Jan 19, 2023

Education for the 21st Century – A New Norm – Flexible Learning Pathways

What can be done to transform our educational institutions?

By Dr. Rodney D. Smith

In the 1993 book, Looking Forward – The Next Forty Years, edited by the late Sir John Marks Templeton, in the chapter on “Education” written by Reverend Dr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, the first sentence reads “This essay will try to envision the face of education in the next century, the beginning of the third millennium”. The year 2023 is upon us, thirty years later. How precise were the projections made by Hesburgh?

He pointed out that in 1993, “more than a billion people in the underdeveloped world [alone] are still illiterate, despite enormous efforts in promoting literacy during the past fifty years or so”. According to a recent report entitled “The Economic Impact & Social Cost of Illiteracy,” September 2022, from the World Literacy Foundation, “more than 796 million people in the world cannot read or write. About sixty-seven million children do not have access to primary school education and another seventy-two million miss out on secondary school education.”

Hesburgh pointed out, in 1993, that the dream of global educational opportunity for every human being on earth … “is impossible if education is visualized as it always has existed in recent centuries: a school-room with a teacher and students”.

What he proposed was “a worldwide educational network …which can be accomplished by launching three geosynchronous satellites that hover above the same location on earth at an altitude of 22,600 miles, equidistant from each other… Below them are three world educational libraries”. He reminded readers that in 1993 technology existed that would allow for all the Encyclopedia Britannica, Shakespeare, the Bible, or the Koran on only a single small recording disk. “These disks would contain all human knowledge from teaching basic literacy to astrophysics; all literature and arts, all science and technology, all history, social sciences, and religion.”  “These could be in all the principal languages of the world by the best available teacher in each subject, with updates as knowledge grows and available to everyone through worldwide television, with the additional advantage of also transmitting needed texts, illustrations, diagrams, formulas, etc.”  Hesburgh proposed thirty years ago that we begin using technology to reach masses of people around the world to eliminate illiteracy. He argued that “the value of this new access to knowledge to talented and eager youngsters who are now deprived of all school is evident.”  Hesburgh asked that we “think also of the greatly neglected education of women, especially in the developing world. Besides formal education on every level, women would benefit from other subjects like health, hygiene, childcare, nutrition, and home economics now inaccessible to them.” He added that “birth control information could be available to those who desire it” … that “the hours that women, men, and children are now available for learning do not matter. They can pick their own time for learning – morning, noon, or evening; spring, summer, fall, or winter.”  Now, fast forward to where we are today.     

In the September/October 2019 issue of the magazine, Trusteeship, published by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, authors James B. Hunt and Javaid E Siddiqi, wrote that “colleges and universities nationwide are grappling with a wide variety of challenges and disruptors.”  They added that “perhaps the most pressing issue facing higher education … is the need to prepare students to succeed and prosper in the global knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.”

In the October 25, 2021, issue of Global Government Forum, Permanent Secretary at the UK Department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Sarah Mundy, said that “Civil Service leaders should not expect workplaces to return to pre-pandemic norms and must instead embrace innovations made over the last 20 months.”       

According to Microsoft, there will be 6.2 million job openings in Cloud-based technologies by 2022; and 77% of students will need tech skills by 2030.   

It is and always has been the need for change associated with development that brought about the transformations in academia. Such changes, however, were planned and effectively executed.

Globally, today’s societies must embrace change by necessity, while creating change for sustainability. The need for a major change in thinking was initially stimulated by the need to address illiteracy, then climate change, followed by the need to adapt to an unfamiliar environment …. a new direction in the delivery of education, brought on because of the global pandemic. These disruptors along with significant advances in technology and artificial intelligence, have triggered what is now being referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Unfortunately, many societies are attempting to maintain the education delivery system that was created in the 1800s, at the time of an earlier industrial revolution.

In a June 29th, 2020, issue of University World News, the opening article was entitled “Experimentation in higher education must become the norm” by Dara Melnyk and Daniel Kontowski.  The authors began the article as follows “Not all universities will survive the COVID-19 crisis. Many niche institutions will alter their models to stay afloat. Other vulnerable higher education institutions without effective safety nets may downsize, consider mergers, or declare bankruptcy. New institutions with new solutions will come to replace them.” They went on to add “We have seen something similar before. In the 1960s and 1970s, the wave of experimental higher education institutions offered new models and practices, which mainstream higher education could not ignore. This is how problem- and project-based learning, student-centered education and individualization became the norm. Now, universities have come to the point when they cannot but innovate. To succeed without betraying their values, they need innovative solutions.”

In 2021, Henry Stoever, President of the Association of Governing Boards sent the following words to Trustees and University Presidents, “Transformative change and innovation are no longer optional for colleges and universities, they are imperative.”  Stoever added that “survival and long-term sustainability and prosperity hinge on the capacity and capability of colleges, universities, and their leadership, to take action now to adapt to, and overcome, the many challenges facing them.” 

If readers have been following the many institutional mergers, sales, and acquisitions around the world, over the past 2.5 years, it is evident that all these warnings have been and continue to be valid.  

Global pandemics come along only once in a life-time - everyone hundred years or so. Such global events initiate the kind of change that propels the world forward into a newly defined paradigm. This means that today’s academicians, as learning facilitators, have a once in a lifetime opportunity - an opportunity to be part of redefining, re-imagining, and re-envisioning the future of education delivery for generations to come.

Today, colleges and university around the world are facing enrollment challenges. Some of these challenges are due to declining applications while others are due to fears associated with returning to learning face-to-face in the classroom. At the k-12 level, some parents are opting to keep children at home, while others are unable to provide and / or supervise the child’s virtual learning activities. These challenges, however, are also creating new opportunities; opportunities to address the need to further evolve and transform, while maintaining values and traditions.

Institutions of learning, though challenged must seize the opportunity to evolve as well. Academic institutions must initiate an economic paradigm shift, helping and leading in addressing transitions and transformation through digitization, including online, and expanded modular skills training. There must be significant expansion of online degree offerings, global partnerships, dual enrollments with colleges and universities, regionally, nationally, and globally. Institutions must initiate innovative strides in the delivery of skills training, creating a niche while becoming more attractive regionally and globally. To create this niche, institutions must work collaboratively across disciplines, while engaging in new research focusing on the delivery of teaching and extension services, providing solutions to current day community needs that may not even have existed before March of 2020. As the world of academia adjusts to new ecosystems, institutions must adhere to a model of research that creates the expansion of new certifications along with graduate and professional studies; particularly, as new technological and artificial intelligence specializations are created, based on innovations for the 21st century.

Over the past 2.5 years many have focused on a return to what has been described as “getting back to normal.”  Institutions, to survive, must stop trying to go backwards. There is no getting back to normal. It is time to focus on “now” and what we create for the future of higher education in the 21st Century. There is no going back.

Of the many young children who have missed almost two years of education, all the remedial education in the world will not make up for the two missed years in their social, educational, and mental development. It is time that leaders of institutions come to understand that they must embrace problem- and project-based learning, student-centered education, and individualization. Institutions, globally, must embrace the use of “Flexible Learning Pathways” across all levels. This alone will be the 21st century key to providing equal access to education for all. Policy makers must also make bold decisions like eliminating the use of grades which was based on the need to create a system of competition in the 1800s. Policy makers must now focus on creating collaborative systems of education.

In the summer of 2021, at a forum organized by the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP) where eighty-five countries participated, the IIEP launched Sustainable Development Goal #4: Planning for Flexible Learning Pathways in Higher Education “to support efforts to promote equity and life-long learning opportunities for all by investing in flexible higher education systems.” (Quoted from International Policy Forum Background Paper written by Michaela Martin and Uliana Furiv, June 2021)         

The UNESCO definition of Flexible Learning Pathways is the creation of “entry points and re-entry points at all ages and all educational levels, strengthened links between formal and non-formal structures and recognition, validation and accreditation of the knowledge, skills and competencies acquired through non-formal and informal education” (UNESCO, 2015, p.33)

Martin and Furiv, in a June 2021 UNESCO paper, wrote that “The unprecedented COVID-19 Crisis has accelerated change, but it has also shown the limits of higher education systems to deal flexibly with needed transformation.”   

It is the opinion of this author, that regardless of majors, all students, in preparation for the 21st century, must be required to complete a Computer Information Systems course and learn how to work and create in augmented virtual environments within the first year of college /university studies, if not earlier.

Academicians are being challenged to develop more inter-institutional partnerships, especially through new technological avenues. They are being challenged to reach out to colleagues around the world, creating virtual study-abroad opportunities, and create co-faculty teaching opportunities with other colleges and universities in other countries around the world. They are being challenged to envision engagement in more faculty and student exchange opportunities, either online, using virtual and augmented reality, and/or, in person.

In the unfamiliar environment of this fourth industrial revolution, institutions must challenge academics to explore widespread use of virtual labs, across all grade levels, in preparation of a new generation of productive citizens for the world. At the post-secondary level, institutions must create internships through business and industry; subsequently redefining and increasing the numbers of opportunities for faculty and students, nationally, regionally, and globally to learn and grow in this new era. 

Over the next several months and years, institutions around the world will experience transformation in their education systems. There will be an increased emphasis on individualized learning using Technology and artificial intelligence. As institutions increase the use of technology to allow students to learn at their pace, as proposed by Hesburgh in 1993, under the supervision of “Learning Facilitators”, there will be blurring of the lines between the grade level systems that were created in the 1800s; what some have called a factory-model approach to the delivery of education.  There will be systems with more flexible learning pathways that will allow students/learners to absorb more knowledge and information at a much faster pace than the traditional face-to-face delivery mode.

Institutions, globally, will also see more adults taking advantage of the use of flexible learning pathways. They will maximize the use of acquired knowledge, both formally and informally, while attaining new knowledge through the supervised and unsupervised use of artificial intelligence. Through all these learning pathways, the evaluation of the acquisition of new knowledge will be completed instantaneously or automatically … meaning that students will no longer need to wait for mid-term evaluations or end of semester grading.

This 21st Century approach to the acquisition of new knowledge at all levels must be embraced; and, in truth, has already been embraced across corporate sectors and systems around the world.

The findings of the report entitled “The Economic Impact & Social Cost of Illiteracy,” September 2022, from the World Literacy Foundation, include

  • The cost of illiteracy to the global economy is estimated at USD $1.19 Trillion.
  • The effects of illiteracy are very similar in developing and developed countries. This includes illiterate people trapped in a cycle of poverty with limited opportunities for employment or income generation and higher chances of poor health, turning to crime and dependence on social welfare or charity (if available).

In Sir John Mark Templeton’s 1993 book, Looking Forward – The Next Forty Years, in the chapter on “Education” written by Reverend Dr. Theodore M. Hesburgh, he wrote

“The traditional system of education has not delivered education to those who desperately need it and is unlikely to do so in the future. The crucial question then remains: Is access to education on all levels of one’s capacity, regardless of where one lives or what resources one has, beyond brains and the capacity and desire to learn, is this equal access to a basic human right, moreover, an indispensable human right in today’s world?”

He concluded that “it would be tragic if this new approach to world educational opportunity, with its real promise, were to be neglected because of a lack of nerve, a vacillation of resolve, and a truly malignant neglect. This crucial opportunity should not be lost in a welter of other opportunities, especially if we are serious about facing the future with creativity, a sense of priority, and hope.”

Theodore M. Hesburgh was correct thirty years ago. Today, we in academia still find ourselves grappling with the need to transform our educational institutions. This time it has been brought on by the simultaneous expansion in the use of technology coupled with a global pandemic and climate change.                   

Rodney D. Smith, Ed.D.

Distinguished Senior Fellow

Templeton World Charity Foundation, Inc.



Looking Forward – The Next Forty Years. Edited by John Marks Templeton, The K. S. Giniger Book published in Association with Templeton Press, 1993