Forecasts, FlexchainEdu, and the Promise of Future Horizons

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The higher education ecosystem of the future remains to be seen. The author offers an optimistic and tech-fueled forecast for the coming decade.

man walking into a sunset across a baked, barren landscape with mountains on the distant horizon
Credit: Jason Strull on Unsplash © 2019

The Web as I envisaged it, we have not seen it yet. The future
is still so much bigger than the past.

⁓ Tim Berners-Lee


Berners-Lee's oft-quoted view of the future-past of the web applies equally well to the higher education ecosystem: its future is so much bigger than its past.

I believe that in just a decade, the postsecondary education ecosystem will be both utterly unrecognizable and strikingly familiar. It will consist of bootcamp-university hybrids, algorithm-driven space-sharing agreements, discipline-specific micro-schools, AI-driven instruction/courses, and perhaps most noticeable and widespread, entirely new means of validating the knowledge and skills that such an ecosystem is providing or was meant to provide its students. Yet while surrounding pressures will necessitate some degree of adaptation, this landscape will still be dotted with legacy systems, slow-rotting code, and familiar conversations regarding how we plan to prepare future generations for the ever-changing technological revolution looming just over the horizon.

I also imagine that future students (and parents) will no longer envision a single linear educational path from preschool to post-doc but, instead, will be responsive to an evolving, nonlinear path, dynamically carved in the moment by cognified machines and smart, personally responsive wearables and AI-enabled peripherals. While foundational soft skills will still be valued (I hope), nearly all educational enterprises that were focused solely on information transfer will have disappeared in the wake of increasingly complex cybernetics and biodigital interfaces. Future students will quite literally be cyborgs: living, learning, and earning within a reality forever augmented.1

The upgraded internet of tomorrow, comprising increasingly distributed networks and systems, will further fragment an education ecosystem already being stressed and reshaped by a host of external technological and political pressures. While the majority of people will physically relocate to major cities, becoming more centralized, I foresee the education ecosystem becoming proportionally decentralized. Virtual experiences and instruction will become the dominant fabric of this new landscape. As our personal avatars (think Siri, but useful) evolve to understand our innate interests and abilities better than we can possibly know ourselves, they will suggest and structure uniquely tailored educational pathways for lifelong learners—pathways that will be as numerous and varied as the personal avatars crafting them.

I see this increasingly fragmented yet fluid education ecosystem giving rise to a variety of new ways in which learning is tracked and valued. As noted, the days of students following a linear path to earn a degree at a single institution will be seen as archaic, and slow-to-adapt institutions will continue to consolidate or vanish. New models, enabled by the relentless advancement of nascent technologies like blockchains and AI, will evolve to bring innovative opportunities to students. Within this increasingly decentralized ecosystem, students could be empowered, free to leverage new applications that bring added value to the granular knowledge and skills that used to get lost on the way to a single four-year degree. As our smart avatar sidekicks iteratively evolve beside us and curate tailored, individualized education paths, the need for equitable solutions that respond to these ever-evolving personal paths will become both necessary and increasingly varied and valued.

As an example, I believe that the trust inherent in blockchain-based systems, and their subsequent adoption, will represent the foundation for a suite of new applications. Students, not institutions, will own their unique identity as learners. As the future student meets specific learning objectives or demonstrates specific competencies—whether through a research university, a community college, a bootcamp, or an online tutorial—an immutable student-owned ledger of progress will be verified and updated. This evolving and flexible map of learning (i.e., supply chain of education) will then be connected to a host of second-layer applications that will interpret the stacks of skills/knowledge and recommend, or act as justification for, personally tailored apprenticeship/employment opportunities within narrow and niche sectors of the gig economy.

Employers will continue to become less interested in MBAs and PhDs and more interested in the particularly qualified students and trusted, blockchain-backed algorithms that position them as job candidates. Traditionally disadvantaged students and low-income families will discover a renewed hope in higher education as economic forces reshape and fragment our monolithic institutions into more affordable, decentralized, adaptive opportunity hubs. Rather than being viewed as a debt-inducing gamble with the potential to create generational disadvantages, the higher education landscape will be seen as a dynamic addition to lifelong growth and social mobility. In this scenario, future students will be empowered by the tail-end of the same digital wave that has brought about so many of the tech-fueled concerns being raised today.

My admittedly optimistic exploratory forecast above was adapted from a winning proposal, FlexchainEdu [], written for the Reimagining the Higher Education Ecosystem Challenge, sponsored by the Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology. This is one of many initiatives aimed at identifying promising projects on the higher ed horizon, and like many others who submitted entries, I've developed an insatiable appetite for imagining the unimaginable.

Ironically, it's the complex, slow-to-move educational systems that seem to invite forward-facing wonder and curiosity. What is it about structured systems that bring about this desire to bend today toward an undefined tomorrow? Examples abound across the educational landscape. I'm currently working with the U.S. Department of Education to support the Education Blockchain Action Network [], a shared, community-driven, action-oriented space for conversation, community curation, and open-source blockchain project development. National organizations offer research-oriented publications such as the Horizon Report from EDUCAUSE and Forecast 5.0 from KnowledgeWorks. Universities have entered the game with initiatives such as the Commission on Creating the Next in Education from Georgia Tech and the Block Center for Technology and Society from Carnegie Mellon. Ambitious earn-to-learn projects/protocols—for example, Learning Economy and BitDegree—are upending traditional education models entirely. Individuals, including Bryan Alexander and Amy Webb [], have carved unique spaces for themselves as entrepreneurs within the landscape of future forecasting. Alexander's evolving work has spawned an array of future-focused projects: the Future Trends Forum, the Future of Education Observatory, and most recently, FOEcast []. The people and organizations interested in and meaningfully engaging with this work seem to be as varied as the potential solutions they seek to envision and deploy.

So, if you also find yourself peering inquisitively toward tomorrow, there are many who share the urge to know the unknowable and make possible the impossible. There seems to be one thing we can always count on: the need for horizons on which to fix our collective gaze. I welcome all those who, like me and others, spend endless hours in the present peering toward the promise of the future.


  1. Alexis C. Madrigal, "The Man Who First Said 'Cyborg,' 50 Years Later," The Atlantic, September 30, 2010.

Taylor Kendal is an educator, instigator, culture-crafter, community builder, and blockchain enthusiast currently working as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology.

© 2019 Taylor Kendal. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY International License.