Mandatory lifelong learning? Teaching as required service?

When closed transcripts are replaced by open ledgers, and when we can pay down student debts by teaching what we’ve learned forward, how will the boundaries of our educational lives change?

At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, we saw a burst of positive imagination around shifting age, community and geographic boundaries. Players saw participation in a new global learning system as a new form of democratic engagement, one that could last a lifetime. Although terms like “mandatory” and “required” can make this possible future seem like an extreme one, these ideas hint at just how much room there is to make things different.  Can you imagine…

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3 Big Ideas from the Aspen Ideas Festival

More than 100 leaders in the field of higher education attended the Aspen Ideas Festival this past week, where they helped brainstorm innovative ways to  connect learning and earning in the future.

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Here are 3 of the ideas that generated the most discussion among the university presidents, policy-makers and startup founders present — all of which underscore the need for technologies like the Ledger.

1. “The typical college student is not who you think it is” – and new learning platforms and should be designed for the 95%, not the 5%

Who are today’s college students? The answer surprises most people who attended four year universities, according to Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation. Addressing audiences, like the one he spoke to Friday at The Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he frequently poses this question: “What percentage of students in American higher education today graduated from high school and enrolled in college within a year to attend a four year institution and live on campus?”

Most people guess “between forty and sixty percent,” he said, whereas “the correct answer is five percent.” There is, he argued, “a real disconnect in our understanding of who today’s students are. The influencers––the policy makers, the business leaders, the media––have a very skewed view of who today’s students are.”

The conversations we’ve been having at represent new possibilities for all, but especially for this under-acknowledged and under-innovated-for 95%.

And the numbers will only get bigger: Another 50 million college students are expected to seek out higher education by the year 2025 who will fall into this category of working learners.

According to the research, this group’s primary goal in seeking out higher education is “as a way to acquire training and a certificate of hireability.” In other words, this groups wants clear pathways to employment, and more engagement with future employers throughout their college coursework.

Which leads us to…

2. “Work colleges” reduce student debt and leads to higher employment – Can new online learning platforms borrow their best practices?

Michael Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College, which aims to be the 8th federally recognized “work college” in the U.S., participated in our July 1 afternoon Learning is Earning brainstorm. He shared an institutional vision that colleges should be helping students become better workers, not just better learners. “Many first-generation college students aren’t just under-prepared for college coursework, they’re under-prepared for work. They may come from backgrounds where employment in their community is a constant struggle, where there are not good models for stable full-time work.” At Paul Quinn, all students are required to work 120 hours a semester, in jobs provided by the university and chosen to instill a range of professional and collaborative work skills; the students receive a tuition rebate of $1200 a semester in return.

Teaching students how to work in professional environments, and shifting them away from the entry-level service jobs that most would otherwise pursue as part-time work, can help the students get double the growth during their college time. They’re not just earning a college degree, they’re also learning how to earn. (They also graduate with far less debt.)

One creative thought emerged: Should all colleges grant work transcripts in addition to coursework transcripts? If more than 70% of learners have jobs, can colleges actively seek to represent the skills and knowledge acquired in that context alongside their classwork?

Some additional background on the work college model:

Work Colleges share two fundamental beliefs. First, that a college experience should educate the whole person. Second, earning a college degree shouldn’t require a lifetime of debt. Through an innovative approach of Work-Learning-Service, all Work College students offset college costs by participating in a mandatory work program and performing service in their communities. Most work positions are limited to 8 -15 hours per week and designed to enhance a student’s academic studies. The Work-Learning-Service approach teaches students the critical balance of study, service to others and managed work expectations.

According to alumni, four years of purposeful work has a lifetime payoff. Graduates of Work Colleges enter their careers prepared with real world skills, and owing reduced or no debt. Research confirms that a Work–Learning–Service approach to higher education builds character, work ethic, leadership and competence in critical thinking and time management skills. These attributes are directly transferrable to the workplace and among the characteristics employers say they seek the most. More supporting info from the National Association of Colleges and Employers here.

A Work College experience is very different from just ‘working while in college’. Enhanced work and service at Member Colleges deliberately exposes students to people, places and practices that are new and different. All Work Colleges emphasize the value of community, social equity and teamwork. – Work Colleges Consortium

Work colleges are a model which has been around for 100 years but is only now starting to get attention from the start-up world. Could new platforms like the Learning Ledger help scale up this model of work colleges, to reach the next 50 million college students? Noted investor Mark Cuban, for example, has been advising President Sorrell on technology strategy for Paul Quinn College — leading them to move to using exclusively open-source textbooks, to virtually eliminate the cost of textbooks entirely for their students.

Could a technology platform like the Learning Ledger arise from the intersection of the start-up world with the innovation happening at traditional work colleges? This is an under-the-radar and important place to watch for signals of the future.

3. “Taking more courses, faster, may help solve the college debt crisis” – and Blockchain learning credits could fill this learning gap

New research suggests that students are more likely to complete their degree and finish with less debt if they take a more ambitious courseload in their first semester – despite the conventional wisdom and common advice to working learners to take a limited first semester courseload as the new students adjust to the demands of college learning.

A report produced by Clive Belfield, Davis Jenkins, and Hana Lahr and published by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University finds that students in Tennessee who took on 15 course credits rather than the traditional 12 in their first semester of college pay roughly 10 to 20 percent less per degree in tuition and fees. The researchers’ economic model shows community-college students save $1,560 per degree and four-year students save $12,800.

The heavier workload does not appear to weigh students down academically, either: Students kicking off their college careers with 15 credits had the same pass and fail rates in their courses as students with 12 credits in a term, suggesting the additional three credits didn’t overwhelm them.

Many students choose to take 12 credits because that’s the minimum level needed to receive the maximum dollar award through their Pell grants—government aid largely dedicated to lower-income students. But too few courses may persuade students to quit on higher ed. “If you take 12 and 12 (credits) in your first year, you probably end up with 20 credits,” Belfield said of a community-college student. “You might think to yourself, this is going to take me three solid years to get through this, and I can’t do that, so I’m just going to drop out.” – Read more in the Atlantic

What if college students could supplement their college credits each semester with a blockchain-powered credit from other learning sources? During our Learning is Earning replay at the festival, we imagined how existing colleges could take advantage of a decentralized learning platform like the Ledger.

Could students, for example, take 12 credits of formal coursework and receive 3 additional credits for “learning that happens anywhere”, including their workplaces and hobbies? The future of accelerated higher education may depend on colleges not only reporting their credits on the blockchain, but also allowing other learning sources to report via the blockchain to them.




Is it real, or is it the future?

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What we’ve seen over the past three months is a beautiful example of collective imagination.

2641 people with a stake in the future of higher education — teachers, students, administrators, designers — came together online to play an elaborate game of what if:

What if anyone, anywhere could be a teacher and grant learning credits to anyone else?

What if learning & credentialing were radically decentralized, the way money has been — a bitcoin for education?

What if a degree became more like an open ledger? What if no one ever “graduated”?

What if the assumption that education is completed before you start a career was turned on its head?

What if learning were treated like a currency that could be traded or built into compensation? What if you could get paid to learn?

These are the kinds of futures we’ve been imagining together. We think about these possible futures to develop intuition, empathy and foresight about how these kinds of changes might impact our lives. We consider what problems they might solve. We anticipate what new problems they might create. We talk about these futures in the public eye, with an open invitation to anyone who wants to imagine with us, so that everyone has the chance to expand or complicate our vision of what could be. This blog has collected many of the complicated and surprising visions, as has the game’s constantly updating graph of most provocative conversations.

But perhaps the most surprising outcome of our collective imagination has taken place away from the game — in emails, on social media, and national media, where again and again, the line between what’s already real and what’s the future has been blurred.

Soon after the launch of this game, we started receiving messages from individuals who seemed to believe that the edublock system was real. That IFTF and ACTF had actually created this platform.

People wrote to sign up to teach. Engineers offered to help scale up the platform. An angel investor wanted to know if we needed additional funding. A radio program with 12 million viewers invited the Ledger’s creators on the show to talk about what we were building.

One of my colleagues, on the heels of such an outreach, sent this note around: “This is my second very serious inquiry from someone who thought that the Ledger was a real thing. Can’t tell if people thinking Ledger is real is a good thing, a bad thing, a humorous thing, or…? Thoughts?”

Well, it’s no secret that as a futurist, you certainly hope that the picture you paint of a possible future is plausible and compelling enough that people believe it could be true. You want your forecast to be considered credible. You hope your provocative ideas will be taken seriously enough to lead to eye-opening conversations about all of the ways the world could be different.

But it’s not very often that a future forecast is mistaken as the present reality. And when it is, it tells us something very important about that future.

When so many people hear such a radical idea and think — “That sounds plausible.” “That sounds real.” — it’s valuable information about where people are today. It points to how broken the current system is, of paying for higher education, and of trying to complete your entire education before starting a career. Only something that is deeply felt by so many people as broken could make such a dramatic alternative seem so plausible, could make it so easy to believe that something else so radically different would come along and replace it.

It’s also a signal of how accustomed people have become in recent years to the sudden and massive disruption of industries by new technologies. Multiple generations have now seen legacy systems — first the music industry, then the book and later the entire retail industry, and now the transportation and hospitality industries. The youngest generations in particular, thanks to companies like AirBnB and Uber, seem to have a very easy time believing that things could be radically different. That’s interesting.

We are living in times where technologies make it possible to change massive legacy systems very quickly. We are living in times where people are willing to accept major changes quickly, especially when they create new opportunities for participation and more affordable access.

So, no, the Ledger is not real. But it is possible. And the desire by many to believe that it is real shows us that it’s not only possible technologically, but that something like this is wanted. And when a future is wanted by many, it becomes even more possible.

This collaboration between the ACT Foundation and the Institute for the Future has opened many eyes to what seems like an increasingly likely future. Blockchain is rapidly becoming the centerpiece of discussions about the future of online learning, degrees and credentialing, workplace learning, and higher education. So keep paying attention to the clues that this future is happening.

It’s not real, yet, and no one can say for sure that it’s the future either. But 2641 people and counting have actively imagined it. They’ve shared more than 10,000 stories about the lives they might lead in this future. The Ledger trended nationally on Twitter. And millions more have now heard about these ideas, thanks to NPR’s Marketplace and Educause.

Is it real, or is the future? Let’s keep deciding together. Use your positive imagination or your shadow imagination… and share one thing you would do in this world of learning unbound.




Is lack of hope the #1 challenge the Ledger could help address?

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The Learning Ledger world is by no means a utopian future. Players so far have played just as many “shadow imagination” cards as they have “positive imagination cards.” But every future scenario helps us explore possible solutions to current problems. What would the world look like, ten years from now, if we design and implement surprising solutions to the urgent challenges that we face today?

The Ledger is a possible solution to many problems — making classroom learning feel more immediately meaningful and relevant to students,  creating a more legible record of concrete skills acquired at every level of learning, building stronger connections between employers and students, and closing the gap between all of the knowledge we acquired in informal settings and the limited terrain covered by our formal academic records. But one of the challenges that an idea like the Ledger could be particularly well-suited to help address in Australia and New Zealand in particular is this:

A majority of students years 5-12 in Australia and New Zealand say they lack hope for their future. They don’t believe there is a clear pathway for their own success. They can’t see their way to graduation. They don’t believe there is a good job on the other side of school.

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How do you measure an intangible resource like hope? Gallup, the global research organization, specializes in the task. They developed a hope survey for students, consisting of six “agree or disagree” questions:

  • I can think of many ways to get good results.
  • I energetically pursue my goals.
  • I can find lots of ways around any problem.
  • I know I will complete high school.
  • I know I will find a good job after I leave school.
  • There is an adult in my life who cares about my future.

Gallup interviewed more than 10,000 year 5-12 students across Australia and New Zealand, and found that 51% of students are more likely to disagree with the statement above than to agree with them.

(You can download the full results of the Gallup 2015 Student Poll here.)

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One of the most important aspects of the imagined Learning Ledger system is that there are infinitely many pathways forward. The learning environment is bigger, more flexible, more affordable. There are clearer links between learning activities and earning activities. Anyone can be a teacher, and any place can be learning space, and any activity can be a chance to learn, to earn, or to do both at the same time.

Do you think a system like the Ledger could help build hope in students for their academic and career futures? What would a world look like where building hope for the future were a crucial metric of success for schools, libraries, and other learning environments? Play your ideas on this important challenge, and use the hashtag #TeamHope!

(By the way, this isn’t just an Australia/New Zealand challenge — in the United States, only 48% of students are hopeful, while 34% are stuck and 18% are actively discouraged.)

Find out more about the Gallup Student Poll here.



Welcome EduTECH players!

Welcome EduTECH players! We’re so glad you’ve joined the game.

You are a collective intelligence rivaled by no other: 8000+ innovators and decision makers representing the entire life-cycle of learning, from all levels of schools, tertiary education, vocational training, workplace learning,  and libraries.whoattends

whoattends-2Together, you can examine the future from tens of thousands of different angles… and you can expand our global view of the future by sharing what’s unique about the future of education in Australia, New Zealand, and across the Asian-Pacific region. We can’t wait to see what you see!

You’ll have 24 hours to play, starting at noon on May 31. Immerse yourself in the world of the “Learning Ledger”, and tell us: What excites you about this possible future? What worries you about it? If this scenario were real, and you were living in it, what would YOU do?

See you in the year 2026!

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The future is already different in Australia

We think about the future to find out what’s possible.

It’s not just an exercise in intellectual curiosity. Thinking about the future is a practical way to become more inventive, more innovative, and better prepared to change the world. To  create something new, you have to be able to imagine how things can be different. And the future is a place where everything can be different.

But sometimes we don’t need to go all the way to the future to imagine how things can be different. From where I sit right now in Silicon Valley (and getting ready to fly 7500 miles south to EduTECH  in just a few days!) Australia is already a place where everything can be different…. at least when it comes to making higher (or tertiary) education affordable.

Here in the U.S., the Australian model of linking learning with earning is considered by many to be a model for our own future. Here’s a recent summary from the Slate opinion piece “Australia gets student loans right“:

Australia offers students an income-based student loan plan, and has since 1989, when the system was set up to compensate for the fact that universities were charging tuition at all. That was a change. Higher education had been free in the 1970s and 1980s.

Today, there are two ways Aussies can choose to finance their college educations. If they pay up front, they get a 10 percent discount. Most don’t do that, however. That’s where where Australia’s income-based repayment plan comes in.

Australians borrow money from the government through the Higher Education Loan Program (or HELP—get it?) and related offshoots. When it comes time to repay the bill, the monthly amount has nothing to do with the sum borrowed. Instead, debtors earning more than AU$54,000 ($38,000) pay between 4 and 8 percent of their income, depending on how much they take home annually. Unemployment or illness? Salary falls under the minimum earnings required for repayment? No worries. Payments temporarily cease, with no interest or penalties accruing to the borrower.

Moreover, unlike in the United States, where students need to make strategic decisions whether to consolidate their loans at a particular interest rate because they will not get a do-over, there’s no such issue in Australia. The interest rate is set by the consumer price Index—that is, the rate of inflation.

Finally, making payments is easy. It’s an automatic deduction, courtesy of theAustralian Taxation Office. (This is how the expat loophole developed.) And, yes, a borrower can repay the loan early, if he or she so desires.

Another great thing? Unlike certain American politicians (Hi Marco Rubio!), Australian pols don’t complain about the number of philosophy majors running up debt they can’t pay off. If a student attends a public university in Australia—something the vast majority do—tuition is set, in part, by the course of study. The greater the expected lifetime income return, the greater the cost. So a degree in the humanities costs less than a degree in education, which costs less than a medical education.

I don’t mean to make this sound like nirvana. Australians are increasingly worried about the amount of student-related debt, which is growing rapidly. (One estimate has it surging from AU$50.3 billion this year to AU$70.4 billion in 2018.) That means students will owe more money, likely paying it off over a longer period of time. There is also concern over what those down under like to call “doubtful” debt—estimates are that 20 percent of students will never be flush enough to repay their loans, leaving taxpayers on the hook.

So while many U.S. educators, policy-makers and parents look to Australia to imagine our own future, now we have the chance to see what the view of the future is from the Australasia region.

This Learning is Earning game was  created to explore possible solutions to  urgent challenges in the United States learning landscape — including, near the top of the list, the growing cost of higher (or tertiary) education and unsustainable student debt. Now, we have this wonderful opportunity to zoom out and take a global perspective.

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If you’re attending EduTECH, you more likely than not have a completely different set of expectations from U.S. educators about what is possible, what is plausible, and what is desirable. In other words: You, collectively, can take this game to the next level. So play a card — and show us how the future can be different!

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