Education in the time of the third Industrial Revolution

Education systems were built to serve the first and second Industrial Revolutions. Neither education nor production models have really changed, until now. The third Industrial Revolution is upon us – people can access and create content anywhere, any time and increasingly this also includes manufacturing/making capabilities. How can we develop new education models to reflect this and to enable increasingly flexible, experimental and fairer learning environments, that help build a more resilient and confident workforce for the future?

The first and second Industrial Revolutions have dictated the way we manufacture and consume everything, from products and spaces to food and information, for over one hundred and fifty years. Education models that were initially designed to create a workforce fit for a burgeoning industrial sector have changed little over the same time period.

As we see the birth of the third Industrial Revolution, and the resultant shift in producer-consumer relationships (towards mass-customisation and domestic manufacturing) what does an educational model for the future look like, and how can it mirror this shifting dynamic to increase the role of learners in shaping the content, location and ways in which they learn?

The first and second Industrial Revolutions

People today have access to an extraordinary range of products and services. For several decades it has been possible to buy and consume almost anything imaginable. During this time the vast majority of production has been built around the models of the second Industrial Revolution i.e. remote mass production, freight and sale. Wherever possible consumer and product are kept apart until the point of purchase.

Therefore, while we the consumer have seemingly infinite choice, we are mostly choosing between a range of products designed to be manufactured at scale and to be consumed by as many people as possible. You could also describe these products as designed to be the least-worst option for millions, as opposed to the best option for any given individual. The impact of this can largely be summed up as relationships built on trust. In this context trust equals reliability. We see this not just in consumption of products, but services such as rail and health too. Generally, the consumer is happy when they trust the reliability of the product or service they are using. Trust breaks down very quickly as the product or service breaks down.

The first Educational Revolution

As has been well documented by eminent brains such as Sir Ken Robinson, state education systems were also created on a model of mass consumption and production, though in this context the ‘consumption’ is knowledge and the product is a suitable workforce. Universally available free education is a relatively new concept and dates to exactly the time that rapidly industrialising nations were seeing the necessary growth in GDP to invest in such macro-projects; the 1800s. Logically, the birth of these systems mirrored the hugely successful industrial growth of the era. Schools and schooling were built as factories of education, with the primary aim being to produce a ‘workforce’ of people to fit the burgeoning production lines of the industrialising world.

The third Industrial Revolution

While the first and second Industrial Revolutions happened sequentially, almost concurrently, since then we have seen over 100 years of stagnation when it comes to  the broad principles of economic development and manufacturing. That is not to ignore the huge developments in technologies and production during that period, but rather to recognise the relatively minimal shift in methodology, particularly since the first production of Henry Ford’s Model-T in 1908 spawned the birth of mass-production of consumer products.

Now through the rise of digital manufacturing we are starting to see the idea of mass-customisation as opposed to mass-consumption coming to prominence. Technological and ideological developments have seen producers able to offer even more choice to consumers via their input before the point of purchase i.e. during production. Equally, consumers now demand more involvement in decision-making than ever. However, most current mass-market examples such as Nike ID still rely on existing models of production, and therefore consumption, creating an illusion of customisation more than a reality. Nike mass-produce shoe parts, and allow customers to assemble them in whichever fashion they choose, but the range of choice is still restricted by predetermined factory output at mass-production scale.

However, the birth and growth of digital manufacturing and associated software is now starting to afford consumers the opportunity for the creation and manufacture of truly customised and high quality products, parts and even edibles in small spaces such as the comfort of one’s home or classroom. Techniques such as 3D printing create the potential to ‘manufacture’ whatever we need or want, when we want it and to be able to customise more freely. This sees us at a rather Gladwellian tipping point, where the ideologies of the industrialised world can be challenged and a shift in power from producer to consumer could come into existence at mass-market level.

This in turn raises some interesting questions. If a consumer can play a much greater role in the production of goods, then how does their relationship with said products change? Do we see a greater sense of ownership developed, an increased sense of value and therefore interest in preservation and maintenance, even celebration of possessions? Do we therefore see a change in the volume of consumption or in the value of objects to their owners? Does producer-power change? Does the paradigm of trust equalling reliability shift towards trust equalling belonging? That is to say, if the consumer has involvement and control over the production of goods, do they feel they belong to the object and the object belongs to them? Could these same approaches be applied to services, such as education?

The second Educational Revolution

Preceding the third Industrial Revolution was the birth of the digital age. We are now able to consume information on any topic in a manner which suits us. The impact this has on learning is profound, with infinitely more information on any given subject available at the click of a button than could ever be disseminated by a teacher or textbook. There is an argument that this negates the requirement for formal ‘teaching’ in the traditional sense. Why would you ‘teach’ a subject when immediate access to the world’s information is omnipresent and accessible through an increasing range of devices?

Therefore should we see a shift from traditional notions of a teacher-pupil relationship, to one with the onus on educators to facilitate free-learning by becoming catalysts, enablers and inspirers for accessing information, as opposed to conduits for prescribed and predetermined nuggets of information often presented as subjective?

A Continued link – Mass Customisation

As we look towards the potential of new economic models and understand that the lines between consumer and producer will continue to become more blurred, is it prescient to consider the future divisions between learners and educators in the same fashion? Can we mirror developments in mass-customisation of products in the way we learn?

Perhaps it is now possible to consider loosening the framework of a curriculum to enable more exploration and applied learning, more learning through making? Equally, how do technological developments, particularly those with a physical output, afford learners the opportunity to shape the environment in which they learn as well as the content they are learning? Are we seeing a shift away from institutions being the dominant providers of structured learning (and other public services) in the same way we might with products and producers?

As accessing content has become immeasurably easier in the past decade, so too has creating content, both physically and digitally. If accessing content that interests a learner allows for the mass customisation of a curriculum, imagine the possibilities of open creation to sit alongside this. If learners have access to information about what interests them, and the tools to challenge, develop and experiment with ideas around it, perhaps learning could become a more tantalising and dynamic experience for many more people.

How might a less prescribed curriculum, combined with greater exploration through access to digital content and ‘making’ tools, encourage more peer-to-peer interaction and learning? Professionally we naturally work in groups and teams, but in education we are habitually encouraged to learn by ourselves, with our successes or failures measured as individuals. Is this something that we can challenge at a macro level in the way that Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole In The Wall’ has experimented with in India?

The answer (if there is one) I suspect lies somewhere in between the current scenario of highly prescriptive curricula and the free-form ‘Digital Steiner School’ scenario some might imagine. Being more definitive than that would be guesswork. However, to summarise here are five key points I feel should define the future of education policy:

1. If it exists, use it. Don’t be scared of technology in a classroom, and it doesn’t need to be expensive.

2. Experiment. Successful businesses, people and organisations don’t stand still, they try things. Some work, some don’t, but it’s all progress.

3. Collaborate. If possible, do not measure success of a learner by comparing them to others. Equally, if possible have them work with others and allow their success to be defined collectively.

4. Get personal. Afford learners the space to customise their education (within subjects as well as between subjects) and give them the space to explore their interests whenever possible.

5. Engage everyone. If learners are bored, unresponsive or under-achieving, it’s the system that’s broke, not them.