The Future of Learning…

BY Jeff Cobb

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The end of the year tends to be a time for looking back and reflecting – and then looking forward. Given what I do for a living, it is natural that part of my gazing out into the future would involve learning.

While there are many exciting trends emerging and evolving right now, I thought I’d pull back and consider the learning landscape at a somewhat higher level. From my perspective, the future of learning …

 …is technology

People – particularly consultants – are fond of saying “it’s not the technology that matters.” I understand the reasons for saying that, but I’ve also come to feel that it isn’t true. Yes, meaningful learning can certainly happen without technology, but let’s face it, both the opportunities for learning and the nature of learning changed fundamentally with the introduction of one of the most revolutionary technologies of all time: writing.

Roll forward to our current age, and technology is everywhere. I’m not going to predict the future of currently trendy uses of technology in learning – like, for example, MOOCs – but the overall shift that technology has created is here to stay. How – and whether – we access learning will be driven by technology. How we experience learning – and how effective the experience is – will be deeply influenced by technology. Picking the right technologies to align with and support learning will become increasingly critical.

As I argued in a recent post, if you are in the learning business, the technology interfaces you provide are fundamental to your success. Technology is inseparable from the learning process, and the process is the product. That will only become truer over time.

…is liberal

With a small “l.” This is a direct outcome of the technology shift noted above, and yet another reason why technology and learning are becoming inseparable. Choice has proliferated. Learners across the globe now have levels of access to educational content and experiences that simply would have been unthinkable before. Think Coursera. Or EdX. Or Khan Academy. Or TED. Or Wikipedia. Or …

As these examples suggest, access to educational resources is increasingly free, and there is little reason to think this trend will reverse itself. As a result, the value associated with learning – i.e., what you can actually charge for – will have less to do with the content and more to do with the context and the experience. How do we think about the best ideas and discoveries? How do we collaborate to apply them, improve them, transform them into new ideas and discoveries?

That will be the future of learning, and of course, it represents a continuation of the best elements of traditional liberal education.

…is the learner

Over the past several years we have witnessed a fundamental power shift in the teacher-learner relationship. Because of the previous two trends, learners now have more options than ever before. Individual teachers have less control over when, where, and how students access learning opportunities.

Moreover, because they no longer control the means of production and distribution, traditional education providers (colleges and universities, associations, etc. ) also have significantly less power. Many are experiencing financial difficulties. And, while it seems unlikely that traditional degrees and certifications will ever disappear completely, certainly there are starting to be some good new options. (We discussed alternative credentialing as part of our recent learning trends/learning forecast Webinar.)

Learners simply have much more freedom than ever before, and with that freedom comes power. Of course – and this, again, would be in line with the best liberal traditions – with that freedom and power also comes responsibility. It will be more critical than ever before for learners to take charge of their own learning. To have a vision for lifelong learning; to have a strategy. To know how to set priorities and to be effective self-directed learners.

As I have argued before, I’m not sure most of us are as well prepared for all of this as we need to be. But I also think that providing learners with the guidance and support they need represents a huge opportunity for traditional educational institution, particularly associations.


Those are my thoughts. What do you think about the future of learning?


P.S. – If you work in the business of continuing education and professional development and are interested in the future of learning, the free Leading Learning e-newsletter is a must-have resource. Sign-up below and you will automatically get a copy of the Association Learning + Technology report as well as the first chapter of Leading the Learning Revolution.

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