Pew Research Center and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center have asked questions that relate to learning in several earlier canvassings in the “Future of the Internet” series. The first was in 2004. In that study, 59% agreed and only 15% disagreed that the following scenario was likely by 2014: “Enabled by information technologies, the pace of learning in the next decade will increasingly be set by student choices. In 10 years, most students will spend at least part of their ‘school days’ in virtual classes, grouped online with others who share their interests, mastery and skills.” (Among those surveyed, 17% did not respond and 8% challenged the wording of the scenario.) The expectation by most experts in the 2004 canvassing was that by 2014, online learning systems would be regularly implemented daily by most students in the U.S., allowing them to make their own appropriate choices and learn at their own pace.
Unless we see a radical shift toward flexibility – which is the polar opposite of anything we can expect – current paradigms have no ability to hold up to exponentially increasing technological change.Anonymous respondent
In this 2016 canvassing, again, most respondents – 70% – were optimistic that training and education will advance to advantage in the next decade. Among the 30% who disagreed, the reasons for pessimism were many. Some said the people and programs are not in place or the current legacy systems are too entrenched; some argued that the funding will not be made available; some said the technology will not advance enough to bring mass improvements in just a decade; others said that technology will move too fast for education and training systems to keep up; and some argued that the mass replacement of human work by faster, cheaper, more efficient technologies will make such training unnecessary or force a change in focus to training to live life well without a job. An anonymous director of a major online human rights organization wrote, “I think technology (particularly AI) is moving faster than rational thinking about our future workforce.”
Following are three major subthemes found among the statements of those who expressed such views.
Within the next decade, education systems will not be up to the task of adapting to train or retrain people for future jobs
Erhardt Graeff, a PhD researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media, argued, “New jobs will demand increasingly sophisticated technical skills combined with creative problem-solving and adept teamwork. Some technical skills can likely be gained using MOOCs, personalized learning or future versions of these. However … creative thinking, especially in teams, will be hard to develop at scale without new physical and digital infrastructures that create problem-solving contexts analogous to real-world cases. Learning how to learn and how to lead in online and offline contexts and how to translate those ideas to practical problems must be placed at the core of new programs. Success will require huge public investment and a reimagining of what we value in education. This is hard; the problem and our responses cannot be reduced to pushing STEM or vocational training at scale. We can’t throw out the important societal and civic role played by liberal education by chasing technical skills that might be obsolete in a few years. We will likely see companies take on a larger role of teaching technical skills to workers – workers who were hired because they were able to develop creative problem-solving and teamwork skills through (or in spite of) existing educational systems and personal experience.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “Unless we see a radical shift toward flexibility – which is the polar opposite of anything we can expect – current paradigms have no ability to hold up to exponentially increasing technological change.”
David Durant, business analyst at UK Government Digital Service, wrote, “While there are many excellent online training opportunities, I do not believe that they will enable large numbers of people to attain the skills they need in order to gain future employment. Partly this is due to the fact the overall number of jobs that need to be undertaken by people will continue to fall (although perhaps not to become highly significant within the next 10 years). It is also because many of these jobs, such as those related to design, software or finance, can be undertaken anywhere via online mechanisms. This will lead to a continued process of those roles moving to where the work can be completed cheapest. Finally, for the subset of skills that can be acquired online we will see a situation where an increasing number of people will be competing for limited roles. It is the offline roles that cannot easily be performed by machines that will see the highest job security.”
No, the future will require more soft skills, self-awareness, empathy, networked thinking and lifelong learning. Creating programs that can effectively teach large numbers of people those skills will take more than 10 years.Marshall Kirkpatrick
David Sarokin, author of “Missed Information: Better Information for Building a Wealthier, More Sustainable Future,” observed, “Online learning is rapidly evolving, and the jury is still out in terms of its overall effectiveness. While new styles of programs will certainly emerge, the ability to engage and successfully train ‘large numbers’ of workers seems unlikely to me. For a longer time horizon, perhaps this will emerge as an important avenue of training.”
Oscar Gandy, professor emeritus of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote, “As I see it, more and more opportunities for employment will be eliminated by automation (e.g., recent stories about the growth in ‘demand’ for all sorts of counseling, from health to economic investments). More and more presumably ‘safe’ occupations are being faced with a serious challenge from intelligent systems capable of doing more and more. Therefore, I don’t see the problem entirely, or even primarily, as one of continuing education. As to online education, my reading suggests that these programs are ‘not ready for primetime,’ in that the more demanding kinds of technologically oriented coursework seems to have an incredibly high dropout rate. I can imagine that employers will, for many of these skill sets that are readily and reliably testable online, be willing to accept such employees, even as they are being recommended to them by algorithmic analysis.”
Cristóbal Palmer, technical director at ibiblio.org, wrote, “Higher education has been struggling for over a decade to respond and shift to the internet. Large institutions with high brand awareness are making significant shifts in fits and starts, but few new platforms (quick! name three MOOC brands that are still growing!) have gained traction. It is likely that more shifts and changes will occur, but it is also likely that they will only gain traction either through or in partnership with major established educational institutions.”
An anonymous respondent said, “I don’t think any decision-makers will even consider this issue as anything other than a talking point (if that much) within the next decade, let alone spend any useful amount of money or time trying to fix the problem. Especially not via job training – the current political climate seems allergic to the entire concept.”
Kjartan Ólafsson, head of the department of social sciences at the University of Akureyri, Iceland, wrote, “Educational institutions in general tend to be conservative and slow in developing in new directions.”
Jan Schaffer, executive director at J-Lab, commented, “There are jobs to be done in this country, and not all of them require new skills, but there is a lack of imagination in how to make them a priority and an unwillingness to pay for them. Clearly, today we lose jobs to much cheaper but not more skilled workers overseas.”
Marc Brenman, managing partner at IDARE, replied, “Online learning is relatively ineffective. Specific skills need to be identified and practiced. Self-direction only works for a small percent of people. It is very difficult to teach critical thinking, logic and evidence.”
Dudley Irish, a software engineer, wrote, “There are two issues. First, the most important skills required in the workplace are communication skills. So far, computer-mediated training does not seem to deliver on improvements in personal communication skills. I have not read of any techniques or technologies that suggest this is going to change soon. Second, the kind of skills that most people think are important (analytical, STEM-related skills) can be learned via computer-mediated training, but not by a large enough segment of the population. The segment of the population who can acquire these skills via computer-mediated training is already learning the skills, but this segment is not (according to the economists) big enough to meet the demand. Attracting more people into STEM fields is going to mean creating training and work environments that are more attractive. No one seems to know how to do this.”
Marshall Kirkpatrick, co-founder of Little Bird, previously with ReadWriteWeb and TechCrunch, replied, “No, the future will require more soft skills, self-awareness, empathy, networked thinking and lifelong learning. Creating programs that can effectively teach large numbers of people those skills will take more than 10 years.”
Maria Pranzo, director of development at The Alpha Workshops, replied, “As someone who’s worked in nonprofit workforce development for 20 years, [I can tell you that] programs that teach employment skills are notoriously difficult to scale up.”
Nigel Cameron, president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, wrote, “Problems include the current fixation with STEM [courses tied to Science, Technology, Engineering, Math], which also covers more readily MOOC-able disciplines. Lower-end STEM qualifications are not going to be much in demand – cf. the scandal of for-profit schools churning out unemployable and poorer grads.”
Antero Garcia, an assistant professor at Colorado State University, sees the dark and bright side, noting, “Yes, digital tools will sustain labor markets in the future. However, I don’t see these digital tools developing powerful outcomes for leadership and creativity in and of themselves. That is, training programs will be developed for rote forms of labor that simply reinforce class-based stratification of individuals in society. On the other hand, rather than looking to new kinds of tools, the ways individuals are collaborating, socializing and innovating in online spaces like gaming communities, virtual worlds and via social activism on Twitter highlight training and skills development that are robust and could reshape what work and recruitment look like.”
Many of these experts say they are not sure they know what those future jobs will be or if there will be jobs to fill: John Anderson, director of journalism and media studies at Brooklyn College, wrote, “Considering that we have seen vast transformations across nearly every industrial sector over the last three decades, who’s to say that the ‘educational training programs’ set up today to ‘successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they need’ will be even relevant in 10 years?”
Show me the money: Some doubts hinge upon lack of political will and necessary funding
Jeffrey Reynolds, IT manager, observed, “Too often any system that is created for training and job development has one of two inherent flaws: 1) It’s run by an underfunded agency and never updated over time, quickly falling behind the needs of its customers. 2) It’s run by a for-profit organization whose goal is to make cash, not actually improve society. We need more low-cost and free educational opportunities to allow our country to flourish. The days of driving people into debt in the hopes they can get a better job and get out of their debt [need] to end. Until we take the profit margin out of inherent necessities like education and training, we will continue to struggle to provide quality opportunities for all Americans.”
The internet is above all a profit center. Education on the internet is no different.Anonymous respondent
Randy Bush, Internet Hall of Fame member and research fellow at Internet Initiative Japan, warned, “The payoff of education is too long-term for politics to favor it. The results are horrifying but inevitable in our current system of exceedingly short-term and short-sighted decision making.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “Public education is being systematically and deliberately defunded. This will not change.”
Richard Lachmann, professor of sociology at the University at Albany, said, “Government spending is declining in most of the world. Until neoliberalism is reversed, we shouldn’t expect new programs that have a significant effect.”
Randy Albelda, professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, commented, “Expansion of training programs that work requires funding. State and local governments are having a very hard time meeting the demands of the programs they already fund, and in fact funding for postsecondary education of any forms [has] mostly been cut. It is increasingly clear that MOOCs and other internet-based classes do not work that well. Unless there is real funding for real training, I do not see this happening. For-profits tend to have the funds to start these things up and can successfully find the right candidates, but we also know that these for-profits bilk students terribly and do not provide training that works. I teach in a classroom – real students, in a real college. I am happy to use technology (and do), but it does not replace face-to-face interactions in the classroom (and outside of it). Offloading (or uploading) education and training onto the web will not work unless it is complemented with brick-and-mortar classrooms and in-person (qualified and decently paid) instructors. Some employers will be happy to run through employees from anywhere. But in jobs that are worth having, employers do care about the quality of training. Elite institutions become shorthand for them. It is the public institutions that will be producing students that employers are uncertain about.”
Karl M. van Meter, sociological researcher and director of the Bulletin of Methodological Sociology, Ecole Normale Supérieure de Paris, replied, “Of course there will be ‘new educational and training programs,’ but they already exist and are training and educating large numbers of people. New and different programs will continue to be developed and hopefully will reach larger and more varied publics. This, however, will not change the difference between the U.S. system, in which education and training are a commodity to make money on and to be paid for by individuals or their families, and the system in many other countries, where education and training are considered national patrimony and paid for at least in part by the state. ‘Traditional’ education in this context then means human teachers, which, like human intelligence methods above, are more expensive, more time-consuming, and far less ‘profit-making’ than internet or other technical means of education or training.”
An anonymous political science professor replied, “The internet is above all a profit center. Education on the internet is no different. These programs will proliferate but won’t necessarily effect substantive change in the people signing up for them. Individualized, on-demand learning is too ‘easy’ to do much good.”
An anonymous respondent wrote, “We will indeed see the growth of new educational and training initiatives designed to give workers the skills they need for the new economy. There is a clear and growing market for such opportunities. But I am personally quite skeptical as to whether these new educational initiatives will actually live up to their billing. It is entirely possible that these new initiatives will take the form of for-profit educational schemes that extract money from scared workers while making promises that they do not meet.”
Julie Gomoll, CEO at Julie Gomoll Inc., said, “Should these programs emerge? Absolutely. But I have no confidence that necessary educational programs will be funded anytime soon.”
Vin Crosbie, an adjunct professor at Syracuse University, wrote, “In the next 10 years, we will see the emergence of new educational and training software and applications to train large numbers of workers in skills they need to perform the jobs of the future. But most, if not virtually all, of these new educational and training software and applications will gain little usage or traction, because neither corporate nor government willingness to fund such programs will develop. Corporate won’t fund retraining of the workers it lets go. Meanwhile, the political gridlock at the legislative level will stymie governmental funding of such programs.”
An anonymous executive director at a major open-source internet software company responded, “The central funding and market structures driving Western education today are not set up to adapt fast enough or creatively enough. Individuals and employers will respond by turning to self-learning, learning by doing, looking for evidence of skill in a manner that doesn’t rely on credentials. The mainstream education system will come under increasing pressure as the public realizes it’s failing.”
Ed Lyell, online education pioneer and professor of business and economics at Adams State University, predicts that a “replacement system” is more likely to succeed than education reform. He wrote, “These emerging new education and training systems are expanding. Khan Academy, MOOCs, and other technologies at near zero marginal cost make delivery of such learning available to all. More people will move to these alternatives, especially as the ‘badges’-type projects expand, giving acceptable and transferable credit and accountability for competency achievement. It is unfortunate that most of these new opportunities are outside of formal public or higher education, but those bureaucracies are more interested in protecting their status quo wasteful system than using new tools to make learning more effective and efficient. Shifting funding for K-12 and higher education to focus on competency obtained could incentivize formal education to use existing and emerging tools, especially fun-based simulation and role-playing learning models. The 18,000 school boards would have to change and put children’s learning ahead of adult job protection, and that is not likely without a governance change away from local control. Thus a replacement education system is more likely than reform of the current schools and universities.”
An anonymous systems administrator in municipal government wrote, “Typically we do not do anything unless it results in profit for someone somewhere. This will only occur if it provides profit for someone or if we are faced with a disaster-type situation.”
An anonymous respondent wrote that the goal of employers in offering training is to prepare employees to help them ‘maximize margins.’ The person commented: “Effective, online, algorithmically based learning technologies can be developed in the next 10 years that will adequately prepare individual learners in such a way as to keep them dependent on the employer for everything. In today’s out-of-control capitalist systems, employers have no interest in the employee beyond increasing the employers’ bottom line. Employers, like government, don’t really want employees who can think too much or know too much. They only want them to have the limited skill set and knowledge needed for the task at hand that the employer believes will maximize margins. And the employer wants to pay employees as little as possible to do that work. So their interest in complete control over the educational experience is of great importance. Their need for a linearly predictable outcome from the educational experience is in the employers’ best financial interest.”
Some respondents said those in power don’t want workers to possess the critical skills necessary for the future.
We haven’t figured it out yet, and technology change is accelerating. We are probably going to reach a point where it will be cheaper and faster to write software to teach a robot to do the job than a human.Anonymous chief technology officer
An anonymous sociologist wrote, “Literacy, critical thinking, collaboration and conflict resolution are the most critical skills needed for successful organizations. However, while valuable for high-efficiency organizations, these skills are also dangerous to [those in] political control and may not be widely taught.”
An anonymous senior software developer replied, “The future belongs to our corporate and oligarchic overlords. Why would they want to make their serfs more capable of finding work, when a desperate serf works far more cheaply? Granted, better educational programs would benefit everyone, including the wealthy and powerful, but greed is demonstrably short-sighted and by definition the opposite of altruistic.”
T. Rob Wyatt, an independent network security consultant, wrote, “We will see the emergence of new educational and training programs that can successfully train large numbers of workers in the skills they will need to perform the jobs of the future; however, I am less confident that we will use them to their potential. The emergence of an agile yet deeply skilled workforce requires power structures and wealth feedback loops that thrive on change. Extended lifespans have produced an older ruling elite whose strategy to maintain power and wealth lies in ruthless preservation of the status quo. Meanwhile, the reigning Technorati lack both the temperament to govern and the political power to displace the gerontocracy. Finally, almost nobody gets that the shift from atoms to bits is a game changer, and those who do are exploiting it to grab as much power as possible. These are the group who most benefit from a deeply skilled and agile workforce but whose success depends most on flying under the radar.”
An anonymous chief technology officer observed, “We haven’t figured it out yet, and technology change is accelerating. We are probably going to reach a point where it will be cheaper and faster to write software to teach a robot to do the job than a human.”
Some people are incapable of or uninterested in self-directed learning
Most mass training today is found in massive online courses like those offered by EdX and Coursera, or in video series such as those offered on YouTube, by Kahn Academy and by Lynda.com, or in learning communities such as Code Academy and Stack Overflow. The success or failure of learners participating in well-built online training can nearly always be at least partially attributed to the interest level and dedication of the individual learner. In this canvassing, many who doubted the efficacy of online training pointed at the dropout rates in some MOOCs or noted MOOC critics’ arguments about the lack of full student engagement in such courses. Erhardt Graeff, a PhD researcher at the MIT Center for Civic Media, argued, “Not all learners will excel in self-directed, computer-based classrooms.”
The hands-down most important trait for success will be self-motivation. There will be a number of ways to learn new skills, but a person will have to be motivated to seek them out.Anonymous civil engineer
A share of the respondents in this study said mass training cannot be successful because it will fail many people, leaving them behind, because not all learners have a sociocultural background or other traits or life experiences that developed within them the drive or the capacity for the type of self-motivated, independent learning necessary to participate in today’s mass online training settings. Among the other reasons for failure to complete such training: Some people do not have the time to devote to training, some cannot afford to pay for it, some do not have the intellectual capacity.
David Lankes, professor and director at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, explained why he thinks current mass-training methods expand a digital divide, writing, “The problem isn’t with online, it’s that since the time of Socrates we haven’t figured out to have an effective educational dialogue with more than 10-20 people at a time. What I do see evolving in the next decade is an increased separation between the ‘haves,’ who can afford personalized highly interactive learning, and ‘have nots,’ who will be pushed to increasingly standardized drill-and-kill-style training.”
An anonymous communications and digital coordinator at an international global-good organization commented, “The question is who will have the time to take these trainings. Most people who are poor are actually very busy trying to make ends meet. Many others are simply too depressed to have the necessary motivation. I hope the current trend of open and free education continues, but expect this trend will be mixed. For some subjects, the ‘best’ training will be put behind paywalls, once the industry ‘matures.’ With VR, I guess most skills will be trainable. But I’m not sure. Probably we will see a lot of augmented-reality coaching for tasks that are performed in the ‘real world.’ Eventually this will be automated for a lot of stuff.”
Some argued that there is such high value in the self-discipline to participate in mass training that learning to work independently in online learning systems is a vital skill for future jobs that everyone should be encouraged to master.
An anonymous civil engineer working in state government said, “The hands-down most important trait for success will be self-motivation. There will be a number of ways to learn new skills, but a person will have to be motivated to seek them out rather than just following the traditional educational path of elementary/high school/college.”
An anonymous respondent commented, “In the medium term, online systems will be essential to teaching us to cope with the flood of data and associated analytics. In the long term, emotional intelligence will become increasingly differentiating and important for the jobs that remain.”
An anonymous respondent observed, “Individuals’ ability to succeed in the future will be determined by their ability to engage in lifelong learning and continually adapt to trends and to leverage new technology within their industry. … Rewards will flow to those who can demonstrate synthesis of disparate knowledge to produce value.”
Most who do not see the current deficiencies in people’s capability for self-directed learning to be a problem explained that, because this is long recognized as essential areas of improvement in all types of education, those designing new approaches are going to work this all out in the next decade. The most-often-mentioned solution in this canvassing is the enhancement of education to make it more appealing, approachable and affordable, which most said will be aided greatly by developments in AI (including elements of gamification of education), AR and VR, a topic covered broadly in an earlier segment of this report. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, wrote, “Continued evolution of AR, VR and mixed realities will create rich learning environments that will help leverage content and achieve much of the social influence that encourages learnings (peer-to-peer and instructor-to-student).”
The ultimate human motivation is the instinct for survival. If there are far fewer jobs and more people competing for them in the future, some experts predict, people will be more dedicated to expanding their work capabilities. After all, at that point their only choice may be to do so or become irrelevant and unemployed.
A number of the respondents to this canvassing also say that business and government leaders must recognize the immediate necessity to seriously anticipate a future with fewer jobs and arrive at well-reasoned remedies or they could see capitalism undermine itself. Cheaper, faster, more-efficient algorithm-based solutions could take over the human workscape that underlies the consumer culture supporting everything, and those in positions of power may find that the great society they have built is in imminent danger of collapse.