Despite significant challenges, education has been one of the world’s success stories. Consider the following: in 1820, 88% of the world’s population was illiterate, compared to only 14% in 2016. Between 1970 & 2020, the percentage of adults without formal education went from 23% to less than 10%.
Throughout this expansion in learning, the education model has remained largely intact. But technological advancements, as well as other developments (the impact of a global pandemic among them) are rapidly changing our approach. So what lies ahead for the education sector?
To understand the trends shaping modern education, we need first to look at population growth. By 2050, the world’s population is projected to grow by another 2 billion to 9.7 billion. Despite this increase, growth rates have declined globally since the middle of the 20th century. In short, the old are getting older, creating sizable fiscal and economic pressures on already stretched pension and healthcare systems, mainly within developed economies. The reality of living longer means we will likely be working longer if we are to survive economically.
Demographics aside, another significant pressure on economies is the rapid development of technology, which has enabled automation and increased efficiencies in life and the workplace. As we embrace these new technologies old economy jobs will increasingly be lost, and while this will be a difficult transition for many, our experience of the industrial revolution shows that new opportunities will inevitably present themselves.
Education will be a crucial factor in this transition. In particular, governments and industry will have to ensure the workforce – both old and young – is prepared for the challenges ahead by focusing on upskilling, reskilling, and retraining. Increasingly, the arena in which this retraining takes place is online.
The internet allows for education to take place anywhere at any given time. As the world’s population grows, global internet access is also increasing. By 2050, it is estimated that 90% of the global population will have access to broadband internet services, compared to roughly half of the global population today. The opportunity for the online education sector is therefore huge.
The decentralisation of education may have been catalysed by the pandemic, however, the trend toward remote education has been underway for some time. The virtual classroom and online education have seen tremendous growth over the past decade, in both developed and emerging nations. From 2020-2028, the global online education market is anticipated to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 12.68%.
The university sector has already embraced the potential from offering online courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, have seen strong growth; between 2012 and 2018, the number of MOOCs available increased by around 683%, and the total number of students enrolled climbed from 10 million in 2013 to 81 million currently. Universities are now also examining how a blended approach to teaching (involving less time in campus) might work. For a sector that is weighed down by heavy levels of debt (both for students and institutions) the potential opportunities – and threats – are significant.
As access to online education increases, the number of people without formal education is forecasted to reduce from 10% today to around 5% in 2050. For lower-income or developing nations, decentralised learning offers greater access and flexibility that traditional education cannot.
Learning in a virtual world
Not only has access to education improved, but the quality and nature of teaching are also evolving. Technological innovations such as augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), haptics, cloud computing and machine learning (AI) will make education much more virtual, immersive, and hands-on. These developments will allow for greater personalisation and enhancement of an individual’s education. AI and machine learning algorithms will be able to monitor and assess students’ progress, providing areas of improvement in aspects of their studies.
While currently two different technologies, by 2050 AR and VR will be indistinguishable due mainly to advances in Haptic technology. AR and VR are currently limited to stimulating touch sensation and motion perception. Haptic devices stimulate our five senses and somatosensory perception — pressure, pain, temperature etc. In all, Haptic tech can provide users with a realistic experience as it can detect the surrounding environment it is being operated in. By 2050 haptic technology, AR, and VR will be able to work in tandem with each other to create a realistic and entirely immersive environment. Students will be able, for example, to be in a certain time or place in history, and to interact with that environment. Furthermore, advanced haptic feedback technology can provide virtual practical or physical training instead of theoretical education, which is currently the only form of online education.
There is a strong possibility that advancements in AI and robotics will lead to classrooms being led by robotic or virtual teachers and assistants. The type of learning too is likely to be influenced by future professions and emerging technologies. As a result, students will likely allocate a substantial amount of their education to learning STEM-associated skills, such as robotics and coding.
The pandemic demonstrated that remote working did not affect productivity levels. It also confirmed that the way we learn must be flexible to get the most out of education. As we emerge from the pandemic and beyond, we expect to see many more challenges to the incumbent education model. Utilising technology will allow us to tailor education to all individuals. We may finally have found the means for ensuring that every person finds their path to success.