2020 Visions for the Future of Education

                David D. Thornburg, Ph.D.

Senior Fellow, Congressional Institute for the Future Director, Thornburg Center
e-mail: dthornburg@aol.com

April 15, 1997


As Yogi Berra once observed, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future." Even so, there are some clear trends in American society today that are likely to have long-term consequences. Since one of the major roles of education is to prepare students for life in the next century, an awareness of these trends by educators and policy makers is essential if our educational system is to achieve its objectives.

Let's start by examining the current reality:

We live in a world in which the salary gap between the highest- and lowest-skilled workers in our society is increasing. Data from the US Census and Department of Labor has shown that, for the period from 1969 to 1989, constant-dollar earnings for low-skilled male workers dropped by 24%, while the earnings for those in the top quintile increased by 13%. It has not been the case that a rising economic tide raises all boats. In fact, jobs at the bottom of the pay ladder are disappearing at a prodigious rate as they are being automated or shipped to other countries where salaries are even lower.

In the current information/communication age it is appropriate to explore the access Americans have to information technology. While it is the case that about 45% of our homes have computers in them (many connected to the Internet), studies by the Census Bureau have shown that computer access is strongly correlated to household income. As a rule of thumb, current computer penetration in homes can be estimated by taking family income in thousands of dollars per year and expressing the number as the percent of homes with computers in them. In other words, 70% of homes with a combined income of $70,000 or higher have computers in them; 10% of homes with a combined income of $10,000 have computers in them, and the numbers follow a nearly linear progression for intermediate income levels. Furthermore, these results hold pretty well independent of whether the communities are rural, urban or suburban.

The digital divide is real, and the financial have-nots are also the informational have-nots. Given the importance of information technologies in the future, this gap can produce a permanent underclass and further expand the gap between the haves and the have-nots. For this reason alone it is essential that access to powerful information technologies is provided in every classroom, library, and other places where people from all backgrounds gather.

Another aspect of current reality is the continued downsizing of large corporations, with the concomitant growth of small businesses. Large corporations are not only downsizing, they are disappearing. Since 1994, 40% of the 1980 Fortune 500 have disappeared through acquisition, breakup, or bankruptcy.

There is good news, however: It has been estimated that, for every job lost in the Fortune 500, 2.5 jobs are created by small companies.

The skills needed to thrive in small dynamic companies are different from those typically associated with corporate giants. Again, it falls to our educational institutions to prepare students for this new world.

Emergent Trends

Against the stark background of today's realities, several strong trends stand out. Many of these trends are interlinked, and their combination has produced a positive feedback loop of tremendous proportions. Here are a few of the current trends and their consequences:

Rapid increase in the growth of information

It has been estimated that information, world-wide, is doubling every two years. To get a glimmer of the impact of this rapid rate of information doubling, imagine that the total amount of information available in the world today is represented by a line 1 cm in length. For a child starting school today, how long a line would be needed to represent the amount of information available in the world at graduation from high-school 13 years from now? 5 cm? 10 cm? By the time this child enters twelfth grade, it would take a line 64 cm long to represent the amount of information then available.

One could argue that much of the information we have today is useless and, even worse, inaccurate. This only makes the challenge harder. In a world of rapidly growing information, how do we find the information we need and determine its accuracy and relevance? This is a pivotal skill that every member of our society needs to master, and master quickly.

Collapse of the information float

Not only is information growing quickly, the time lag between discovery and application -- the information "float" -- is rapidly shrinking. For example, it took many hundreds of years for the steam engine to move from being a curiosity to a commercial product. In contrast, recent discoveries in science and engineering show up in products virtually overnight.

Increasingly global marketplace

The communications revolution has shrunk the world to our desktops. International access to information, markets and services is commonplace today. This means that any venture with a presence on the World Wide Web is, in principle, capable of conducting business virtually around the world. This global marketplace exists as easily for the sole practitioner as it does for the giant corporation -- provided that the practitioner is willing to learn a foreign language or two.

While advances in translation technology are occurring daily, the process of learning a new language also exposes the learner to the culture in which that language is used. This cultural component is essential for effectively conducting business on a world-wide basis.

Computers continue to increase in power while dropping in cost

At a dinner speech in Anchorage, Alaska a few years ago I heard Alan Kay (then a Fellow at Apple Computer) talk about how wonderful it is for students he works with to have access to a Cray supercomputer. A teacher sitting next to me said, "I don't even know why I am here -- I'll never have that much computing power in my classroom." I cautioned him: "Watch out for words like 'never'."

A 1980 model Cray supercomputer was the fastest machine of its day. It cost $12 million, weighed 10,000 lbs, consumed 150 kW of electricity -- and had only 8 MB of RAM and operated at a speed of 80 MHz.

You can't find personal computers that poorly equipped on the market now. A typical personal computer today has about twice the raw power of this $12 million Cray, and can be purchased for $2,500. This trend of increased power at lower cost is likely to continue well into the next century. The driving force for this change is the continued advancement in silicon chip technology.

Computer chips continue to follow Moore's Law

To get a sense of the power of today's microprocessors, look at your thumbnail. A current state-of-the-art silicon chip that size contains the complexity of a complete road map of the United States -- including every Interstate, every street and alley in every city, and furthermore it has the capacity to switch traffic on this highway system in a trillionth of a second.

Today's chips are more powerful than those made a few months ago, and those available next year will dwarf today's capacity. The raw power of silicon technology doubles every 18 months. This observation was first made by Gordon Moore, co- founder of Intel, and it is now known as "Moore's Law." Based on this law, we can safely predict that, by the year 2004, silicon ships will be in production containing over a billion transistors on them. A chip of this capacity is capable of meeting the switching needs for 42 central office telephone switches!

Bandwidth is becoming free

At the same time silicon technology is increasing in power, so are the capabilities of various communications media including glass fibers, copper wires, and wireless communication systems. For example, scientists at Fujitsu and elsewhere have demonstrated the capacity to send data over a single strand of glass the diameter of a human hair at a speed of one trillion bits per second. At this speed, every word from every issue of the New York Times, since it was published, could be sent in under one second.

While advances in bandwidth over existing copper lines has not been as dramatic, it now appears that much of the wire currently connecting homes, schools and offices can be used to receive information at speeds in excess of six million bits per second using a technology called ADSL (for Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line). Cable television providers are preparing to offer broadband services such as @home, which operate at speeds of up to ten million bits per second.

As bandwidth increases, the cost of sending information drops. Some have argued that, in the future, communication costs will be too cheap to meter. Already some communities have taken an aggressive stance to insure their participation in the communications revolution. Residents of Glasgow, KY, for example, have access to the Internet at speeds of two million bits per second for a flat rate of $11.45 per month. This service is provided by Glasgow's power company -- a municipal utility that has branched out from providing power to also providing cable TV and broadband digital communication services. America's power companies have already installed so much fiber optic cable that they have the capacity to be the second largest provider of telecommunications if they wanted to.

Network power continues to obey Metcalfe's Law

Advances in the technologies of computers and bandwidth have combined to feed energy into a digital tornado of epic proportions: the Internet. The Internet is a global communications network that allows information to be sent and retrieved that travel through the infosphere like fragments of informational DNA.

The Internet is a network of networks -- a dynamic communication system built from the bottom up. All participants on this network have agreed on a simple set of protocols that define how data is to be formatted and routed from one place to the next. As a result of these simple rules, the Internet is capable of displaying incredibly complex behavior, including its capacity to grow incredibly fast without collapsing under its own weight. The Internet is currently doubling in size every year. Homes, schools, businesses, libraries, and museums are connected to the Net, and each new connection adds value to the whole. This added value was first expressed by Bob Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet, who observed that the power of a network increases by the square of the number of users. This statement is now known as Metcalfe's Law and it, in combination with Moore's Law, form the foundations of the communication revolution we are now experiencing.

Consider, for example, the World Wide Web. The Web is a collection of multi-media-based informational sites that contain information of all kinds, all of it composed in a common format that allows the information to be sent across the Internet and displayed on virtually any computer in common use today. While educational institutions, museums, and corporations have Web sites, so do students and hobbyists. The Web has become a new platform for the presentation and communication of ideas worldwide. And, the Web would have been impossible without the recent advances in silicon technology, and the development of the Internet.

The Web has taken the world by storm. Unlike the Internet which is doubling in size every year, the Web is doubling is size every 90 days. And even the use of the Web pales in comparison with electronic mail. In 1996, the USPS delivered 185 billion pieces of first class mail. In that same year the Internet handled about one trillion e-mail messages. Given that much of this Internet traffic originated from homes, school and small businesses using ordinary voice-grade telephone lines, one can only imagine what will happen when broadband services become commonplace!

The impact of the Web on education is likely to be profound. It is already being used in novel ways to allow students access to the latest breakthroughs in scientific discovery years before they are likely to appear in textbooks. Furthermore, students can perform their own research on various topics and post their results on the Web for other students, teachers and researchers to see and evaluate. The Web has democratized the publishing of information in ways unanticipated even a few years ago. As FCC Chairman Reed Hundt has said, "The communication age is connected to the greatest revolution in the history of education since the invention of the printing press."Some have suggested that the Industrial Revolution increased productivity 50-fold. In the 25 years since the invention of the microprocessor, computer power has increased by a factor of more than 1,000. This is the equivalent of almost one Industrial Revolution per year!

Education must focus on new competencies

Changes of this magnitude require a complete rethinking of education, both in terms of the curriculum, and in the development of pedagogies that insure that every student acquires the high level of skills needed to thrive in the dynamic world of the 21st century.

In addition to the basic skills of literacy and numeracy, every learner must also master the "three C's:" Communication, Collaboration, and Creative Problem Solving. Beyond these are the equally important skills of knowing how to use numbers and data in real-world tasks, the ability to locate and process information relevant to the task at hand, technological fluency, and, most of all, the skills and attitudes needed to be a lifelong learner.

Technological fluency is a basic skill

The need for technological fluency is so great that it deserves special mention. Larry Irving, Assistant Secretary of Commerce, has suggested that 60% of the jobs available at the turn of the century will require skills currently held by only 20% of today's workforce. If anything, this may be an understatement.

We recently conducted a study of the 54 jobs identified by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics as having the highest numerical growth between now and the year 2005. Of these 54 jobs, we could only find eight that do not require technological fluency -- and none of these eight jobs currently pays more than twice the minimum wage.

Technological fluency is a step beyond technological literacy. To be fluent in technology use means that we can sit down at a computer and use it as easily as we can pick up and read a book in our native language. Of the challenges facing education today, preparing students to be fluent in the use of computational and communication technologies is one of our greatest. As of January, 1997, only 14% of America's classrooms were wired to the Internet. Failure to address this issue immediately will perpetuate the widening gap between the information haves and have-nots.

The lack of technologically fluent workers is already a problem. A report by the Information Technology Association of America warns that one out of every 10 jobs requiring information technology skills is going unfilled due to a shortage of qualified workers. They surveyed 2,000 large and mid-sized companies and found at companies will opt to send more of their work overseas where they can find eligible job candidates.

Education must prepare students for jobs that have yet to be invented

If our challenge could be limited to preparing people for the kinds of jobs available today, we would still have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, the challenge is even greater. Many of the jobs that will be available at the turn of the century have yet to be invented.

If you doubt this, consider the following. One of the job categories in great demand today is that of Webmaster -- a person who designs, creates, and maintains sites on the World Wide Web. This job did not exist ten years ago. In fact, it did not even exist five years ago! This means that the people who are working in this new field have acquired their skills largely on their own.

In order to thrive in such a fast-paced world of constant change, the skills needed to become lifelong learners must be imparted to all our students.

The collapse of the information float can be seen in the rapid rise of new businesses based on breakthroughs in the study of biochemistry. Companies like Affymetrix, for example, have created automated technologies to identify mutated genes in a few minutes. Tests that used to take several weeks can now be performed inexpensively in a very short period of time. This gives Doctors the chance to identify life-threatening problems before they show up in a patient, and to recommend a course of action early-on. Technologies in the emerging biotech arena will require lots of workers with a new skill set.

In the realm of marine biology, advances are taking place at breakneck pace. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, for example, has two research vessels that use deep-sea robots to search for new life forms. Scientists at MBARI are finding about one new species of life every week.

Moving from the depths of the ocean to the fringes of our solar system, it now appears that life may exist in some form under the icy layers on Jupiter's moon, Europa. If so, the demand for exobiologists (biologists studying alien life forms) will spring up overnight. Once again, we must create an educational system that prepares students to work in fields that do not even exist today -- a tremendous task!

Compact portable technologies facilitate anywhere/anytime lifelong learning

For many of us, learning took place primarily in school. Today, inexpensive compact technology allows access to learning opportunities to take place anywhere, many in the world of business, compact technologies will have a tremendous impact on students of all ages soon. To take just one example, Sharp Electronics of Japan has released a hand-held computer with a color display. Attachments to this device allow it to be a digital camera, a notebook, and even a wireless browser for the World Wide Web. This device is currently selling in Japan for about $1,200.

Many corporations are moving their staff development activities to the Web, allowing employees to acquire new skills when they need them (just-in-time learning). Furthermore, these employees can acquire these skills from the comfort of their office or home, without having to fly across the country to attend workshops in another city. It is easy to imagine, when all learners have access to powerful technologies in their homes, that learning resources suitable for all ages can be made available for access from home, this extending the learning day far beyond the time we spend in school.

One of the stellar projects that has shown the tremendous benefit from this arrangement is the Buddy System in Indiana in which students at about 80 schools throughout the state have computers with modems at home. Over the nine years this project has been in existence, researchers watching this project have found that this project has had the impact of adding about 30 days of instruction to the school year without keeping the school doors open one extra hour. Furthermore, the cost of the project is about as expensive as keeping the schools open one extra day. This 30:1 payoff is a result of student enthusiasm for learning using powerful tools in their homes. The Buddy System found these results for both Urban and Rural students -- for those from high- and low-income families alike.

Once truly cheap technologies become commonplace with all students, the tools for lifelong learning will be in place. More important, however, is fostering the notion that lifelong learning is a survival skill. This is one task that must be addressed immediately, even as we are waiting for new technologies to come into existence.


There is no question that we are experiencing a fierce pace of change in an increasingly global economy. The challenge for schools was stated quite clearly by Jack Welch, the CEO of General Electric when he said, "If the rate of change inside an institution is less than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight."

Schools that ignore the trends shaping tomorrow will cease to be relevant in the lives of their students, and will quickly disappear. We must transform all formal institutions of learning, from pre-K through college, to insure that we are preparing students for their future, not for our past.