My Turn as a Futurist – The Mindshift Era

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I don’t really strive to be a futurist.  Technically, I am a Kurzweil descendant, so I’ve got that going for me.  I’ll leave the Ed Tech futurist stuff to the pros, though.  That being said, after you’ve been in the same field for 17 years, you see lots of ideas and threads and can’t help but to connect the dots.  So, consider this my first (and likely only) stab at painting the future of learning as I see it.  Big caveat — none of this is new and none of this is so insightful that I’m the only person to see it.  Many of my colleagues have talked about and written about elements of this vision over the years.  This is just me putting pen to paper to share how I see things shaking out.

What’s the scope?

Let’s start at the 50,000 foot level.  I have been in higher ed technology and data since 2002.  That’s my lens on education.  It’s focused on Higher Ed (more in the U.S. than globally), it touches on K-12 as a feeder into Higher Ed, and it connects with the workplace as one possible outcome for learning.  Along these lines, this post will comment on how learners acquire knowledge and how other parts of the ecosystem become aware of that knowledge.  What I won’t talk about in any depth is topics that are just as vital to understanding education such as affordability, teaching, assessment, or policy.  I’ve only got your attention for a few minutes…a guy’s gotta focus.

tl;dr — The Mindshift Era

The concept of Mindshift is that we as individuals own the process of amassing knowledge for ourselves, and we have a means to illustrate/demonstrate that to anyone who is interested.  How is that different from today?  Well, the “vanilla use case” for education today is this:

  • I pay lots of money to a college for a Bachelors degree
  • They teach me what they think I need to be taught
  • If I do well enough, they give me a seal of approval (a diploma) saying that I know what they think I should know
  • When I look for a job, I point to the diploma as a proof that I know what they want me to know

There’s a lot of trust in there and a lot of assumptions.  The Bachelors degree is a proxy…it’s a sign that I know the subject matter and that I busted my hump for four years to complete the program and its requirements.  This is fine…it’s worked OK…it worked for me…and it will continue to work…until it won’t.

There are too many forces at work these days that are pushing against this model.  The Bachelors degree is getting hit from many sides by folks who are trying to topple it as a the coin of the realm.  So what will the new world look like?  The Mindshift Era is a world where:

  • I decide what information I want/need to learn
  • I choose the provider(s) of that education, and that may or may not include an accredited degree program
  • I have a way of demonstrating/proving that I know what I know, and my potential employer or customer can see that information
  • When I think I need/want to learn more, I go out and get it

OK…the cat is out of the bag now.  All of you who are in the know can start to throw out terms like competencies, unbundling, micro-credentials, badges, etc.  Yup…that’s where I’m headed.  See?  I told you it wasn’t anything revolutionary.  It’s just saying that there are too many forces in play that want to shift to a more componentized and transactional approach to learning as opposed to the traditional monolithic ‘trust me’ approach that higher ed currently owns.  I’m not saying it’s optimal, and I’ll do my best to point out the weaknesses in this new model.  I just think that it’s inevitable, so I want to share my blueprints with anyone who will listen.  Oh, and by the way, I’m officially coining this trend as “The Mindshift Era”.  I know giving names to trends can be corny (Web 2.0, Web 3.0, The Gig Economy, IoT, 4th Industrial Revolution…), but it helps the discussion when you can easily and consistently name the thing you are talking about.

The Main Pieces

In order for Mindshift to work, there are a few large and fundamental pieces of the ecosystem that need to be in place.  As an analogy, Pokemon Go and Waze won’t work without GPS satellites in the sky.  What are the key pieces in my vision of learning?  I see three entities that need to emerge:

  • An agreed upon competency taxonomy
  • A centralized clearing house of vetted learning sources (courses, degrees, training modules…)
  • An open and centralized ledger of what you know

Let’s take a look at each one.  The first one (a competency taxonomy) is the Lingua Franca of Mindshift.  If people are going to learn stuff and be measured on stuff and get a job based on that stuff, we should be using the same terminology for that stuff.  I guess you can say that Common Core is a model for this common competency taxonomy, but that’s got a lot of baggage to it.  Most of the content publishers have their own implicit or explicit taxonomies, but they are proprietary.  Professional associations or specialized accreditors may have taxonomies in their subject areas.  Some universities might have them, but they are not likely shared across institutions (or even across colleges within the university).  Without this shared language, though, we won’t be able to move forward.  How effective would Google Maps be if each city could choose between cartesian coordinates, polar coordinates, imperial, metric, or What3Words as their official geo/navigation system.

The second component to this ecosystem is a clearing house that will be a trusted source for vetting learning.  In the Mindshift model, learning can happen in many places in many ways.  We’ve already seen a huge expansion of entities who offer up courses, training, knowledge, degrees, bootcamps, etc.  If an accredited Bachelors degree is no longer the only learning to get the seal of approval, there must be a way to separate the wheat from the chaff.  I don’t think we’ll ever weed out all of the frauds and bad actors, but having some sort of a bar for acceptance will help to give legitimacy to the learning that individuals acquire.

Finally, there’s a centralized ledger of what you know (yes…I’m throwing a bone to you blockchain folks…you know who I’m looking at right now).  I’m in no way a fan of Facebook, but if we think of Facebook as a (innately flawed) record of WHO you know, Mindshift requires a record of WHAT you know.  LinkedIn is the closest thing we have today, and if any existing entity is going to fill this gap, it’ll be LinkedIn.  However, that’s not a guarantee.  There’s a lot of work on modern versions of transcripts and resumes and “post-graduation blockchain portfolios”…it just needs to be centralized.

Why Mindshift…Why Now?

As I said at the start, this is not a new idea.  Pieces of this have been around for a while (shout out to my “Reusable Learning Object” peeps from 2004!!!).  So what is happening in today’s environment that is enabling this transformation?  There are many reasons and trends, but let me focus in on three:

  1. Higher Ed is disrupting itself.  At a recent higher ed summit, an economist reminded our group of one of the core principles of Christensen’s disruption.  A disenfranchised group of consumers that is overlooked by the market has its needs met by a new disruptor.  I’d argue that ironically, Higher Ed is creating this disenfranchised group.  Expensive degrees?  Check.  Student loan burdens?  Check.  Making it difficult to get in?  Check.  Taking too long to finish?  Check.  These underserved learners are not going to go away.  Someone is going to provide what they want.
  2. We’re getting better at measuring learning.  Mindshift depends on a more granular measure of learning.  Saying “Mike got a B in ECON/101” (or worse yet, Mike got a Bachelors in Economics with a 3.6 GPA) isn’t going to cut it.  We want to know that Mike “gets” Elasticity, Competition, Opportunity Cost, etc.  We also want to know that Mike has experience in Customer Service, Management, and the Basics of Business Finance.  With the development of adaptive and competency-based learning tools, there is a distinct trend towards teaching and assessing learners at this more detailed level
  3. Everything is becoming componentized.  The heart of the gig economy is that services can be provided in smaller chunks.  Why shouldn’t learning follow?  At the same summit I referenced, Chris Dede from Harvard talked about the 60-Year Curriculum.  With an expected 80-90 year lifespan, that leaves sixty years of working.  Do we really think that a bachelors degree at age 22 will last us for sixty-plus years?  This trend says that learning needs to be broken down into parts (think life-long learning and just-in-time learning)

Why It Won’t Be Easy

Any time I hear someone’s great idea, I ask myself “why hasn’t this been done yet”?  We are not short on entrepreneurs or investment capital, so what’s the challenge?  I have a few reasons why this hasn’t come to fruition yet, as well as one mega-reason that I’ll save for the end.  So what are some of the challenges?

  • Existing entities will lose power/control, and that doesn’t happen naturally.  Think about all of the institutions that will “lose” if this Mindshift happens.  Traditional higher ed institutions will lose students; the financial aid world will shift; “owners” of learning data will lose control of that asset.  Those are some entities that won’t divest ownership easily
  • Legitimacy of learning will be challenging.  The accredited degree has its flaws, but it is a fairly reliable representation of knowledge/skill and it’s widely accepted.  It will take a lot of convincing for the marketplace (i.e. employers) to accept some new form of credential as a viable measure.  Add fraudsters into the equation and things get even murkier
  • While taking ownership of one’s learning is noble, it’s really hard for underserved learners who don’t have the right guidance to help them self-regulate.  This model could very well end up being another elite learning wolf in an inclusive sheep’s clothing

Final Argument: The most prominent and rational reason why this shift to the individual’s control of their learning hasn’t happened yet is that it’s not a money-making proposition.  Period.

I get Ed Tech.  I get startups.  I get funding.  There’s got to be a brass ring in order for the machine to work.  The problem with the Mindshift Era is that by definition, it can’t be proprietary.  Take a look back at the three pieces of the model I described (a competency taxonomy, a clearing house of learning sources, and a centralized ledger of what you know).  There are plenty of examples of these today, and they all want to charge learners/businesses/schools for the privilege of using their “platform”.  But that won’t work.  Nobody should OWN a taxonomy of learning.  Nobody should own the centralized ledger of what people know.  That’s a social good.  Take a look at what happened when Facebook “owned” the list of who you know.  I have every reason to believe that if a for-profit company owned this centralized platform, it would be detrimental to the individuals.  Maybe this is a foundation-funded entity.  Maybe it’s community-sourced like Wikipedia.  Maybe it’s a bare-bones operation like Craigslist that takes enough to pay workers and keep the servers humming and that’s it.  I don’t know, but I do know that it shouldn’t be a Silicon Valley, venture-funded machine.  That won’t end well.

I’m pretty sure this screed is the longest thing I’ve written in a while, and I thank you if you’ve gotten this far.  Ping me on Twitter (@mjshark) if you read this and I’ll send a like back your way.  Circling back to the futurist tag at the top, I’m not really ‘hoping’ this is the future.  I’m more saying that this is how I see all of the chips falling given what’s up in the air today.  I think it can be beneficial, but you can tell from my tone that there are a few big potholes we need to watch out for.  I’ve had many occasions to share this topic with colleagues and debate the future.  I also have twin daughters who are high school juniors and going through “the process” as we speak, so it’s a topic that is near and dear to me.  Call me up any time  if you want to talk in detail and debate the topic, because as we know, the future’s not set.  There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves.

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