The democratic future of education

Thinking of the future, one is often assaulted by images of authoritarianism: restrictions on free movement, free speech and even free thought (remember George Orwell’s dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four?).  We’ve read enough books and seen enough movies in which the mindless people of the future roll along in formation under the all-seeing eye of Big Brother. But why do we insist on imagining this horrible future? Why do we have movies like The Matrix produce such an enduring vision of the future in the public consciousness?

When it comes to education, I’m an optimist about the future. Educational reform is already underway, and it will do nothing but accelerate as we move into the coming years. The decentralization of knowledge, brought about by expanding broadband penetration, will lead to a wider access to educational resources for a growing number of people. These developments will produce a higher degree of democracy in education; students will take control over their own learning.

How will this democratization come about? There are a variety of ideas. However, all of them share in common a recognition that the digital world is the frontier of this education revolution.

Broadband Access and Digital Education

Writing for the Huffington Post, Sramana Mitra observes that one of the major limits to online education is the extent of broadband penetration. According to Mitra’s prediction, broadband access will expand significantly by 2020, allowing the dominion of digital education to expand, especially in the developing world.

An important part of the broadband expansion project is the support it has received from international organizations that have taken a great interest in this subject in recent years. UNESCO was involved in the founding of the Broadband Commission for Digital Development in 2010. A recent report by the Broadband Commission recognizes broadband as “a transformational technology, whose global roll-out carries vast potential for sustainable development—by enhancing learning opportunities, facilitating exchange of information and increasing access to content that is linguistically and culturally diverse.” Education is certainly a major part of the Commission’s vision.  Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, writes, “We must make the most of broadband to widen access to quality education for all and to empower all citizens with the knowledge, skills and values they need to live and work successfully in the digital age.”

Online Education Entrepreneurs

The importance of broadband in the future of education is undeniable. But how will broadband be used to deliver education? Giving people access to a high-quality education is much more than giving them access to Google—there needs to be a focused effort in establishing and improving the standards of digital education. Broadband is the tool that allows innovative educators to reshape the education system. But who are these innovators?

One of the ways that the internet has already changed education is through the power of free educational resources—particularly videos. I’ve been enlightened and enthralled by online lectures and presentations (including the entire series of TED talks that I watched while writing this article). Being allowed to pursue what you’re interested in—any topic, at any time of the day—can make the learning process more natural and more pleasurable. And when learning is enjoyable, there’s a good chance that the content will sink in. This is why videos have been (and will continue to be) an important medium for the transfer of knowledge.

An example of an online video-driven educational resource is Khan Academy. Founded by MIT graduate Salman Khan, Khan Academy began when Khan started tutoring his cousins. He prepared videos for them, and soon discovered that they seemed to learn better through the videos than through face-to-face instruction. After the videos (which were also posted on YouTube) began to gain popularity, Khan decided to expand the project by quitting his job as a hedge fund analyst and founded Khan Academy.

The premise behind Khan Academy is that teachers can use technology, interestingly enough, to “humanize the classroom.”  Some teachers have assigned Khan Academy lectures as homework, allowing students to learn and review important concepts at home and at their own pace. As a result, students can spend their time at school collaborating with each other and apply the concepts that they’ve learned from Khan Academy tutorials at home. During a TED conference, Khan described this process as “removing the one-size-fits-all lecture from the classroom and letting students have a self-paced lecture at home … The very first time that you’re trying to get your brain around a new concept, the very last thing you need is another human being saying, ‘Do you understand this?’”

Khan Academy is working to remove that pressure, which is not always conducive to learning. Online video tutorials allow students to pause and repeat and to go at their own pace while learning different concepts. This alleviates the pressure which may cause student shut downs in the classroom. 

Self-Organized Learning Environments

For educational researcher Sugata Mitra, self-education is the future of education. The current educational system, Mitra insists, is very well-designed, however it is also obsolete, having been designed to serve the needs of a colonial administration which no longer exists. This is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, new technology will make it possible for students, who might never have had the opportunity to go to school, to engage in self-education. “There is a way to level the playing field,” Mitra says. “Could it be that we don’t need to go to school at all? Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you could find out in two minutes?”

Mitra travelled to slums and remote villages, where he provided children with computers that had been loaded with various educational programs (typically, English language programs). Without providing any instruction, Mitra left these children alone to figure out what the computers were, and how they worked. He found that when the children were left alone for a few months they learned how to operate the computers in a technical sense and they also learned to extract and study the information on the machine, often teaching themselves some English in the process.

The discovery prompted Mitra to pioneer a fascinating project: the Self-Organized Learning Environment (SOLE). The basic premise of the SOLE is that children, if given the opportunity to self-organize, will naturally learn; they simply need to let their curiosity guide them. Mitra says in his TED Talk, “If you allow the educational process to self-organize, then learning emerges.  It’s not about making learning happen, it’s about letting it happen … My wish is to help design a future of learning by supporting children all over the world, to tap into their wonder and their ability to work together.” Self-Organized Learning Environments can be created by anyone, anywhere, at any time, thus making the structure a truly decentralized one. The process is beginning to take off: SOLE Central was launched by Newcastle University in 2014. It serves as “a global hub for research into self-organized learning environment, bringing together researchers, practitioners, policy-makers, and entrepreneurs.”

Education and Empowerment

Both Khan and Mitra share a common belief about the future of learning: education can and should be widely available, and more power should be placed in the hands of learners, so they can chart their own educational path. Both of these concepts are central in the work of educator, Daphne Koller. “In some parts of the world…education is just not readily accessible,” says Koller in a TED Talk.  Due to the rising cost of higher education, Koller says that “even in parts of the world like the United States, where education is available, it might not be within reach.”

In order to fix this, Koller founded Coursera, an online resource which takes high-quality courses from universities around the world and makes them available online, free of charge. Partner universities are wide-ranging, from Princeton, to Peking University, to the University of Toronto. Through Coursera, free, high-quality education resources are available to people around the world—another example of the decentralization of education.

Public Support and Critical Awareness

Using the power of broadband, innovators like Koller, Khan and Mitra are bringing free, high-quality education to a wide audience. That being said, even the public has an important role to play in educational reform. It is our demand for greater opportunities and our enthusiasm for digital education which will compel more visionaries and entrepreneurs to step up and build the marketplace of digital education.

Curiosity is a powerful force inside the classroom and out; this same curiosity will change the traditional classroom. However, curiosity must be accompanied by critical thinking. There need to be rules and standards in the age of digital education—not detentions, suspensions and expulsions, but some semblance of structure in the way that information is vetted, standardized and delivered. Without this, educational democracy will devolve quickly into digital anarchy

The internet is the sort of like the Wild West: a lawless frontier where it’s easy to lose your way. Guidance and regulation is important if we want to set up a meaningful and reputable digital educational system. It will be the responsibility of every person to develop a critical attitude toward online information. Digital learners of the present and future will need to develop a great degree of internet literacy and critical consciousness in order to navigate the overwhelming amount of available information. It can seem daunting, but the work of educators such as Khan, Koller and Mitra will make it more manageable.


The education system is changing for the better. However, educational innovation is a multi-tiered initiative: it requires technological developments such as broadband penetration; it also requires innovative educators to step forward and grow the digital education market, creating high-quality resources that are easily accessible; finally, educational innovation requires the interest, support and critical consciousness of the public. This multi-step process is ongoing but we can expect it to expand in very interesting ways in the next 15 years.

Great advances in technology are pointing out the shortcomings of traditional education systems, as well as revealing the possibilities for new approaches to learning. If education shapes the minds of the future, then changes in education will herald future changes for societies around the world. It is sufficient to say that changes in education will be far-reaching and deeply impactful as we look ahead over the coming decade.

Forecasted start year: 
2016 to 2030


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