"What Would You Like to Learn Today?" and "Would You Like Some Fries With That?"
At least three current trends in education, all made possible in large measure by advances in technology, are shaping its future. One of these trends has acquired the popular label "anytime anywhere learning." This label refers to the fact that advances in technology make it possible for people to learn from anywhere in the world, and at times that are convenient to them. As an example, a person who lives in Miami, Florida, can enroll in courses offered by a university in Tempe, Arizona, and complete the required projects and assignments at times that are convenient to him or her.
A second trend that is shaping education is globalization. This means that anyone from any part of the world can enroll in courses offered by educational institutions located in any other part of the world. Technology makes it increasingly unnecessary for students to travel to the places where educational institutions are located in order to pursue their educational goals.
The third trend is what I call the "corporatization" of education. More and more private corporations are offering educational programs and degrees. These companies are out to make a profit from the growing demand for education and training across the world. Corporations are beginning to realize that education can be big business and are eager to claim their share of the potentially enormous profits.
Each of these three trends has many implications for the enterprise that we call education. In this paper, I focus on some of the implications that these trends have for the group of global professors. Global professors are the faculty members who will teach in educational institutions of the future.
The global professor of the future will have to teach anytime that students need to learn. Global professors will work in shifts, much like workers in the industrial era used to, in order to meet the needs of the global learners. The time differences in different parts of the world will require global professors, who work in shifts, to be on hand 24 hours a day to interact with their global learners.
In order for learning to take place "anytime and anywhere," global professors will have to teach 24/7/365. Round-the-clock teaching will become the norm. It is true that some of the teaching and learning will occur asynchronously. However, as learners become more discerning and demanding, they will begin to expect real-life global professors to be available to teach at any time that they are ready to learn.
Students will initiate interaction with their global professors as and when they feel the need to learn. Since global learners will have all the course content available to them, they mostly will be seeking clarification of the materials with which they already have interacted in some way. Many of them also will request very specific units of information that are not available at their disposal. A global professor of the future need not be able to anticipate all the knowledge needs of their learners. Over a period of time, the global educational institutions of the future will develop and maintain massive knowledge bases. Global professors will need to know how to search and find specific units of information contained in these knowledge bases.
Traditional professors who have developed expertise in specific disciplines will become researchers in universities or corporations and be the innovators and inventors. Educational institutions similar to institutions that are around today will continue to offer degree programs that require students to conduct original and scholarly research. Such institutions will be very few and far between.
The qualifications of a global professor will be much different from that of today's professors. Instead of being experts with a deep understanding of their subject areas and expertise in their chosen fields like professors of today, the global professor of the future will need to have breadth of knowledge in different subject areas. Professors trained in the traditional mold will work closely with their students over extended periods of time and serve as mentors. Global professors, on the other hand, will provide the same kinds of information repeatedly to different learners across the globe. In this sense, the job of the global professor of the future will be dull and monotonous in nature, similar to the repetitive tasks performed by workers in the industrial age of the past.
Just like fast food restaurants, the Web portals of global educational institutions will also be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, including weekends and holidays. Learners who pay the required fees will be able to use these Web portals and interact with global professors via text-, audio-, and video-based synchronous and asynchronous communications systems.
The global educational institutions of the future will also have what, for the lack of a better term, can be called "lightning learning centers" strategically located across the globe to cater to global learners who prefer face-to-face interaction with their global professors. Anytime during the day or night, when students hunger for learning, they can walk or drive to the nearest lightning learning center and whet their appetite for learning. These centers will be easy to spot since they will have large signs that proudly proclaim something like "Billions and billions taught."
The first thing that learners of the future will hear when they visit either the lightning learning centers or the Web portals of educational institutions will probably be something like "Welcome to LearnDonald's (or Learner King, to be fair to their possible competitors). What would you like to learn today?"
The global learners of the future will probably respond to the question by saying "I would like to know more about Newton's Laws of Motion for my physics requirement." After a pause the student perhaps will continue "Oh yeah, for my English requirement I also need to read and review a play by a modern Asian Indian playwright. Any suggestions?"
After learners receive the information that they need, they will move on to other things that are important in their lives. They will visit the lightning learning centers again at a later time when they are ready, or need, to continue their education. Learning truly will be an ongoing, never ending process. Constant changes in the workplace that are fueled by technological advancements will require people to these visit lightning learning centers periodically to learn new knowledge, skills and ideas that will keep them competitive, marketable and employed.
Tomorrow's global professors also will be employees of the corporations that maintain the lightning learning centers. Reasons related to economics and the need for employees with adequate knowledge and skills will prompt more and more corporations to enter the education marketplace and offer degrees and diplomas that prepare their current and prospective employees. Eventually there will be a few major corporations that control the education of the workforce of the future. These corporations, which will probably be marketing anything and everything under the sun, will certainly encourage their global professors to sell their products to the global learners who visit their portals or centers. It is quite possible that, after explaining recent advances in molecular biology to a knowledge hungry student, a global professor will also ask, "Would you like some fries with that?"
The author is a tenured associate professor at Florida International University, in Miami, Florida, where he teaches educational technology courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. He is also a consultant on issues related to distance education.