Inflection points reflect a change in the slope of a curve—a point of accelerated growth that, combined with linked events, marks the beginning of a different future. The nonprofit consulting firm Bridgespan encourages its clients to build a theory of action based on assumptions behind projected growth curves and the potential sequence of events resulting from an intervention. Malcolm Gladwell popularized the topic of inflections with his book The Tipping Point.
Midway through 2011 we can look back on a few recently passed milestones and can predict a few learning innovation inflections just ahead.
Learning anywhere. More than a decade ago, we passed an important threshold in human history—with access to broadband, almost anyone can learn anything anywhere for free or cheap (The World is Open, Bonk). Mass access to learning, along with mass communication, is now one of the most important megaforces shaping life on the planet.
It started with search, then Wikipedia, and then open educational resources with Kahn Academy being the most publicized, new resource. Institutions of learning are just coming to grips with the fact that they have been enveloped in a free and open world of learning.
Learning on the go. Based on devices sold, SaaS servies purchased, and mobile apps downloaded, 2010 marked an inflection point toward mobile, cloud-based personalized computing.
Access devices (tablets, netbooks) are so cheap, schools can’t afford not to shift from print to digital instructional materials. High access environments are increasingly being augmented by students encouraged to “bring your own device” (BYOD).
Blended universe. The publication of The Rise of Blended Learning by Innosight Institute earlier this year probably marked an inflection point pointing to future of education full of interesting mixtures of online and onsite learning experiences. Blended learning builds on the almost 50 percent annual growth rate of online learning, 15 years of 1:1 computing pilots, and the maturation of edtech. It responds to what Governor Bob Wise calls the online learning imperative—the simultaneous need to improve achievement, reduce cost, and fill teacher shortages. Most U.S. students will attend blended schools by the end of the decade.
There will be three related inflection points in the next few years.
Flood of data. Most states will do most of their educational testing online by 2014. By the 2014-15 year many schools will make extensive use of instructional materials with embedded assessment. That suggests an order of magnitude shift over the next three years in the amount of student data. The 2011-12 school year may well be an inflection point in the amount and quality of student achievement data.
Your brain on customization. A few adaptive products (Dreambox, MangaHigh*, Reasoning Mind) and pilots (School of One) and platforms (Edmodo*) give us a clue about the potential of customized learning. Customized learning will increasingly allow every student to learn in the best way possible. It means getting more learning out of every hour invested in learning.
A few individualized networks (Big Picture, AdvancePath*) give us pictures of alternatives to a system based on age cohorts and seat time. Taken together, customization and competency-based learning will bend achievement curves upward.
It may take a decade before most U.S. students experience real student-centered education: customized learning in a competency-based environment. But adoption of the 10 elements outlined in Digital Learning Now by a half a dozen states during the coming legislative session would certainly mark a tipping point.
Closing the global secondary gap. A few years from now the combination of broader access to broadband, cheap tablets, open content, and blended school formats will enable affordable access to quality secondary education for a few hundred million students that currently have no chance at college and idea economy careers.
The growth of low cost blends is likely to intersect with new competency-based certification systems. And that inflection marks a different future for hundreds of millions of young people.
* Learn Capital portfolio companies