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Educating for Impact in a Project-Based World

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By Guest Author: Jason Swanson

Whether we like it or not, the concepts of work and career are central organizing principles in most of our lives and in our education systems. The notion of working full-time for a single organization, at one time a foundational idea for what constitutes a career, has been turned on its head. Today, the average adult holds 11.7 jobs in his or her lifetime, and the number of people participating in the "gig" or project-based economy is estimated at a staggering 91 million. That number is expected to rise.

The changing nature of work has also prompted responses from our education systems. A few examples at the K-12 level include the rise in STEAM and STEM education, the spread of project-based learning and deeper learning, and the concept of " grit" being taught in classrooms. At the post-secondary level, stackable nanodegrees and boot camps such as General Assembly are helping would-be employees rapidly learn valuable workplace skills and initiatives such as Connecting Credentials are working to transform the U.S.'s credentialing system to be increasingly learner centered. The goal of these programs is to better align higher education outcomes with needs of the employment sector.

Such signals of change point towards a transition to an increasingly project-based world that is already changing the ways we conceptualize and organize work and education. But we mustn't stop here. Looking ten years out, how might we define projects differently than we do today?

As detailed in KnowledgeWorks' ten-year forecast, The Future of Learning: Education in the Era of Partners in Code, we are rapidly entering a new era in which our economy, our institutions, and our societal structures are shifting at an accelerating pace. One of the driving forces causing this era shift is the exponential advance of digital technologies.

As a result, our devices are becoming faster, smaller, cheaper, and smarter. We call this new era the era of partners in code due to the fact that we will be increasingly dependent on our devices, and the code inside them, to help us navigate of the world around us.

Already, the increased connectivity, capability, data capture, and matching abilities enabled by digital technologies have given rise to platforms such as Uber, Lyft, Task Rabbit, LinkedIn's ProFinder and Upwork that are fueling the project-based economy, reshaping work, and disrupting existing industries. As exponential advances lead us farther into the era of partners in code, we can expect that today's disruptive technologies will themselves change or be disrupted.

In particular, automation and artificial intelligence will impact the project-based economy. Uber, for example, has begun to develop driverless cars, drones are being used to deliver goods, and artificial intelligence is being used to design and create art.

It might very well turn out that the patterns of disruption that have given birth to a project-based world might also redefine what we mean by "project." Even though the project-based economy is forecasted to grow in the near term, it could be displaced by technological unemployment, with resulting redefinition of the notion of wage labor. While technological unemployment might accelerate a possible redefinition of how we view projects, it is not the only driver that might spark a redefinition. Other catalysts might include people's drive for authentic engagement and meaningful contribution, which could also lead to a greater focus on pursuing projects that promise to make a positive impact on the world. Such developments might mean that project-based work in a project-based world becomes less tied to earning a living and more tied to things like solving complex problems or creating social good projects.

Whether due to technological unemployment or an increased desire to make meaningful contributions to the world, education could come to focus on making an impact, encouraging learners to pursue learning journeys that embrace complexity, lead to deep knowledge and deeper learning outcomes, and set them up to initiate and anticipate change. Students could come to be seen as innovators and problem solvers who actively shape the world around them as part of their education. In this scenario, social impact scores rather than standardized tests could become critical metrics for schools attracting funding, partnerships, and community engagement.

We are already seeing signs of a move toward educating for impact. For example, Ashoka Changemaker Schools support learners as change makers, giving them the skill sets to solve problems. Singularity University, a benefit corporation, aims to help individuals, institutions, and businesses understand exponential technologies and explore how they might apply them to solve humanity's grand challenges and positively impact the lives of billions of people.

This brief scenario represents just one possibility for how learning in a project-based world might shift as we move further into the era of partners in code. While we can't possibly know what will happen in the future, education stakeholders should consider how current trends might develop over time and, more importantly, how to leverage those trends in service of a brighter future for all learners. Stakeholders need to think critically about the impacts of a project-based world, as well as what might be coming over the next horizon.

In the meantime, what implications do you think a project-based world could have on education, and how might learning chart a path forward amid the waves of innovation and patterns of disruption that the future will bring?

This blog is part of "It's a Project-Based World" series. To learn more and contribute a guest post for the series, see the Project-Based World page. Join in the conversation at #projectbased.

For more, see:

  • What Powers Project-Based Learning? New Technology Provides the Answer
  • Students and Employers Benefit in Real World PBL
  • Is it a Project or an Activity? Project-Based Learning and its Cousins
  • Jason Swanson explores the future of learning as part of KnowledgeWorks' strategic foresight team. Find them on Twitter: @KnowledgeWorks.

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