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Museums are the Future of Education

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Earlier this year, I shared some thoughts regarding the future of education with face-to-face and on-line attendees at Museums Advocacy Day. My thesis, which I’ve advanced on this blog before, is that we are on the cusp of transformative change in the U.S. learning landscape, and that museums have the opportunity, through advocacy and action, to help create a more equitable and successful educational system in which they play a starring role. We recorded the presentation, and I share it with you here in the hopes you will use it to spur thinking in your own organizations about the kind of future we want to live in, and what you can do to help make that future come to pass.
30-minute video. Schedule a brownbag lunch. Make popcorn. Hit “play”

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One goal of strategic foresight is spotting the end of major eras and foreseeing the nature of the next age. Many signals suggest the American educational system is on the cusp of transformative change. Our last era was based on a “factory” model of education designed to prepare a workforce prepared for the 20th century economy. The forces that shaped that era are fading away and new drivers of change are pushing us in a different direction. What might the new era of education look like?

We can begin to outline potential scenarios of the educational future by looking at the forces—trends and events—that will shape our path forward. These include:
  • Rising dissatisfaction with performance of primary, secondary schools
  • Increased experimentation with alternatives (charter schools, homeschooling, unschooling)
  • Rising cost of higher education, escalating debt, low rates of post-graduation employment
  • Burgeoning online educational content, including MOOCs
  • Accelerating in development of micro-credentialing
Disruptive Events:
  • 1983: A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence)
  • 2002: No Child Left Behind
  • 2011: HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media & Learning Competition, supported by Mozilla, Gates funding for Badges for Lifelong Learning, supporting 30 development grants
And I can easily imagine plausible disruptive events that haven’t happened yet, but could happen in the next couple years. For example, watch for these headlines:
Coursera reports first quarter profits, announces IPO. Coursera is one of the major providers of Massive Open Online Courses As soon as one of the big MOOC providers figures out a workable business model, the development of these platforms for delivering educational content, much of it of very high quality, will rapidly accelerate.
IBM releases applicant guidelines for digital badges. As soon as mainstream employers (and IBM is one of the biggest employers in the U.S.) start accepting alternate forms of credentialing, such as digital badges and other micro-credentials, the calculation regarding ROI of going into debt for a traditional college degree will look even less attractive.
Finally I presented two brief stories of the future, either which might come to pass, depending on how things play out over the next couple of decades: A Fractured Landscape, which might result from continued doubling down on our current reform strategies: a more narrow focus on marketable skills; rigid attention to testing & results; growing divide between educational haves & have-nots, and decreased state support for state higher education. In this (rather depressing) future museums are educational luxuries, available only to the economic elite. On the other hand, we could take a different path to the future, leading to A Vibrant Learning Grid1 of distributed, personalized learning experiences. In this future, government-funded facilitators help students assemble personal learning ecologies that meet their needs. In this era, characterized by experiential, immersive, passion-based learning drawing on distributed resources, museums play a vital and valued role.
The MAD audience overwhelmingly voted for A Vibrant Learning Grid as the future in which they would rather live and work. But (reality shock) they felt that, of these two scenarios, A Fractured Landscape is much more likely to come to pass. See if you agree.
And I issue the same challenge to you that I threw down to the MAD attendees: if you see a gap between the future you feel is probable and the future you prefer, this is your space to act. This is where you can exert the third driver of change—personal action—to shape the world we will live in. Once you have identified your preferred future, ask yourself every day, every week, every year, what can I do to make it the future you and your children will actually live in?
Read more about the trends shaping the future of education in the past two CFM reports: TrendsWatch 2012 and TrendsWatch 2013, as well as in the 1KnowledgeWorks Foundation’s 2020 Forecast: Creating the Future of Learning, particularly the “Vibrant Learning Grid” scenario from which I borrowed elements for this talk.

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