Forecast | Real vs. digital in tomorrow’s blended schools: Future of education P4

Traditionally, most students would use the word ‘sluggish' to describe how their school engaged with new technology. Modern teaching norms have existed for decades, if not centuries, whereas new technologies have largely worked to streamline school administration than used to improve student learning.

Thankfully, this status quo is about change completely. The coming decades will see a tsunami of trends pushing our education system to modernize or die.

Combining physical and digital to create blended schools

The ‘blended school' is a term that gets thrown about in education circles with mixed feelings. Put simply: A blended school educates its students both within its brick-and-mortar walls and through the use of online delivery tools that the student has some degree of control over.

Integrating digital tools into the classroom is an inevitability. But from the teacher's’ perspective, this brave new world risks upending the teaching profession, shattering traditional learning conventions that older educators spent a lifetime learning. Moreover, the more tech dependant a school becomes, the greater the threat of a hack or IT dysfunction impacting the school day; not to mention the increased technical and administrative staff needed to manage these blended schools.

However, more optimistic education professionals see this transition as a cautious positive. By letting future teaching software handle most of the grading and course planning, teachers can work more efficiently and effectively. They will have more time freed to engage with students and address their individual learning needs.

So what’s the state of blended schools as of 2016?

On one end of the spectrum, there are blended schools like French computer science institute, 42. This state-of-the-art coding school is open 24/7, is designed with many of the amenities you'd find in a startup, and most interestingly, it's completely automated. There are no teachers or administrators; instead, students self-organize into groups and learn to code using projects and an elaborate e-learning intranet.

Meanwhile, the more widespread version of blended schools is much more familiar. These are schools with TVs in every room and where tablets are encouraged or provided. These are schools with well-stocked computer labs and coding classes. These are schools that offer electives and majors that can be studied online and tested for in class. 

As superficial as some of these digital improvements may seem compared to the outliers like 42, they were unheard of only a few decades ago. But as explored in the previous chapter of this series, the future blended school will take these innovations to the next level through the introduction of artificial intelligence (AI), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), and virtual reality (VR). Let’s explore each in more detail. 

Artificial intelligence in the classroom

Machines designed to teach people have a long history. Sydney Pressey invented the first teaching machine in the 1920s, followed by famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner's version released in the 1950s. A variety of iterations followed over the years, but all fell prey to the common criticism that students can't be taught on an assembly line; they can't learn using robotic, programmed learning techniques. 

Luckily, these criticisms haven't stopped innovators from continuing their quest for education's holy grail. And unlike Pressey and Skinner, today's education innovators have access to big data-fuelled, supercomputers that power advanced AI software. It's this new tech, combined with over a century of teaching theory, that's attracting a range of players big and small to enter and compete in this niche, AI-in-the-classroom market.

From the institutional side, we see textbook publishers like McGraw-Hill Education transforming themselves into educational tech companies as a way to diversify themselves away from the dying textbook market. For example, McGraw-Hill is bankrolling an adaptive digital courseware, named ALEKS, that's meant to aid teachers by helping to teach and grade students on difficult Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. However, what this program can't do is fully understand when or where a student is running into difficulty comprehending a subject, and that's where the human teacher comes in to provide those one-on-one, custom insights these programs can't support … yet. 

On the hard science side, European scientists who are a part of the EU research program, L2TOR (pronounced “El Tutor”), are collaborating on amazingly complex, AI teaching systems. What makes these systems unique is that, aside from teaching and tracking student learning, their advanced cameras and microphones are also able to pick up on emotional and body language cues such as joy, boredom, sadness, confusion and more. This added layer of social intelligence will allow these AI teaching systems and robots to sense when a student is or isn’t understanding the topics being taught to them. 

But the biggest players in this space come from Silicon Valley. Among the most high-profile companies is Knewton, a company trying to position itself as the Google of youth education. It uses adaptive algorithms to track the performance and test scores of the students it teaches to create individualized learning profiles that it then uses to customize its teaching methods. Put another way, it learns students' learning habits over time and then delivers course materials to them in a manner that's best suited to their learning preferences.

Finally, among the key benefits of these AI teachers will be their ability to more effectively test students on their learning. Currently, paper-based standardized tests can't effectively measure the knowledge of students who are far ahead or far behind the class curve; but with AI algorithms, we can start grading students using adaptive assessments that are individualized to the student's current level of understanding, thereby giving a clearer picture of their overall progress. In this way, future testing will measure individual learning growth, instead of a baseline proficiency. 

Regardless of which AI teaching system eventually dominates the education marketplace, by 2025, AI systems will become a commonplace tool in most schools, eventually right down to the classroom level. They will help educators better plan curriculums, track student learning, automate the teaching and grading of select topics, and altogether free up enough time for teachers to provide more personalized support for their students. 

MOOCs and the digital curriculum

While AI teachers may become the education delivery systems of our future digital classrooms, MOOCs represent the learning content that will fuel them.

In the first chapter of this series, we spoke about how it will be a while before enough corporations and academic institutions recognize the degrees and certificates gained from MOOCs. And it’s largely due to this lack of recognized certifications that completion rates for MOOC courses have remained far below the average compared to in-person courses.

But while the MOOC hype train may have settled somewhat, MOOCs already play a big role in the current education system, and it will only grow over time. In fact, a 2012 US study found that five million undergrads (a quarter of all US students) in universities and colleges have taken at least one online course. By 2020, over half of students in Western countries will register at least one online course on their transcripts. 

The biggest factor pushing this online adoption has nothing to do with MOOC superiority; it's due to the low cost and flexibility advantages they offer for a specific type of education consumer: the poor. The largest user base of online courses are those new and mature students who can't afford to live on residence, study full-time or pay for a babysitter (this isn't even counting MOOC users from developing countries). To accommodate this fast growing student market, educational institutions are beginning to offer more online courses than ever. And it's this increasing trend that will eventually see full online degrees become commonplace, recognized and respected by the mid-2020s.

The other big reason why MOOCs suffer from a low completion rate is that they demand a high level of motivation and self-regulation, qualities younger students lack without the in-person social and peer pressure to inspire them. This social capital is the silent benefit that brick-and-mortar schools offer that isn't factored into tuition. MOOC degrees, in their current incarnation, can't offer all of the soft benefits that come from traditional universities and colleges, such as learning how to present oneself, working in groups, and most important, building a network of like-minded friends who might support your future professional growth. 

To address this social deficit, MOOC designers are experimenting with a variety of approaches to reform MOOCs. These include: 

The altMBA is a creation of famed marketing guru, Seth Godin, who has achieved a 98 percent graduation rate for his MOOC through the use of careful student selection, extensive group work, and quality coaching. Read this breakdown of his approach. 

Other education innovators, such as edX CEO Anant Agarwal, propose merging MOOCs and traditional universities. In this scenario, a four-year degree will be broken down into first-year students studying exclusively online, then the next two years studying in a traditional university setting, and the final year online again, alongside an internship or co-op placement. 

However, by 2030, the more likely scenario will be that most universities and colleges (especially those with poorly performing balance sheets) will begin offering degree backed MOOCs and shut down much of their more cost and labor intensive brick-and-mortar campuses. The teachers, TAs and other support staff that they do keep on payroll will be reserved for students willing to pay for individual or group tutorial sessions in-person or via video conference. Meanwhile, better-funded universities (i.e. those supported by the rich and well connected) and trades colleges will continue their brick-and-mortar-first approach. 

Virtual reality replaces the classroom

For all our talk about the social deficit students experience with MOOCs, there is one technology that can potentially cure that limitation: VR. By 2025, all of the world's top science and tech-dominated universities and colleges will integrate some form of VR into their curriculum, initially as a novelty, but eventually as a serious training and simulation tool. 

VR is already being experimented with on student doctors learning about anatomy and surgery. Colleges teaching complex trades use specialized versions of VR. The US military uses it extensively for flight training and in preparation for special ops.

However, by the mid-2030s, MOOCs providers such as Coursera, edX, or Udacity will eventually begin building large scale and surprisingly lifelike VR campuses, lecture halls, and workshop studios that students from around the world can attend and explore using their virtual avatars via a VR headset. Once this becomes a reality, the social element missing from today's MOOC courses will be largely resolved. And for many, this VR campus life will be a perfectly valid and fulfilling campus experience.

Moreover, from an educational perspective, VR opens up an explosion of new possibilities. Imagine Ms. Frizzle’s Magic School Bus but in real life. Tomorrow's top universities, colleges, and digital education providers will compete over who can provide students with the most engaging, lifelike, entertaining, and educational VR experiences.

Imagine a history teacher explaining race theory by having her students stand amongst the crowd in the Washington mall watching Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his ‘I have a dream' speech. Or a biology teacher virtually shrinking her class to explore the insides of the human anatomy. Or an astronomy teacher guiding a spaceship full of his students to explore our Milky Way galaxy. The future's next-gen virtual headsets will make all of these teaching possibilities a reality.

VR will help education reach a new golden age while exposing enough people to the possibilities of VR to make this tech attractive to the masses.

Addendum: Education beyond 2050

Since writing this series, a few readers have written in asking about our thoughts about how education will work further into the future, past 2050. What will happen when we start genetically engineering our children to have super intelligence, as outlined in our Future of Human Evolution series? Or when we begin implanting Internet-enabled computers inside our brains, as mentioned in the tail-end of our Future of Computers and Future of the Internet series’.

The answer to these questions is largely in line with the themes already outlined throughout this Future of Education series. For those future, genetically modified, genius children who will have the world's data wirelessly streamed into their brains, it's true that they will no longer need school to learn information. By then, the acquisition of information will be as natural and effortless as breathing air.

However, information alone is useless without the wisdom and experience to properly process, interpret and utilize said knowledge. Moreover, future students may be able to download a manual that teaches them how to build a picnic table, but they can’t download the experience and motor skills needed to physically and confidently accomplish that project. In all, it’s that real-world application of information that will ensure future students continue to value their schools. 


In all, the technology set to power our future education system, in the near- to long-term, will democratize the process of learning advanced degrees. The high cost and barriers to access higher education will drop so low that education will eventually become a right more so than a privilege for those who can afford it. And in that process, societal equality will take yet another giant step forward.

Future of education series

The trends pushing our education system towards radical change: Future of Education P1

Degrees to become free but will include expiry date: Future of Education P2

Future of teaching: Future of Education P3

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February 22, 2021. Last updated February 22, 2019.
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