Pandemics and the Future of Education

The quarantine is accelerating trends that were already happening. This is because black swan events shatter fragile things. Old, inefficient systems are fragile. Thus, when a trend is ready to become widespread but for whatever reason hasn’t fully taken root yet, we need to be ready for it to happen quickly when a shock comes. The catalyst could be a disaster, a market crash, a new technology, a sweeping cultural or political change, or something else entirely unexpected. In the absence of a black swan event, the trend may or may not happen on its own over the course of decades, but there are always new black swan events to break the fragile systems and upend the old ways of doing things.

Education is one of these fragile systems. In recent years, we’ve experienced a relatively slow shift toward various eLearning models, such as MOOCs, XR training simulations, video conferencing, webinars, and more. This technology already exists, and it’s often better, faster, or cheaper than the old ways of doing things. However, until now we haven’t used it much. 

This has already begun to change in the few short weeks since the quarantine started. If this quarantine and recession last as long as it looks like they will, education and learning will be completely changed forever. It’s a phase change, and there’s no going back. In-person learning could become rare. For example, I’ve recently read strong arguments for why the university system could simply go away in the coming months. As in, most universities shutting their doors, or at minimum shutting down their grad schools. Perhaps they’ll be replaced with entirely online college or other alternative educational models. Even if they don’t go away, the cost of education will certainly drop at all levels. More trade and online tech schools will emerge. Online learning will grow a lot.

I predict we are about to see the emergence of several new multi-billion dollar eLearning, edtech, and online education companies. We are also about to see some teachers become relatively rich, famous, and influential, far more so than they are now, perhaps much like the top streaming esports gamers on Twitch have in recent years.

I mention esports specifically because I believe education will merge with gaming in many important ways. I’ll explore this more in a future post, but here’s the logic from a high level. Gaming is a superior and popular way to learn and engage online. If education is going virtual, then serious or educational games are the logical next step. We’re about to see an explosion of educational gaming. 

In the near term, these games will primarily exist on traditional 2D screens such as our laptops and phones. However, as the various XR hardware and software technologies continue to improve at an exponential rate, the primary learning medium for eLearning of all kinds—including serious games—will begin to shift to VR, AR, MR, 360degree video, and immersive audio. Just as we’re now all using our phones several hours a day, eventually we’ll all be wearing one or more XR devices at all times. Our learning won’t ever stop. It’ll become a continuous, ubiquitous part of our daily routines and moment-to-moment existence. When that happens, our learning, and our potential as humans, will expand beyond what we ever imagined possible.

In the middle of these scary and tumultuous times, that’s a future I look forward to.