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How will we join the dots for the future? - Robin Webber-Jones

06 June 2024

By Robin Webber-Jones, Principal of Tresham college, part of the Bedford College Group.

Steve Jobs often said that the present can only be understood by “joining the dots of the past”. For those of us involved in educating the workforce of today and tomorrow, this means joining the dots we understand from our past to encourage people to make sense of the future.

We can all think back to our school days with nostalgia. My social media feeds frequently show me images of iconic artefacts and events from school in the 1990s, including the eraser that had a blue tip which, allegedly, could rub out pen marks. I remember my school getting its first modem and we were able to use dial up internet. I also remember when the computer room got its upgrade from its long-standing BBC computers.

While I can occasionally feel old and am somewhat fearful of turning into my parents (whose wistful, plaintiff objections to change were sometimes expressed in the phrase “back in my day”) I am genuinely cheered by the change that technology has brought to our lives.

The pace of change that modern computing has brought us, along with research and the digital revolution, has dramatically changed the ways we live and how we teach and learn (Giannini, (2023), which in turn, challenges what the future of education might look like.

Freire (2018) argues that traditional education systems maintain hierarchical power structures which ensures the status quo remains. Yet, we know that with the development of gamification individuals can be collaborating, scenario planning, and evaluating practices all over the globe in real time. These technologies are already used by the military and are being used in a range of other fields. How are digital, collaborative, performance and other faculties being developed through the current curriculum of T Levels, Higher Technical Qualifications (HTQs), A Levels and other structures we work within when preparing people for this future world? Literature indicates that the integration of AI in education will give insights into student performance and experience (Huang & Zhang, 2021; Akgun & Greenhow, 2022).

I am struck by how technologies are changing the nature of the creative industries: YouTube is the world’s largest broadcaster, the use of drones has been transformative, The Sphere in Las Vegas is fitted with 4D Technologies to enhance story-telling, and the Institute for Government is discussing how AI will change the future of procurement in the public sector.

However, these global changes risk growing inequality gaps (Dhir, et al., 2021). Within further education we undertake significant work to close social mobility gaps, especially those that focus on intergenerational immobility. Technological and societal change brings into sharp focus what the purpose of education is. In the UK election year this is likely to be the subject of a significant number of debates; it might be worth us spending some time trying to frame these questions.

  • Any debate about education cannot be separated from a discussion on the purpose of society. How do we want education to ensure society can use all the new technologies available to it and what structures are needed to do that?
  • How can the structures, ideas and concepts in the Advanced British Standard (whether it comes into being or not) support embracing technologies to support people to be more mobile and engage in society in its broadest sense?
  • How are any qualification reforms now ensuring safe and ethical decision-making regarding technologies in the future?

Most critically, we need to consider what these technologies mean for the leaders of the future who are being formed in our institutions today. Regardless of whether they will lead health systems, exercise civic leadership, lead small businesses or be involved in leading FTSE 100 companies, we should be concerned with the human qualities we are seeking to develop.

Bob Johansen, from The Institute for the Future in Silicon Valley, says: “We think we are connected today, but the next 10 years will be a period of explosive connectivity... most leaders – and most organisations – are not ready for this future”. I would argue that while further education is keen to embrace this future, it does not yet have the funding, tools or autonomy to do so fully. Johansen goes on to argue that “enduring leadership qualities like strength, humility and trust will still be foundational, but the future will require new literacies for leadership... firm structures will give way shape-shifting organisational forms that function like organisms.”

Again, we need to ask the politicians who will oversee further education in the future how they will support us to prepare people for this future. After all, not only do these technologies need to be built into the curriculum, so do the wider literacies to prepare people for the future.

We need to demand that we are well equipped to do that without excessive, narrow reform.