When I started thinking about how education would change in the future, I was instantly faced with the classic difficulty which a specialist faces when he tries to answer a general question. If you are into science and if you've ever tried to paint, you would know, in analogue, what I am talking about. While sketching, the technical training that I have received forces me to be lost in the minutiae with the result being that I lose the bigger perspective of the scene. Similarly in life, I feel that my professional training is often a hindrance when it comes to general ideas. Being general invariably means that there would be exceptions and inconsistencies in my assertions and my small life in science has taught me not to tolerate them. But let's try something different here. Let's try to conjecture, in general terms, how education is going to change in the future, and look the other way if it doesn't turn out to be so. Let's ignore the texture of the road for its infinite expanse, for our resources are limited!
Prediction is always fraught with difficulties and is often wrong but there are some general trends which appear consistent through history. One such trend is consolidation. Beginning from small hunter gatherer communities, humanity has undergone successive consolidations in all its endeavors. In geopolitics, there have been eras of skirmishes which were eventually followed by larger entities. These larger entities which initially suffered from an unstable equilibrium finally gave way to more peaceful societies within them. The new skirmishes were larger and took place between these larger entities, eventually resulting in even larger ones. Perhaps the single most important reason in this cycle of skirmish and consolidation was technology. With new means of transport and warfare, societies could seek to influence larger geophysical areas. Under the umbrella of technology, therefore, we have the crude chisel of social evolution.
Now how does this model apply to education? There must have been a time when education was much more personal than it is now. It also must have been very different from what it is now. Its form must have consisted of two distinct parts: training and philosophy. Training would have consisted mainly of 'tricks of the trade' passed from one generation to another, like knowledge about farming or selling merchandise. Philosophy would have consisted of all thought geared towards figuring out the world around with little or no immediate tangible benefit. The means of imparting education would have consisted of small intimate groups and oral communication. This process suffers from some obvious handicaps. First, it makes education a rare commodity and it would surely have helped in creating rigid boundaries in any society. The caste system in India is a relic but the same thing must have existed in Western societies with the monopoly of the Church over knowledge and education in the dark to the middle ages (you only have to notice that most of the great poets and scientists before the 18th century were either wealthy or from a noble lineage to realize that education was for elites). The second problem with such a system is that any given teacher may not have been the most knowledgeable on his subject.
This would have changed with the invention of the Gutenberg press which allowed the wide dissemination of printed materials. Teaching would have become more codified so that it could be imparted to more people. Furthermore, books written by specialists would have solved the second problem as well. Now there could be regional centers which could provide reasonably good education based upon the more concrete nature of it: the advent of the modern university. Now at this point it is worth remembering a major pitfall of these changes. While on one hand they led to many more people getting educated, on the other they also led to a dilution of the very education that was being imparted, a dilution that continues to this day. Since in society there always exists a need to distinguish individuals based upon various factors, the all pervasive nature of the current educational climate makes it essential that there must exist a different kind of hierarchy: the hierarchy of degrees and of schools. The rigid compartmentalization which resulted from the rare nature of early education has morphed into a compartmentalization that is now fueled merely by a different kind of rarity.
Anyway what does all of this tell about the future of education? In simple words! I think that we are on the cusp of another monumental change which is being driven by the technological breakthrough of the Internet. The future is getting clearer and it looks similar to the past, at least metaphorically. We are already witnessing the seeds of change in the form of online learning initiatives like edX and Coursera. I imagine that there would be many more such initiatives and at least for some more time the field of online learning would appear analogous in spirit to the Wild Wild West with many competing players. But it would eventually simmer down into a more consolidated platform where very competent professors from around the world would contribute their lectures and videos and course materials to an organization which would probably span many different universities. The nature of the Internet would make it available to millions of people across national boundaries. We would have both another consolidation and also more widely available access to education of much higher quality. It appears inevitable that the competencies gained through online learning would one day command the same legitimacy that the traditional educational degrees currently have. This would lead to a financial incentive which would lead to a very fundamental change in the concept of a university. Since no single university would be able to offer what a conglomerate of universities would be able to offer, we would perhaps witness a dissolution of the current heavyweights. We would most certainly see a devaluation of the reputation and clout of universities which cling to the old order. In fact we may start witnessing that within the next decade. High quality education would be accessible to many more people around the world and it would be much more uniform and standardized than it is now.
This would lead to another cycle of dilution and if, just if, we try to look far enough into the future, we can perhaps conjecture about the nature of it. I feel that degrees and specializations would eventually lose their conventional meaning in the world of online learning. It made sense to compartmentalize education based on our current scheme in the times of industrial revolution. We live in times of a digital revolution where it is not required for people to have core competencies even to do highly specialized tasks. For example it is beneficial but not required for a mechanical engineer to know the Navier-Stokes equation in order to find out how a fuselage responds to air turbulence (in fact it doesn't help much!). And that benefit is already running thin. I think that the educational future would be one which would be respectful and cognizant of its digital tools. But we shall leave the rest of the conjecturing to some other time.