The Future of Learning: In the Classroom and Beyond

Lately, there has been so much chatter about the future of work, but perhaps what we should concentrate more effort on is the future of learning. After all, learning is what prepares us for the working world, right? Or maybe it's just the opposite: The working world should perpetuate our ability to learn. How we learn in school is changing, and that will begin to impact on how the working world functions post-graduation.

Our higher education system, in general, appears to be on the brink of big change. This recent article on striking similarities between the housing bubble and the higher education bubble explains clearly that our education system is ripe for an overhaul, mainly because -- for many students -- the payoff simply is not there. Tuition costs continue to rise, debt continues to rise, yet the desired payoffs of job availability and salary are lacking.

What will the future of learning look like?

As information becomes more and more readily available with the click of a button, learning in the future will not be about memorizing facts. These "things" can now be found quickly and easily with an internet search. Instead we will focus much more on learning how to learn -- and that learning will need to happen faster and faster. This will include both processing complex information and the ability to communicate those findings. Candidate employability will be based upon how well an employee learns new skills, adapts their experiences to new situations, and -- perhaps especially -- how well they communicate with others. Employers will likely become more interested in the speed at which candidates can catch on rather than what they currently know. Technology has clearly been part of the problem by giving us easy access to information which allows us to think less, but it will also likely be part of the solution.

According to an interesting blog post entitled Generation Z will Revolutionize Education, "Baby boomers changed politics, Gen X changed family, Gen Y changed work, and Gen Z will change education.

"Although it is unlikely that universities as we know them will completely disappear, the author states that school does not completely prepare us for the working world. "Gen Y has been very vocal about this problem because a) they did everything they were told to do and it didn't help them get a job and b) we have a national crisis because Gen Y has huge debt from college and little ability to pay it back."

What will change?

Brandon Reame with Izzy+, who travels the country discussing this very topic with educators, pointed out in a recent discussion that one of the biggest shifts is that learning used to be about a teacher imparting knowledge to students. Now, with the help of technology, it is less about imparting knowledge and much more about sharing information and working through issues together. He uses a chart to explain an interactive process called "adaptive learning:" getting to the desired learning objective while balancing and leveraging prior knowledge. The "zone of optimized learning" is where students learn best and works on a spectrum of task complexity and existing skill level. Software can be leveraged to give feedback and ensure they are "in the zone" for as long as possible. If the process is too complex for their skill level, they get frustrated. Conversely if their skill level is too high for a less complex problem, they become bored.

Of course, education is not limited to classroom experiences. We do not graduate school and stop learning. With every problem comes innovative solutions. Corporations are looking for subtle, even "gamified" ways to encourage ongoing learning from employees. Similar to the university example above, many employers are leveraging this electronic-based feedback to educate their employees.

Cisco Systems, for example, was looking for better ways to engage their employees with health benefits. Many of us have had the 1" thick folder of health benefits flopped on our desk as part of the entry paperwork at a new job. Few of us have actually read it in its entirety or taken the time to process and understand it. Cisco partnered with Thomsons Online Benefits to tackle this challenge.

I recently spoke with Chris Wakely from Thomsons Online Benefits, who told me that the company's benefits management and employee engagement software is mobile enabled to make it easy for employees to learn about and understand their benefits. Mobile capabilities of the HR software allow employees to access information through their smart devices and receive company notifications that further promote and educate employees on better wellness practices. The HR software can even be customized to show only what applies to each individual employee, and with very little effort, can improve the absorption rate of the information for employees without taking a lot of time; no formal training sessions, no time away from their "real" jobs, just passive learning that allows employees to focus on what they were hired to do while still learning the information they need.

What does this mean for us?

For all of us, not just those graduating high school and (maybe) heading off to college, we must be increasingly conscious of how we process information and avoid getting lazy with our mental fitness. Changes in how we are learning will likely create big shifts in how resume-building and hiring processes happen. According to Shelley Crooks, owner of national recruiting firm Palladian West, we are already seeing a shift.

"As technology becomes more prevalent, communication skills are getting worse. Critical thinking skills are getting worse. Where we have to be careful is: are we learning how to USE the data and make difficult decisions based on complex analysis? We are seeing more assessments dealing with critical thinking as a part of the hiring process from our clients. We have seen failures on these tests which greatly impact the candidates' employability. People have always wanted fast learners, but that coupled with good communication skills and ability to solve problems can be difficult to find."

So while it is great that technology is making learning easier, interactive and "gamified," we must all be sure that we are not losing the key skills that differentiate humans from machines: communication and critical thinking. Several websites including (among others) are popping up to help us do our own "brain training." Or you can simply watch the movie, Idiocracy, and you may even break out your Encyclopedia Britanica tonight.