One of the greatest challenges for education in the 21st century is that there is an ever-increasing divide between the demand for learning and the supply of schooling. This is seen most obviously in the global shortage of teachers, but it extends to the dearth of school leaders, and to the unavailability of schools themselves.
According to UNESCO (Institute of Statistics, 2013), the world will need 3.3 million more primary teachers and 5.1 million more lower secondary teachers by 2030. There is no easy solution to this problem, but I believe that lessons from how the Middle East is addressing the problem may provide a solution.
You might ask, “Why would a solution come from the Middle East? Why not from the most developed educational systems of Europe and North America?” Well, I believe that the answer to that lies in what Clayton M. Christensen of the Harvard University Business School, calls “disruptive innovations” – i.e. innovations which transform the entire form of organisation and management of established institutions. Christensen argues that one of the characteristics of disruptive innovations is that that they “originate in low-end and new-market footholds”. On this basis, it is more likely that a solution for the learning-schooling problem should be found in Dubai, than in the established setting of the UK or US state and independent sectors.
So what lessons can we learn from the for-profit sector in Dubai?
The Dubai For-Profit Sector
The for-profit sector in Dubai, unsurprisingly is driven by the economic drivers of return-on-investment, economies of scale, scalability, differentiated markets and keeping costs down – especially of staffing. However, there are three important characteristics of the for-profit sector that, I believe, will shape global schooling in the future:
The for-profit groups offer education at different price points:
The for-profit groups offer premium, mid-range and budget in the same way that airlines offer first class, business and economy seats on their planes. The differentiators between the price points are school and class size, the range of facilities available in the school, the qualifications of teachers, and the amount of teacher-pupil contact time in the week.
The for-profit groups invest in central IT systems:
Nord Anglia have developed the Nord Anglia University as a global CPD portal for teachers. GEMS have developed a share VLE for their schools and have introduced ‘blended learning’ programmes which have moved the process of teaching and learning away from the traditional model of a teacher standing in front of a class.
The for-profit group invest in top talent for key leadership roles:
GEMS have attracted top educationalists from around the world to drive their educational and IT learning strategies.
Looking into the crystal ball
So if we apply the principles of Dubai’s for-profit sector to the global learning-school problem, what will the future hold for our schools? Here are my five prophecies…
1. Education For-Profit will become the norm around the world. Not-for-profit education is not equipped to meet the global demand for education, the inevitable consequence is that the for-profit sector will fill the void.
2. Being taught by a specialist teacher in a classroom at secondary level will be a luxury. Technology won’t replace teachers everywhere – but it will in many places. In the future, it will only be premium secondary education that will be delivered by specialist teachers in classrooms drawing on a range of real and virtual resources. Budget secondary education will not have subject teachers, but will be delivered totally through online courses on learning platforms. However, for many young people around the world this will be better than the present situation of receiving no education at all. Mid-range secondary education will be delivered by ‘super-teachers’ via virtual-reality conferencing. The for-profit will invest in new technologies in order to maximise the impact of teachers.
3. Virtual reality teaching will be the disruptor of secondary education. We also already have virtual teaching through video conferencing which enables pupils around the world to be taught live by a remote teacher. Furthermore, virtual reality already enables pupils to travel through time and space – to experience the ancient Colosseum in Rome or life in the trenches. Once these two technologies are combined so that we have virtual reality teaching, it will be possible for a pupil to put on a headset and ‘feel’ as if they are in a real classroom with a world-class teacher, or be taken on a virtual school visit to any place in time and space.
4. There will be ‘superstar teachers’ commanding very high salaries. One of the consequences of the rise of virtual reality teaching is that there will be the rise of superstar teachers. The for-profit sector has a proven record of investing in talent where it can make wider savings. It will inevitably pay to attract top talent, particularly in shortage subjects and their global educational networks will provide a platform which will enable great virtual reality teachers will be able to reach millions of students. These teachers will inevitably be very well paid and, given the nature of the C21, it is likely that they will be famous and become celebrities.
5. Primary teachers will be assisted by robots. Young children at a formative stage of development need human interaction to shape their learning, thus it is highly unlikely that it will ever be possible to replace teachers in primary schools with technological solutions. One consequence of the predictions for secondary education outlined above is that primary schooling will need to teach the skills to enable young people to access non-classroom based forms of education. It is quite possible that robots will replace teaching assistants, performing basic instructive tasks such as teaching basic mathematics and listening to children read.
Prophecy is more about reading the signs of the time and working out a likely future position from the direction of travel, rather than predicting the future receiving some dislocated revelation from on high. Prophets are rarely popular because they are usually delivering a message that people don’t want to hear. I believe that the signs for a possible future of schooling are there for all to see.
In an ideal world every child would receive the quality of education that is available at Eton or Phillips Exeter Academy (or JESS for that matter) but that isn’t going to happen. The reality is that there is inequality of educational provision in the world and that that is very unlikely to change.
The challenge to every true educationalist is how we can give every child the opportunity to have at least some form of basic education, and technology has a very important role to play.