Education for a Rapidly Changing Planet

Education for a Rapidly Changing Planet

In 2040, a new group of global universities have risen to the top to offer data-driven, personalized, and affordable learning opportunities that prepare learners for the realities of a changing planet. It was a long and difficult shift to make, and many traditional colleges and universities in the US and across the world that were slow to adapt were forced to close or cut programs due to declining enrollments, heavy competition, and higher costs. Inefficient business models alongside education programs that failed to take into account the realities of automation and a dramatically different workforce sped their demise.

The best higher educational institutions, however, understood that a changing world meant that education systems would have to change, too. Unprecedented population growth, climate change, rapid urbanization, artificial intelligence, and environmental degradation presented both unprecedented challenges and opportunities. The need for creative, ethical, and analytical leaders and innovators was urgent.

Looking back, the crisis in higher education was in some ways inevitable. It was certainly knowable. In 2011, the number of people enrolled in tertiary education across the world was 165 million. That number was projected to reach 263 million in 2025. Secondary school graduates in the US around the world, particularly in Asia and Africa, were all clamoring for high quality, market-relevant, and affordable degrees that lead to meaningful careers. The private sector desperately needed educated human capital to drive sustained economic growth.

The institutions that have been able to ideate and pivot, to design platforms and structures that prioritize access to millions of students who cannot afford an elite education, have been wildly successful, educating millions of students a year online in specializations such as virtual collaboration, computational thinking & data analysis, innovation and design. They have been able to unbundle their faculty and forge new staffing structures, resulting in more efficient and scalable business models. They have been able to leverage technology and big data to provide individualized pathways for students, allowing learners to take ownership of their education and achieve their academic and career goals. They have been able to access talent and expertise from around the world, from virtual instructors, assessors, mentors, and coaches. They have designed academic programs that are driven by the needs of employers and local communities.

In 2040, competency-based education (CBE), which explicitly emphasizes demonstration of knowledge for degree progression, rather than the accumulation of course credits through seat time, is the norm rather than the exception. CBE is used to measure real learning instead of the time spent in a classroom with assessments that encourage “cramming” and then regurgitating content that is quickly forgotten. This represented a profound philosophical shift for students and educators accustomed to more traditional systems.

Credentials matter less. Employers expect to see demonstrated competencies and examples of how they have been proven. They are interested in a portfolio of work rather than grades.

“Disruptive education innovators are working with employers to quickly identify workforce trends and offer stackable and modularized academic programs that meet their needs and give students early exposure to industry demands”

Young people are prepared for the realities of a changing planet, knowing that climate change has transformed the global economy and the jobs that fuel it. Human adaptation to climate change has already created 60 million new jobs worldwide. Employers in the US and around the world demand graduates who grasp these complexities and can proactively lead and design new solutions.

Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) is widely considered a critical foundation for all education programs, nationally and internationally. UNESCO defines ESD as the transformative learning process that allows students to acquire the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values necessary to shape a sustainable future. It empowers learners to take informed decisions and responsible actions that promote environmental integrity, economic viability, and a just society. Within the ESD framework, teaching and learning are interactive and learner-centered, enabling exploratory, action-oriented and transformative learning to manifest.

Women and girls’ equal access to education is accepted as a non-negotiable in 2040. It is well understood that educated women have more agency, marry later, have few children, and more actively manage their reproductive health. They earn higher wages and contribute to positive and more inclusive economic growth. They are more effective stewards of the environment and have greater resiliency in the face of extreme weather events.

By 2040, we as a society have recast the ways that we learn and live, having moved away from the unsustainable consumption of resources, the degradation of ecosystems, and the exploitation of people. Institutions in the US and across the globe have reinvented education models to give learners’ everywhere access to the global knowledge economy, and at the same time, enhanced the well-being of all humans within the limits of our planet. In other words, they have created a future full of promise.



Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes is the CEO and co-founder of Davis Col – lege, a global network of universities that prepares young leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challeng – es. Davis is a unique hybrid of a liberal arts education with applied and tech – nical curricula. Davis combines com – petency-based academic programs with a customized, data-driven learning model to actualize practical experience and equip students with the tools needed to thrive in their chosen careers. Elizabeth has spent more than a decade working in higher education in East Africa and co-founded the Akilah Institute, the only college for women in Rwanda. Forbes Magazine named Elizabeth one of the world’s most influential female social entrepreneurs, and Newsweek recognized her as one of 125 Women of Impact. Elizabeth is a graduate of Vanderbilt University.

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