Manifesting the Future of Education: Dr. Noah Sobe
Dr. Noah Sobe is Senior Project Officer on the Future of Learning and Innovation team at UNESCO in Paris, where he recently assisted with the research and drafting of UNESCO's new flagship report on the Futures of Education entitled, reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education. And just as a side, that report actually has been some of the inspiration for this convening today since the report did a call for collaboration, so this convening in a way is a response to that call for collaboration to join in on the conversation. Noah is at UNESCO while on extended leave of absence from his faculty position as a Professor at Loyola University, Chicago. He is also Past-President of the Comparative and International Education Society, and the Editor of the journal, European Education, Noah.
- Thanks very much, Alicia, for that introduction, and it's great to be here. It's wonderful to follow you, Olli, I think there's a huge number of points of overlap and synergy between which you were presenting, I mean, the importance of values, the importance of thinking about our purposes, and also as Alicia mentioned, the real urgency of working in collaboration are things that are front and central in this UNESCO project that I've been involved with for the past three years, a report titled, reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education. So, what I'm going to do is talk very briefly about some of the orienting frameworks and recommendations that come out of that report because I think they'll be useful when I go into more detail as asked on the digital transformation of education in that dimension. Let me start with the overarching argument of the report. And if you want to get a copy,
I can put it a link in the chat afterwards. If you google, UNESCO Futures of Education, you'll come to it, or if you scan that QR code you'll get to it, but I think it was distributed in the materials for this. So the overarching argument of the report begins with the realization that many of us are increasingly aware that we're at a turning point. If we're honest with ourselves, we also know that doing more of the same, even if faster, even if more efficiently, is propelling us towards a cliff, it's simply not sustainable, either in terms of our relationships with the living planet Earth or our relationships with one another, both within and across countries for us to continue as we are. So we face a choice. We can continue on an unsustainable path, or we can radically change course. Now, we know that education has great power to bring about change, we know that knowledge and learning are essential for any social transformation, but at present the ways we organize education do not do enough to ensure justice, peace, and a healthy planet.
And in fact, some of our difficulties stem from how we educate. So the primary argument of this new report is that we need a new social contract for education that can both repair past injustices while transforming the future. So I'll go into a little bit of detail on this, but first, a quick word on how this was prepared. I think I see some names in the room that I recognize from
participation in focus groups and discussions. So, the report, which is an independent report, was prepared by an international commission on the Futures of Education, that was chaired by the President of Ethiopia, her excellence, Madam Sahle-Work Zewde. She was joined by 17 other global thought leaders from different areas and different parts of the world. So they composed an international commission that authored the report, and crucially, with the input, with the ideas, the hopes and fears of over a million people worldwide who joined and engaged during the two year preparation process that included focus groups, that included online platforms, webinars, background papers, a whole extensive engagement that is actually still ongoing as we roll out the report, and I'll say more about that at the end. It's perhaps useful, and Olli
covered some of this already, to begin with kind of an assessment of where we are. On the one hand, long-term trends show that we have actually come a long way in education in terms of access, in terms of learning outcomes, in terms of gender equality. But of course that progress has been very uneven and many of today's gaps are based on yesterday's exclusions and injustices. You know, one in five children today in low income countries, one in 10 across the world are still out of school. Olli,
usefully mentioned that, you know, you can create systems that have great schools, but that doesn't mean you're creating great education systems. So, there's a lot of work to do to even meet the past promises of education. You know, what we have looked to education to accomplish in the past, and of course, I don't need to tell you that the COVID pandemic has really exacerbated these challenges and the inequalities that we face around the boat. So, as if that weren't enough of course, we also are amidst a number of emerging disruptions and real uncertainties about the future. The planet is in peril, but of course at the same time, there's great momentum to heal it. Democratic governance is under attack, but at the same time, activism and citizen participation is growing. Ensuring a human-centered world of work is getting harder,
but at the same time, more attention in many places is being paid to purpose and to work that matters. And then finally, as I'll go into more detail later on, digital technologies have great potential but they don't always deliver on their promises. So these are all emerging disruptions, they are the known unknowns, and what's unknown about them is the direction that they'll head, I would submit and this is a position strongly taken by the UNESCO report, that our task is not simply to respond, but to shape the direction of these uncertain changes of these transformations. In
other words, it's really important to think of education, both as adapting and adjusting to a changed world, but also actively striving to shape and change the world. The final thing I want to mention that I think is very important in framing of this report and perhaps useful when I get into the digital technology, this I think connects very closely with a number of things Olli was mentioning across so many of the conversations that we had, the commission had, in trying to mobilize really a global discussion about futures of education, we heard repeatedly the concern of many people that things feel out of balance right now, that there's a real need for us to relearn our interdependencies, to rebalance our relationships with each other, with the living planet Earth and with technology. So, you know, finding that balance I think is very much takes us into questions about what it means to be human and how we want to express our humanity, and maybe even how we want to improve our humanity. The call in the report is to build a new social contract for education. This is something that's going to require ongoing collaboration, and it's not something that's one and done, I think we all know from working in many cases on this call decades in the field of education, that this will always be an ongoing process, there's not going to be a magic bullet solution that's going to solve and position us for the future. But just as our anticipation of the future changes, what we commit to,
how we work together in education's going to need to change. So, to begin some of the real extensive cultural, social changes that are needed, the commission focused on five areas of education, five dimensions, each of these is the subject of a detailed chapter in the report, very specific, rapid recommendations that actually are quite granular. But to quickly recap, in pedagogy, so thinking about, as Olli was talking about, you know, learning as a set of an education is a set of relationships between a learner, knowledge, competencies, the world, and a teacher. You know, there is in many places in the world a real focus on teacher driven lessons despite the fact that we bring groups of learners together into the same spaces, our efforts are largely directed at individual accomplishment. And the commission proposes that in a new social
contract for education, pedagogy needs to be organized around principles of cooperation, collaboration, and solidarity. Now, in many places today in the world, curricula are organized as a kind of bureaucratic grid of subjects. And the call here is to shift to an emphasis on ecological, intercultural, interdisciplinary learning. And if you stop and think about it, what ties those three things together is an invitation for us to think more in terms of connections than in terms of categories. In many parts of the world, teaching is considered
an individualized practice, something that occurs behind a classroom door. And the call in this report is to increasingly professionalize teaching as a collaborative endeavor where the autonomy and the freedom of teachers is supported and they become valued participants in public debates on the futures of education. As for all of us, the experience of the COVID disruption for the commission and everyone involved in this project to give a lot of thought to the school, what we learned by the absence and closure of the school, we know that as the school became a global institution across the 20th century, a universal model and universal procedural norms were imposed, not always with the right kind of localization and sensitivity to different contexts. However, the commission and this report strongly feels that the school as a place that brings people together to learn within from others is something that needs to be protected and safeguarded even as it needs to be transformed, reimagined in diverse ways. And finally, when we consider the broader educational ecosystems, we need to ensure that in addition to schools and educational and training organizations, we're thinking about welcoming and expanding learning opportunities in all social and cultural spaces. So, I think this aligns very closely with what Olli laid out about the necessity to think holistically and kind of to tackle the whole set of elements that go into education at the same time. Let me now go into what I'm supposed to talk about , which is the
digital transformation of education, which I wanted to plug into that because I wanted to basically begin by recognizing that the accelerating transformation of our societies by digitalization, by digital technologies, is of course reshaping how we learn, how we live. The digital technologies, particularly ones focused on enhancing connectivity, really can enrich educational processes, can improve learning outcomes, they can be bent in the direction of supporting human rights, of enhancing human capabilities, also of facilitating collective action in the directions of peace, justice, and sustainability. But we clearly have not yet fully delivered on many of these promises. And in fact, too often, the digital drives us apart instead of bringing us together. So, the first thing I want to just point out is that this contradiction is in fact no different than the contradiction that we've experienced at other great moments of technological change, be that the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution where major collective gains also come with worrisome increases in inequality and exclusion, ensuring that proper rollout is something that takes time and deliberate attention. When we look to the future, and I think it's important, I mean, it's of course famously difficult to, you know, talk about technological trends, more difficult than talking about trends in other domains, but I still think it's possible to identify some of the emerging disruptions, and then again, we both need to react and adapt to and try to steer. You know, the first of these is a pretty significant transformation in human
meaning making. You know, the data that can emerge from digital processes, the increasing ability that we have to store, to transmit and search information, gives us vast new computational powers. And obviously that comes with considerable risk, and one of those risks is that it can sideline other ways of knowing, for example, indigenous or low tech, the ephemeral, the spiritual, you know, non-commoditized forms of knowledge. So, in our attention to the ongoing transformation of human meaning making, we obviously need to attend to that. The second disruption that I think is important for us to pay attention to is the substitution of machines for human decision making. You know, we're seeing across many sectors,
and education is part of this, an expanded use of algorithmic machine learning techniques that are really entering into the terrain of social and political decision making, and in some cases replacing human judgment. To an extent, you know, we're all aware that bias and subjectivity might be able to be controlled by technological processes that have transparency, yet we also at the same time know that those processes can be veiled in secrecy and complexity, and can in fact reinforce the very biases that we're trying to overcome. The possible erosion of intellectual and personal freedom, you know, the ways that certain forms of digital technology lend themselves to surveillance and control, you know, creates considerable room for abuse, and as we look to the future, that's something we should be paying great attention to. Right now, digital platforms in education are really quite linked to commercial interests, and advanced purposes linked to the broader business objectives of their providers. Now, there's a strong movement in the UNESCO and across other organizations as well, including the OECD, to build robust public infrastructure, open educational resources.
So I think, again, this is an area of emerging disruption where it's in our hands to steer. Finally, I think the displacement of social, political, cultural, economic, even interpersonal life into virtual spaces, raises some profound questions about what it means to be human and what are core approaches to teaching and learning need to be. So, how do we respond to this? I'm going to talk quickly about recommendations in three areas. You know, the first of which is ensuring that digital technology actually empowers and connects. We can do this by focusing on supporting learner wellbeing, you know, by making sure that when kids are using Google Classroom or whatever online platforms for their interactions, that we're paying attention to the ways that those same technologies can be individually isolating. You know, there's a lot of research out there pointing to the increased
loneliness, selfishness, even narcissism that's accompanying the spread of social media and other technologies into our lives. So, as we use education, pay close attention to the sort of wholeness of people's needs to support their wellbeing. Second, to increase public investment in open digital resources, resources that are unbeholden to commercial interests, that are based on a commitment to the common good, and resources that are open in two important respects, one in terms of access and freely available, but also open to be manipulated, to be adapted, and to be added to and changed by learners. We also, I think, need to, if there's a need for connectivity, and I think there is, clearly we need to close digital divides, we also need to respect non-connectivity, the offline life-worlds. We need to ensure that
our rush for technological solution doesn't drown out on non-digital forms of knowing and learning. The second set of recommendations that I want to put forward is around the principle of centering the most marginalized, right? So, clearly we need to close digital divides. You know, we need to enable any time, anywhere internet access for students and teachers. In doing that though, we need to commit to safeguarding cultural diversity, to language diversity, we know that connectivity on its own is not going to produce that, but it's going to take a lot of intention and effort and shared work. This is really a call for adopting principles of inclusive design. You know, one of the problems with a lot of innovation in
education, but this holds across a lot of areas is that, you know, it's typically designed and tested on a unique profile, often those who are, you know, already enjoying privilege and advantage, and then it's rolled out and adapted to others. So the call here is to reverse that process and begin with the most vulnerable and the most marginalized situations, you know, with the learners who are most in need of greater opportunities, and then to scale out to more privileged communities. Finally, it's I think really important for us to require that technology foremost, you know, as we use it in schools, as we use it outside of schools and in formal and non-formal education, that it serve educational purposes. So, the first point is, you know, is the strong conviction of the commission that digital technologies cannot and should not be allowed to replace schools, that learning cannot be fully displaced into virtual spaces, that is put forward as a lesson of the COVID pandemic. You know, that fully remote online schooling is a poor substitute for the positive learning environments that schools can provide. You know, second here, that we really need to work on leveraging digital connectivity around enhancing access to knowledge.
You know, there's amazing ways that the digital opens up possibilities for teachers and students to access texts, to access artwork, to connect to other kinds of human experiences across the world, and we need to make that the focus of our efforts. You know, connected with that, you know, digital tools have been very useful as ways to promote communication between teachers, parents, and students, also to bring parents into supporting their children's learning in new ways. We need to remember that alongside the digital being such a valuable communication tool, it's a really valuable creation tool, right? That students can create videos, it's not just a matter of receiving things from the world, but it is a way of enabling people to put things out in the world. You know, clearly we need strict data protections and to ensure ethical use of AI and algorithms to make sure that, you know, when they bring their predictive models, that's not relying on or reproducing existing stereotypes and systems of exclusion. So, I want to close by going back to
the call in the Futures of Education report for really centering on education that creates and nurtures possibilities. And the three questions that are put forward, you know, as questions that inspire the commission's reflections to begin with, inspire the report, but are questions that need to be asked by all of us as we, you know, continue this ongoing collaboration work together. So the first of these is to begin by thinking about, what is it that we do in education now that we should continue? You know, what might need to be strengthened or safeguarded? And why, you know, why are these the important things to keep moving forward? Connected with that is a conversation about, what we need to abandon, what we need to move away from, what we might need to unlearn, and why those elements of education, be they practices, policies, or even assumptions, are actually doing us more harm than good, that's an important step towards moving forward. And then finally,
taking some time to identify what is it that needs to be really creatively reimagined afresh? And maybe that's something, you know, it's just begins with a process of identifying, hey, we haven't figured out how to do this. You know, it's not something, maybe it'll take six months, maybe it'll take six years to solve, but these sets of questions, you know, what to continue, what to abandon, and what to reinvent, is the suggestion put forward by the UNESCO commission on the futures of education for best transforming education. And I think they're as applicable to the questions around the digital transformation of education in front of us as they are to other areas. So, I'll close with that, thank you very much.