If you haven’t noticed, there’s a massive battle brewing in academia. No it’s not just a battle between MOOCs and traditional education. What’s at stake is nothing short of the future of humanity.

Next generation academic systems will determine, from here on out, how the human brain gets developed. The stakes have never been higher. Our descendants are counting on us.

So far, our best and brightest have fallen short. We have not been able to cure cancer, prevent natural disasters, or stop corruption, and the challenges ahead will be even greater. As we plan for the future, we need to set our sights on producing a caliber of people who are exponentially better than we are. And we do that by creating innovative new systems to take us there.

It’s ok to mourn the loss of our old academic institutions, but they’ve been holding us back. Traditional education has kept us tethered to our comparatively small potential, minor accomplishments, and tiny victories as we lose sight of what’s truly important in the clouds of minutia and complexity surrounding us today.

As a backward-looking society, we wish to emulate the heroes of the past, using their achievements as the symbolic gold standard for us to live up to. However, the standard-bearer for significance in the future will be a thousand fold greater. Our backward-looking obsession with problems will all but disappear with forward-looking accomplishments in the future.

With this futuristic rant I‘m hoping to set the stage for what I believe to be humankind’s most important opportunity, the opportunity to build a better grade of human. Let’s begin by dipping our toes into the waters of this enormously important topic.

Step One: The Heretic Test

Let’s begin with a short test to gauge your thinking.

  1. Were people in the past better off than people will be in the future?
  2. Should we simply cure diseases or should we eliminate illness and death altogether?
  3. Should we be content building fuel-efficient cars and high-speed railways or should we learn to travel at the speed of light?
  4. Should we focus on building better houses to protect us from hurricanes or should we learn to control gravity and eliminate the threat of natural disasters entirely?
  5. Are we living on an over populated planet or in an under populated universe?
  6. Should we build more schools to improve education or should we improve learning speeds by a factor of ten?

This test is intended to show how conditioned we’ve become to taking baby steps. Our accomplishments all need to fall within an acceptable window of change or we will be labeled a heretic, a troublemaker, or worst of all, someone who simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

The 10X Speed-Learning Scenario

Consider the following scenario. In 2020 a system is invented for amping up learning speeds by a factor of ten. Any person who spends just one hour a day with this learning system can learn the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in less than two years.

Starting at age 10, committing one hour a day to learning, this individual will earn the equivalent of 44 bachelor’s degrees by the time they turn 80.

In the U.S. the average tuition cost of a bachelor’s degree at a public four-year college is $102,352. Multiplied by 44 degrees at today’s rate, the cost would be over $4.5 million.

However, in this scenario the cost of learning is reduced to $10 per one-hour course, or $3,650 per year. Over the course of a lifetime, total learning costs would be $255,500.

Learning at this speed, the person would consume the equivalent of 81 three-credit courses each year, or 5,677 three-credit courses over their lifetime.

MIT, as example, offers roughly 2,000 different courses. This person would be consuming close to three times as many courses as MIT currently offers.

If you think this scenario is out of line, consider how virtually every industry throughout the world is continually being forced to do more with less. A 10X improvement in computer speeds, agriculture efficiencies, or steel production happens every few years.

For those who think it’s not possible to achieve this kind of efficiency in education, the answer lies in devising new systems, ones without the current self-imposed limits.

The Grand Vision Part One – Participative Wealth Strategy

Creating and distributing online courses is not easy. Course creation needs to recognize the creative genius behind the process and somehow remunerate those who make it possible.

A few years ago I wrote about the concept of “fractal transactions” where financial transactions are automatically subdivided to automatically pay for a variety of contributors to a particular product or service. The advantage of this arrangement is that it eliminates all money going to one person or company, who then has to pay lower level helpers in a timely manner.

When used to pay for courseware, the revenue stream generated by each purchase will be divided between the courseware creator, distribution company, online courseware builder, official record archive, and much more. Courseware prices need to be kept low to make courseware accessible to anyone interested in learning.

If we use a $10 purchase price for a course, here is an example of how funds could automatically be distributed to contributing entities:

  • 40% – Courseware Creator ($4.00)
  • 25% – Promotion and Distribution Company ($2.50)
  • 10% – Online Courseware Builder ($1.00)
  • 5% – Official Record Archive ($.50)
  • 3% – Smart Profiler ($.30)
  • 3% – Multidimensional Tagging Engine ($.30)
  • 3% – Recommendation Engine ($.30)
  • 3% – Learning Methodology ($.30)
  • 5% – Financial Transaction Costs ($.50)
  • 3% – Future Contributors ($.30)

NOTE: If the $10 purchase price for a one-hour course seems high, keep in mind that accelerated learning processes will make this equivalent to ten hours worth of classes today.

Currently distribution companies like Coursera, EDx, and Udacity are in a controlling position. If they choose to implement a participative wealth strategy like this, it can quickly become the de facto standard across the industry.

Admittedly, I’ve greatly oversimplified the situation and overlooked the value of many contributors, but this was intended simply as a starting point. Once a system like this is introduced, even tiny fractions will empower entire industries to do better.

The Grand Vision Part Two – Rapid Courseware Creation 

Three weeks ago I predicted that 50% of colleges will collapse by 2030, and the fallout from these failures will not be pleasant. However, as with all predictions, the fate of these institutions is not inevitable. A few will find a way to navigate through the radical transformation ahead, but it helps to have a clearer picture of what tomorrow will bring.

Colleges have a far greater calling than simply delivering courses. Yes, professors lecturing in the classroom will still exist for many years to come, but the resources of academia are far to valuable to waste on repetitiously presenting the same class over and over again.

One of their most valuable skills, that doesn’t get used nearly enough, is their ability to create new courseware.

Similar to the way television networks unveil their “new fall lineup,” next generation colleges will periodically unveil a new courseware series.

Here are a series of six scenarios to better explain how courseware development teams will work:

Scenario #1: A rapid courseware developer’s package will be created that enables colleges to create their own courses and make money from every sale. Each course is framed around a standardized 60-minute format with a variety of media inputs. Courses can be tagged with approvals by institutions, rated by students, and framed around a personalized adaptive learning engine.

Scenario #2: Courseware rating systems will be developed to add integrity to the rapidly evolving system. Rating systems will be structured as a checks-and-balance system where individual groups, colonies, or rating services can create their own authority and place tags of approval or disapproval on courses. These tags will be a central feature of the search criteria used by smart student profilers and courseware recommendation engines. As example, a person may only want to take courses approved by an association like IEEE, a particular university, a church body, or political group.

Scenario #3: Colleges that focus on research will have an advantage and will leverage each research projects by spinning off a series of new courses surrounding their research. Projects will not only develop their own revenue stream through new courses, but the research will also attract many new students. Tech transfer efforts will be aided by the courseware as well. Courseware will become a broadcast medium through which others will learn about new technologies as well as related opportunities. With the added publicity from effective new courses, government and corporate grants will become more readily available to fund research.

Scenario #4: Colleges will aggressively seek out research projects to better inform us of the world to come. Whenever a natural disaster strikes, news teams serve as the first wave of information about what just happened. In the future, college research teams will serve as the second wave. Every famine, hurricane, place crash, and tidal wave will attract several college teams, each looking at different aspects of the situation. With research teams scouring the earth for new projects, some will look at a tidal wave from a physics-hard sciences approach such as the precursors to wave formation, others will look at the economic impact, political turmoil, social shifts, and other long-term generational effects it may have on a community’s customs, language, and neighboring influences.

Scenario #5: Colleges will begin to orient their business around a lifelong relationship with their students. Some traditional courses will still exist and others will be oriented around short on-campus experiences such as two-week learning camps. But a growing portion of the learning will take place online. Since the number of people setting foot on campus will be dropping, successful colleges will begin adding more research and experiential learning components to their offerings.

Scenario #6: Colleges will begin experimenting with higher and higher achievement levels. In recognition of learning that will take place over a lifetime, degrees and diplomas will be created for extreme and super extreme levels of learning. Masters and PhDs will only be junior-level accomplishments on these new rating scales. With learning made easy and expanded over a lifetime, colleges will be able to capitalize on new ways for individuals to differentiate themselves from the masses. Diplomas will become as individualized as the accomplishments they reflect. These uber-diplomas will become an ongoing driver for continued involvement and serve as enduring revenue streams for the institution.

These six scenarios are intended as a tool for gaining a new perspective on what may be possible. At the same time I’d love to hear your thoughts and perhaps a few variations and rewriting of these themes.

Final Thought

Prediction: In the future the largest web property on the Internet will be oriented around education.

As the price of education drops, people will begin to “consume” far more education. In our increasingly competitive work environments, with people from around the world competing for the same work we do, adding new skills to a future credentialing system will become an everyday occurrence.

In the U.S. we have a total of 4,495 degree-granting institutions sharing the tuition money being paid by over 20 million students. It is a growing system built on easy money with great inertia.

But public higher education is changing, and it’s changing in some very fundamental ways whether we like it or not. The forces driving these changes aren’t simply financial; they reflect major shifts in student attitudes, expectations, and demands.

For those of you associated with an Ivy League College where your acceptance rate for incoming freshmen is under 8%, it’s easy to ignore forecasts of change. But while the Ivy Leaguers may be safe, many smaller institutions are on a collision course with destiny.

The students of tomorrow will need to prepare themselves for a higher calling. This higher calling will be to pre-empt crises before they occur, anticipate disasters before they happen, and solve some of mankind’s greatest problems, starting with the problem of our own ignorance and shortcomings.

Much like a person walking through a dark forest with a flashlight that illuminates but a short distance ahead, each step forward gives us a new perspective by adding light to what was previously dark. The students of tomorrow will be our bigger flashlights.

Until now, ours has been a dance with the ordinary. History shows us that we are immersed in cycles, systems, and patterns that repeat again and again. However, tomorrow’s history books will show us that all patterns are made to be broken, and all cycles waiting to be transformed.

Colleges will need to position themselves on the bleeding edge of what comes next. We will always need the backward-looking to understand where we have come from, but a new breed of visionaries, bestowed with unusual tools for preempting disasters, will become our most esteemed professionals.

Future colleges will become our checks and balance for the status quo.

The grand mission for colleges in the future may well be phased as: “Preparing humanity for worlds unknown, preparing our minds for thoughts unthinkable, and preparing our resolve for struggles unimaginable.”


Please take a few moments to weigh in on this topic. I’d love to hear what you think.

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything



12 Responses to “Preparing Our Minds for Thoughts Unthinkable: The Future of Colleges and Universities”

Comments List

  1. Paul MURRAY

    Change is exponential, the pace of change is just increasing all the time yet education is like the tortoise chasing the hare. Unless the hare falls asleep, which isn´t going to happen, it will always be playing catch up and the distance will exponentially increase. So your final statement is totally correct; the challenge is to educate the educators and create the will to evolve into a provider of skills and adaptability instead of content. But can ivory towers be reshaped? Scenario 5 is already fact but as for research; until the old way of allowing research to discover the new rather than being told what to research because the funding wants this or that outcome - well I think that is one area where the evolution of education has become a de-evolution. My experience is that the front-line educator is far more flexible and willing to risk take than the administrator etc so perhaps the teachers need to create their own colleges? The new courseware is exciting but having just completed an intense online course myself I yearned for the cut and thrust of the classroom. My best thinking, and of most of my students, takes place in the face-to-face scenario. Great article, thanks. Regards Paul Murray
  2. <a href='http://www.sherrillco.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Carl Sherrill</a>

    Tom ... Here's a good reference ... SEE ... http://www.bmcommunity.sitew.com/fs/Root/8jig8-businessmodelsbusinessstrategy.pdf It's a bit academic - written by an econ prof at Wharton - but does have a good summary of many relevant issues. Many biz leaders of companies large & small could learn a thing or two about NEW biz concepts for TODAY's economy and tomorrow's evolved economy. Many academics must learn to "teach" the differences between understanding what happened (history) with what CAN happen in tomorrow's economy. ... Much of this can require an "experiential" educational context - not like that found in medicine-music- & of course engineering & architecture & to learn-to-learn from a lack of immediate success & lack of instant gratification. This goes well beyond folks playing "what if" semantic games. Today's simulation(s) of tomorrow's scenarios provides a more flexible mind set. ... I hope this helps ... Carl
  3. Stephen Lilienthal

    One interesting question is if the learning speeds can be ramped up, would the fruits of that benefit be pushed down to the lower levels of education? If so, that might even further eradicate the need for the traditional college. Students would enter college much better prepared, need perhaps no remedial courses, and perhaps certifications become more important than the traditional graduate, even undergraduate degree. (More in line with scenario 5) As for Scenario 6, I would imagine this projection would work well with inter-disciplinary learning.
    • FuturistSpeaker

      Stephen, There are already people working on speed learning. Here's one example. In 2011 the Air Force conducted a series of experiments using transcranial direct current stimulation (TDCS) to help speed up training for pilots commanding unmanned attack drones. The training focused on how to pick out targets in complex radar images. In these tests, TDCS cut training time in half by delivering a mild electrical current (two milliamps of direct current for 30 minutes) to pilot's brains. TDCS not only accelerated learning, pilot accuracy was sustained in trials lasting up to 40 minutes. Typically accuracy in identifying threats declines steadily after 20 minutes. Tom
  4. <a href='http://www.thinkbeyond.co.nz' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Cheryl Doig</a>

    As always Tom, your thoughts are fascinating and provocative. I agree that the intervention of technological developments such as TDCS will increase the speed of learning. I am interested in how this might play out in reality and what age it might be used from (or perhaps linked with designer babies and implants?) The possibility of a personalized adaptive learning engine really appeals and I am wondering what this might look like. It needs to be significantly different from anything I have seen to really be personalised and adaptive. Otherwise we will just be stuck with learning management systems that replicate old thinking. Any thoughts?
  5. Cheryl Angle

    We could link our curriculum more directly to community needs. A sustainability based, systems thinking and integrated preK-12 linked to our community/trade and 4-year universities could use service and project based learning to drive K-16 student engagement and success. The curriculum can be the community health and well-being. Building education reform can empower students themselves to engage in bringing together the sectors of education, the environment and the economy data sets to study their own regional problems. Students can study the data sets that exist in our communities as integrated, systems thinking STEM (I like STEAM with the Arts inserted) learning units, with teachers using those data sets as primary resources for the integrated project based learning appropriate for every grade level to solve the problems identified by the students and chosen by them as community learning and service projects! This innovative focus has been implemented in the Tahoma School District, in Maple Valley, Washington. In the past their education has been top-down and silo'd. Their website now talks of a collaborative culture with lifelong learners with distributed leadership creating the capacity to more quickly and adapt to change. They want to be future ready. Take a look at their blog and explore their website, they are doing 21st Century Education today: http://seekingsharedlearning.blogspot.com/ A private grant-funded phenomenal new program, Sustainability Ambassadors, has worked in the Tahoma School District enabling youth to catalyze sustainability in their community. Training youths to be leaders in directing their place-based learning, while earning grant money to conduct projects in their community. Thinkers and college professors can help lead the way in future education systems, but our youth are also able to collaborate on leading the way. The Sustainability Ambassadors, place-based learning taking place in the Tahoma School District can be learned about from this YouTube by one of its youth ambassadors: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrHRNvK9Xe4 I very much enjoyed this blog article and wanted to share some existing resources that look to be addressing 21st Century learning needs and solutions. Hope someone enjoys this information.
  6. Sam odaudu

    The future is indeed very bright. However, i foresee a future where the speed of learning will be highly accelerated but not within the classroom or formal educational system. I foresee a future of isolated learners outshining school-goers. In effect, i foresee a future of more college drop-outs taking over key areas of human endeavor. This is because the current schooling system is to slow for the uber-kid and he certainly can't wait till the system is fixed to the future level. So, until the future, the uber-kid will continue to drop out of our tradition and inert system. Now, because the future is ever elusive, more super-kids will continue to drop out of school until what we eventually have is an army of college drop-outs of uber-kids developing their own curriculum intuitively and learning new skills therefrom. They'll take the world by surprise and the 'standard-kid' will only look with awe. The future is very bright indeed!
  7. William Stewart

    This topic is very important. I like the article very much. I want to discuss on librarians as teachers and how utilizing ANCIL, librarians can find approaches to coordinate data education into the educational module, working with scholarly staff and different colleagues. This will be beneficial for students in future if we implement this. Tell me your views on this.
  8. Roy Sumpter

    A possible system of evaluation would be to use a competency-based format. I have been involved in "alternative" educational opportunities since the early 70s. I share many of your thoughts...though I would love to know how to increase my absorption of knowledge 10 fold.
  9. Matt Hall

    This isn't how learning works. People form knowledge for themselves, they don't receive it. Education is providing contexts in which students can form knowledge and then present evidence of the knowledge they have formed to others. Knowledge doesn't exist independently of the human ability to form it individually through doing various activities. The commodification of knowledge is therefore impossible.
  10. Gavin

    I think AI is going to play a big part in teaching individuals better and faster, by personalising the way each person learns and their ability. By using Google Glass or contact lenses to augment this new way of getting educated by AI, you could be learning something nearly all the time. Internet on steroids :)
  11. Janet McDonald

    This is enlightening. The state of our education system can learn from these theories. However, there can be courses taught on the Internet,but, there still is the practical side of education,. Physical education, music, social interaction and problem solving among peers. Also, teachers can b great motivators and some are flawed. What have you thought of to motivate students to spend time learning?

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