The World We Live In and Europe in 2020

This post is an essay part of the Basic Studies of Pedagogy module under the Education, Society and Culture (6cr) study module. This module addresses the main concepts and questions of the sociology of education and education policy as well as the development of the Finnish education system.

I have chosen to read and write an essay on a 80-page report titled ‘School’s Over. Learning Spaces in Europe in 2020: An Imagining Exercise on the Future of Learning’ written by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) and, in particular, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS), which is one of the seven scientific institutes of JRC.

The authors of the report attempt to provide recommendations for improving the learning spaces of today by contrasting the present with a prediction of what the world of learning and the society as a whole will be like in Europe in 2020. The report provides a visionary scenario of a 21st century Learning-Intensive Society (LIS) where Learning Spaces (LS) are the next school. An imaginary snapshot of Europe in year 2020 is created on the basis of foresight approach, scenario methodology and forecasting. It is a vision of learning that differs radically from the conventional classroom model where blackboard knowledge and the imposing teacher represent the quintessential learning space of the industrial era.

In the authors’ vision, Europe has entered a post-industrialist era by 2020, where the current economic, social, governance and technological characteristics of the industrial era are no longer valid. However, in the report, a “kind of symbiosis” is mentioned where aspects of competition and cooperation, is characteristic of changes in hyper-complex social systems are combined. This is explained by the historic shift from agricultural to industrial society where farming did not disappear entirely and remains essential for human subsistence, but it is no longer the dominant component of the whole social picture. Could the Learning-Intensive Society Learning Spaces of the post-industrial era follow a similar evolution, where the old and the new exist in a symbiosis?

The report portrays the scenarios (stories or imaginary tableau) “painted” by a group of 24 experts participating in a two-day workshop in Paris on February 12-13, 2007. Using “rigorous foresight methodology” (rethinking about the present by imagining the futures scenarios) and backcasting (see diagram below).

The “rigorous imagining” process followed the three steps of the ‘hybrid strategic scenario’ approach, which is a complex way to reach a variety of objectives. In simple terms, using the ‘painting metaphor’ there is a need for “frame, palette of colours, a canvas and selection of subjects” that serve as a basis for drawing up the Learning Spaces scenarios. The authors note that the “painting is not a reality”; therefore, “the choices made by the artist, inevitably constrained by what he or she knows and sees (consciously and unconsciously, implicit and explicit), are neither exhaustive nor continuous”.

The report first examines the Present by distinguishing three different levels that changes take place in the world today and contain the possibility that the context of learning may change, there are 1) the macro-level trends and drivers such as the emergence of new skills and competences, demographic changes, and globalisation, 2) the institutional meso-level trends and drivers such as  formal vs. informal learning, education reform, workplace learning, and 3) the individual micro-level trends and drivers such as the behavioural attributes of all age cohorts (baby boomers, Gen X, millennials (Gen Y), etc.) that will be the active learners in Europe of 2020.

At this point, I would like to raise the issue that experts and policy makers of today are burdened with the obligation to create recommendations that shape the future for the generations to come without being able to comprehend to the overall extent trends and drivers of today. For instance, the age cohorts of baby boomers are asked to create suggestions that will impact the world that Gen Y or future generations will live in. How digital immigrants can shape the world for digital natives?

Also, based on my experience teaching in higher education, Gen Y is not perhaps a generation that Web 2.0 has conquered.  I notice from everyday experience that my students mainly representatives of Gen Y are not socially connected as we -the teachers mainly belonging in Gen X or baby boomers- want to romantically think. I must admit that I belong to Gen Y and I still notice gaps in my understanding and passion for social media and my students. I wish to expand on this concerning issue in a later blog post.

In the LIS_LS portrayed in the ‘School’s Over. Learning Spaces in Europe in 2020: An Imagining Exercise on the Future of Learning’ report, the purpose and form of education have changed. The institutionalised hierarchical and exclusive approach has been abandoned in the authors’ vision and the learning spaces of 2020 are characterised by network fluidity, complexity, spontaneity, creativity and wisdom, which are the main policy conclusions of the report, the benchmarks for judging policy actions. In detail, these guiding assumptions of what policy should do are summarised in the five criteria below:

  • Networking fluidity means employing technology to enable easy access to educational resources, provide the opportunity to tailor the learning content to individual’s needs and encourage formation of communities
  • Complexity refers to making all information available in its breadth and depth and ensuring diversification and transparency
  • Spontaneity demands information that is timely, shaped by reflection and questioning
  • Creativity to support on-going discovery and refinement of “collective intelligence”
  • Wisdom – redefining wisdom as learning from experimenting

The report concludes with a list of tentative and partial hypothetical policy options and milestones in order to encourage measures that leverage the potential of the present to realise the five LIS-LS conditions presented above. These include:

  • Establishment of reputation systems that will integrate the evaluation and feedback of people’s everyday activities into a trustworthy personal learning account;
  • Creation of credible cyber identity systems as technology plays a key role in facilitating learning;
  • Major shift towards open source in relation to intellectual property as unique creations that underpin the entire economy rely on building upon other people’s creations
  • Networks enabling fluidity that are free of rules, biases or preferential treatment based on ability to pay for access
  • Requiring all information on the internet to be indexed
  • End compulsory school and instead providing  communities with resources for alternative activities
  • Creation of a European agency dedicated to learning spaces

In my opinion, the challenge for the Learning Space of the future lies in the infrastructure challenges, security and privacy risks as well as in the people’s perceptions especially in the traditional academic institutions, decision makers and the power elite. Heterarchy (as opposed to Hierarchy, see diagram below) is presented in the report as a solution of the LS infrastructure challenges.  The term ‘heterarchy’ is new for me (even though it is a neologism based on Greek language) and it makes me wonder how that could be implemented in the ever-changing complex reality we and the the next generations will be experiencing in the years to come.

In conclusion, the report gives food for thought about the future scenarios that might unfold and issues to consider when deciding about the future of education policy. I agree with many of the issues presented in the report, however we should acknowledge that this anticipatory exercise of the future scenarios offers only one way amongst others of challenging the assumptions the shape education policy today and does not (or should not) attempt to demonstrate the Learning-Intensive Society and Learning Spaces as desirable or probable.

As a teacher, the report has given me new terms in my vocabulary such as ‘backcasting’ and ‘heterarchy’ as well as ideas for tools and exercises that I can utilise with my students at HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences.

One thought on “The World We Live In and Europe in 2020

  1. One thing I started to think after reading your well written outline of the article, is that right now we seem to be living parrallel times: some people still live in the structures, which served well decades ago, and at the same time others already live in the world of 2020 (or at least as it was predicted in the report). As a results there are huge gaps to ovecome, when these two cultures clash. And it’s not just a genaration gap, not all Y people are in the digital space.

    – Irmeli

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