjects.

 
 
 

Teachers stand in front of the class and remain an authority figure as the source of correct knowledge, values and discipline.

The curriculum is fixed by a central body which determines what should be learnt by students - a state-legitimised curriculum - and students are tested against this. Progression depends on students reaching externally mandated standards.

Why has this system stood for three centuries without significant change, though the world around it has changed exponentially?

A primary reason is that the system has worked well to the benefit of business and industry, producing pliant employees who are numerate and literate.

A second reason is that it is not easy to reform a well-established education system due to legacy and structural rigidities. To even make incremental changes requires changes across a vast and complex system, and overcoming resistance from organised stakeholders like bureaucrats, parents, teachers' unions and conservative politicians.

FUTURE PILLARS

The pillars of education will still be the same as at present - curriculum, schools, teachers, technology, governance and students. However, what they mean in future will be unrecognisable.

Curriculum: The current sequential and linear nature of learning will become obsolete, giving way to a more varied and interesting "on-demand" curriculum, rather than a fixed and structured one. Student progress can be tracked through artificial intelligence (AI) and continuous adaptive testing, allowing each student to have a unique curriculum that is non-linear and based on aptitude and talent.

Subjects will give way to themes, with multidisciplinary and systems-oriented approaches to content. Textbooks will disappear, replaced by more dynamic online material in 3D or 4D. Students will have a much broader range of choices - in what they want to learn, how, when and with whom.

Curricula will move towards becoming more relationship-based, dealing with interactions, ethics and values. These will prepare students to face continuous disruption with equanimity and resilience. The emphasis will move towards increasing capacity for lifelong learning and knowing what is needed on a "just-in-time" basis.

Certification of learning through common, standardised and age-based landmark examinations will disappear.

Schools: With AI, it would be increasingly possible to track each student's learning capacity, pace, aptitude, and progress. In future, students can learn and progress at their own individual rate without being subject to the restrictions of their age-cohort.

Mixed age groups will become the norm, with students moving about as individuals and not as a class.

Learning will be driven by the students themselves, according to many options available, and need not be even on a full-time basis.

Schools in the current form would be obsolete as they are geared towards an outdated delivery model. Standard classrooms will give way to more diverse learning spaces such as malls, home, civic and community centres, places of worship, factories, zoos and hospitals - and possibly conducted by lay persons.

Teachers: Teaching as we now know it could disappear since knowledge and information is already freely available or by subscription. Online tutoring by world-class instructors will be available, using machine learning and AI technologies.

The authority of teachers as subject-matter experts will be eroded. Instead, teachers will become moral guides, putting issues in context and moderating discussions, and mentoring them on their learning curves.

These changes will redefine who can become teachers and how they are prepared for their new roles. In the new world, teachers will become students and vice-versa.

Technology: Technology will play a key role in the transformation of the education landscape, not just in the delivery of content, but also in determining the curriculum for each student, modulating the delivery methods across a spectrum of options and providing individual feedback.

Governance: With these changes, there will be challenges to the public sector from the private education market. The mandated standard legitimised curriculum will give way to a more open education system where content is sourced from anywhere.

Stresses will appear in the public sector and issues of equity and access will become accentuated. New regulations and laws may be needed to address issues of national priority.

Autonomy at the school level, with parents, employers and the community playing a greater part in the management of the school, and in extending the school beyond its physical structure, will be the new governance model.

Students: They will continue to be the core of the new educational system. They will have to get used to the fact that their friends will change regularly, they will have to make more informed choices, and decide what areas they would like mastery over. Their mastery over technology will be the first to be obvious.

Certainly, they will learn to take charge of their own lives with greater confidence and develop the capacity to understand and discover their own unlimited potential.

Students at the higher levels will seek meaning in their study rather than study for a piece of paper.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

We have outlined what we think needs to happen and will happen. However, it will be obstructed by vested interests, fear of the new and unknown and loss of control.

How to bring teachers, educators and parents on board will be the main challenge. This can be achieved through consultation, communication and scenario-planning the future. Political will and ability to take a long-term view will be critical. Incrementalism, though appealing to the risk-averse, needs to give way to more experimentalism.

  • Professor S. Gopinathan is the former dean of the School of Education at the National Institute of Education. Dr N. Varaprasad was the founding principal of Temasek Polytechnic, deputy president of the National University of Singapore and CEO of the National Library Board. Both are principal consultants at the Singapore Education Consulting Group.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2020, with the headline 'Imagining education of the future'. Subscribe