Classroom life-forms of tomorrow
What will education be like in 2020? Will there still be schools? What will teachers be for - always assuming we'll still need teachers, of course - and how will we train them?
A great many people working in education today will have long since retired by then and so may have scant interest in such distant speculations.
However, the little boys and girls starting school in September this year will be young adults in 2020 and will either recently have left, or still be a part of, an education system much changed from the one in which they are about to become participants.
Professional planning exercises tend to span the three or five-year horizon, with detailed operational plans for next year. Thinking about the long-term is seldom open to educators, for whom next week is sometimes too far away to demand more than a passing thought. For more than 20 years, planners have responded to rigidly conceived futures constructed by others.
So it is encouraging to see that the Teacher Training Agency has now been moved to a more questioning, thoughtful and mature engagement with its stakeholders. In an initiative to think ahead, it has invited educators from higher education and schools, people committed to the preparation of future generations of teachers, to ponder on what things might be like nearly two decades from now. That a government agency can bring people together to think about such matters shows the way toward a more participatory, less dirigiste view of our education system than we have known for a long time.
We can get excited by the idea of the future or we can dread it. Although there are many dark shadows obscuring the way in our post-September 11 world, there are as many bright passages to encourage us. Whether we like it or not, we are already living in a world in which the population is spending its money in an expanding globalised network economy.
The impact of this circumstance alone on education will be enormous, meaning that the way we buy necessary services (including the education of our children) is likely to become ever more personalised, giving us greater consumer power and vanishing patience with centrally imposed versions of what is supposed to be good for us.
Will governments have the same control, in 2020, as they do now over what our children learn, where and how they learn it? I suspect not, because parents will prefer to tailor-make their children's education to their own particular expectations. New industries could burgeon to meet their requirements: if not a personal knowledge mentor for your children, available round the clock on the internet, then certainly schools which are branded to offer in your neighbourhood the kind of education you want for them.
As for the impact of technology on education, the already astonishing developments in ICT, genetic and pharmaceutical engineering will come to amaze us much, much more. By 2020, it will be harder to be so certain about the distinctions between carbon-based life-forms (us) and silicon-based ones.
Children in 2020 will live in a world of augmented reality, in which transparent and ever-present technology will accompany them in their learning, accelerating it rather like moving pavements take us faster at airports. Should we prepare for "learner drugs"? And if not - if, assuming that they're safe, we don't relish the idea of our children being on academic steroids - wherein lie our scruples?
If enough educators get together to ask questions like these, then perhaps we'll be able to determine the nature of education in 2020 rather than, as has been so much the case over recent decades, simply responding as best we can to others' views of how it should be carried out.
Teachers will be crucial. But will they be trained as agents of the state, animators of a centralised blueprint? Will they be freelance technicians, brilliantly capable of carrying out the wishes of the parental consumer for high wages in a networked economy?
Or will they be members of a powerful, persuasive profession, as much socially committed as dedicated to the individual learner: capable, principled and profoundly aware of their responsibilities to the future?
It would certainly be good to think that teachers in 2020 were giving at least an occasional thought, as they went to work, to what education would be like in 2040.
Professor Mike Newby has retired as dean of education at the University of Plymouth. For three years, he chaired the Universities Council for the Education of Teachers.