By Ann Flynn

There’s nothing better than a 50th high school reunion to inspire contemplation about how different education will be for students in another 50 years.

The “B’s”, broadband, books, buildings, buses, and band will likely remain relevant to any discussion about the school of the future because each of those provide a critical aspect of the experience. Broadband (or whatever name it goes by in 50 years), and books will be necessary for connecting learners with a vast array of content. Many families will continue to need a safe and nurturing place for their children to learn, thus the buildings. Those same families will need bus transportation for their students, though that service will most certainly be delivered by electric vehicles. Band (as a former flute player) makes this list as a placeholder for all the extracurricular activities that can ignite a student’s passion.

It may sound as though I think nothing will change but that is far from the truth. For decades, people have obsessed over the introduction of each new wave of technology and how it might transform education. And now the newest obsession is artificial intelligence. Amongst all the hype, John Baily presents a well-grounded piece in Education Next that defines generative AI and offers real-world examples of how it might be used in education today. You can bet the ed tech industry is hard at work creating the next generation of AI classroom tools, or at least launching a rebranding campaign to link its current products to AI. It’s intriguing to study how other countries are approaching AI for education, including plans to include it in teacher training programs. Since I don’t have a crystal ball, my future ideas are less about the specific AI tools that may be invented and more about how they might change public education.

We are entering a period of possibilities ushered in by the pandemic, teacher shortages, the redefinition of parental rights, the explosive culture wars, and the rapid advancements within technology. Each of these issues has a distinct role in my vision of the future school and generative AI may well be the gamechanger that allows new models to emerge.

In trying to imagine America’s public schools far into the future, a colleague mentioned the 19th century author Edward Bellamy and his utopian novel, Looking Backward: 2000 – 1887, published in 1888. As an experiment, I asked ChatGPT how Bellamy’s views might align with the introduction of AI on education. Six key themes emerged based on his writings.

“In the novel, Bellamy envisions a future society that has evolved into a highly organized and technologically advanced utopia. While Bellamy did not specifically address the concept of artificial intelligence (AI) in his work, we can speculate on how he might have viewed the future of education with the introduction of AI based on the themes and ideas present in his writing.

1. Equal Access to EducationBellamy’s utopian society emphasizes equality and the elimination of class distinctions. He might view AI as a tool that could help ensure equal access to education for all members of society, regardless of their background or social status. AI-driven educational platforms could provide personalized learning experiences to individuals, tailoring education to their specific needs and learning styles, thus contributing to a more equitable distribution of knowledge and skills.

2. Efficiency and AutomationBellamy’s utopia places a strong emphasis on efficiency and the elimination of wasteful practices. He might see AI as a means to automate administrative tasks, allowing teachers to focus more on the actual process of teaching and engaging with students. This could lead to a more streamlined education system that maximizes the use of resources and time.

3. Universal KnowledgeIn “Looking Backward,” the protagonist is amazed by the accessibility of knowledge in the future society. AI could further enhance this aspect by serving as a vast repository of information that students can access at any time. This could enable students to engage in self-directed learning and explore subjects that interest them beyond the confines of traditional curricula.

4. Teacher-Student RelationshipsWhile Bellamy’s vision of a utopian society emphasizes community and interpersonal relationships, he might be cautious about the potential for AI to replace human interaction in education. He might advocate for a balance between AI-driven instruction and meaningful teacher-student relationships, valuing the mentorship and guidance that educators provide.

5. Ethical ConsiderationsBellamy was concerned with ethical issues related to societal progress and the use of technology. He might view the introduction of AI in education as an opportunity to emphasize the ethical and moral aspects of learning. He might advocate for AI education to incorporate discussions about values, empathy, and responsible use of technology.

6. Lifelong LearningBellamy’s society values continuous improvement and learning. He might see AI-driven education as a way to encourage lifelong learning, enabling individuals to adapt to new developments and acquire new skills throughout their lives. This could align with his vision of a society where people continually contribute to the common good.”

While ChatGPT’s assessment of Bellamy’s vision offers a hopeful future, there remains a larger question about how education will be valued by 2072 if AI is as pervasive as some pundits suggest. Working at the intersection of education technology policy and practice for 30 years, I saw many elected leaders spend a great deal of time polishing their rear-view mirrors; remembering education experiences from another era. The status quo is a hard thing to change in US public education, but I choose both reality and optimism as I imagine 2072.

What purpose education serves, and for whom, is at the very core of the future school. That debate has filled countless books and columns proclaiming the availability of a free American education as a pathway for individual achievement, the economic foundation of the nation, and the way to instill shared values among all citizens. Equitable access is increasingly a bigger part of that conversation whether comparing educational facilities, years of teacher experience, or access to the latest technology or CTE resources.

The foundation for change

COVID was instrumental in finally getting devices and home Internet access into the hands of students who had previously been excluded for decades. As schools pivoted to provide online learning, it was evident that many teachers struggled to effectively engage students. Parents, many who had previously paid little attention to the details of their child’s education, suddenly had a front row seat to those online classes.

The battles over book bans, indoctrination, diversity, gender, and what can be taught about climate volatility or Black history are causing irreparable fractures in our communities. “America has lost a shared national narrative,” according to University of Pennsylvania history professor Jonathan Zimmerman. “It all portends hopeless bifurcation suggesting that the US is becoming a place where what students learn about the country’s past will depend on whether they live in conservative or liberal state,” Zimerman explained.

Recent legislation that allows public dollars to follow a child into non-public educational settings in various states will be a significant game changer over the next 50 years. It was just over 30 years ago, in 1991, that the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota and in 2022, 3.7 million students were being served by 7,800 charters in the US. Those legislative changes, coupled with the documented resegregation of America’s schools, will result in fragmented new schools based on shared philosophical or pedagogical ideas rather than the “one-size-fits all” model designed to serve entire communities. The cry for parental rights will grow ever louder, along with the increase in home schooling and its related micro-school pods movement. Education entrepreneurs, like Prenda, will capitalize on the growing demand for these vastly different models but they will not serve the majority of the nation’s students.

More than a million children did not return to public schools after the pandemic, and by 2031, that decline is projected to be another 5 percent of the student population. Those numbers mean there will be “a reckoning for many school districts”, according to Thomas Dee, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. Permanent school closures, like those in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, present new challenges and have resulted in complaints of pervasive discrimination. And even where schools are open, chronic absenteeism is a growing problem.

In 2021-22, the National Center on Teacher Quality recorded a 14 percent turnover among teachers adding to the stress of those remaining in the profession who have often assumed extra duties. With some universities shuttering their colleges of education, an aging teacher workforce, and fewer students pursuing education degrees or alternative routes like Teach for America, the teacher shortage will not be a temporary problem. Limited substitutes, plus shortages among school support staff from bus drivers to counselors, will require leaders to think differently.

I think my vision for the 2072 school of the future, based on these complex but interrelated issues, strikes a balance that is both plausible and imaginable.

The system will change

Since I graduated 50 years ago, the Internet, personal computers, wearable technology, and social media are embedded in the fabric of daily life. As author Vivek Wadhwa said, “Technology is the great leveler, the great unifier, the great creator of new and destroyer of old.” That’s exactly how I see AI’s role in the schools of the future.

Strong leaders who can inspire their staff, students, and community are key to successful districts; that will not change in 2072. In fact, the need for more transparency, with the ability to effectively utilize multiple communication channels will be even more essential. With the increased competition because of dollars following a child, public schools will need to create a marketable brand to be successful.

The bureaucracy that accompanies the largest districts splinters into smaller operational units to become more diverse and responsive. AI tools enable administrators to launch and manage new school models within their governance frameworks more efficiently. These reorganization strategies provide multiple responses that address parental demands and redefine what it means for public education to serve different groups of students. Specialty centers, single sex institutions, and even residential programs are found among public options. Public and private schools frequently share space in one facility with common shared areas like dining and playgrounds.

School leaders build alliances with local businesses to ensure the “product” they are delivering through school is not “out of sync” with existing and emerging trends. That engagement contributes to the long-term economic health of communities by producing competent graduates and creating a desirable school system to attract new corporate investments, much like the 1990’s when some districts successfully navigated the early years of the Internet.

The brick-and-mortar school remains a fixture in most communities, although it is supplemented with hybrid and virtual models. Current research has shown that a good teacher makes a bigger difference than anything, and based on history, that remains the same. The institution is a more human-centered social environment with additional adults or teacher apprentices, in roles like coaches, counselors, and community liaisons. Wrap-around services are the norm, particularly in high need communities.

As taxpayers continue to question the investment in public education, the school building becomes more integrated into the community through new facility designs or the availability of new programs and services. Performing arts theaters that host a variety of community programs or CTE spaces shared with local unions for the latest equipment allow the building to serve multiple purposes and reach constituents who may not have a child in school. The school is utilized year-round and round-the-clock with programs for senior citizens, evening classes for students with other daytime obligations, and routinely includes a childcare facility to support teachers, school staff, and young student parents.

The learning experience will change

Many schools move away from rigid age groups and towards a skills and specialty focus to address the lasting teacher shortage. With fewer individuals pursuing education degrees, technology allows schools to contract with outstanding educators who can deliver critical content virtually, with in-person support provided by a team of talented teacher coaches and apprentices. These “rockstar” teacher lecturers will be supplemented with AR and VR experiences that further explain concepts to engage and inspire students. Because students, and their parents have always lived in a digital world, they do not have an issue with talented remote teachers if there is sufficient in-person support. Likewise, families have new attitudes that balance privacy with the convenience offered by AI tools.

Lessons become increasingly integrated moving away from the siloed courses of 2022 to create more relevance and connectedness for students. The knowledge and experience gained in the interdisciplinary courses is essential to support the future workforce. The notion of transdisciplinary literacy is central to driving innovation; it is not only about what students know, but what they can do with their knowledge.

All students have become more digitally literate in response to generative AI as further digitization of information allows it to become more malleable, combinable, and changeable. In 50 years, the ability to discern fact from fiction becomes the most essential skill.

Concepts like the “genius hour or passion projects” are a routine expectation for students in all grades to encourage deeper learning and personalized pursuit of interests through project-oriented exploration. E-portfolios are the norm and are a critical component of a student’s permanent record in addition to grades that have not disappeared. Public schools offer labs, maker spaces and studios that are difficult to replicate in other settings, which creates a marketing advantage for the institution. More importantly, the investment in these learning hub resources makes school a compelling place for engaged learning and helps address chronic absenteeism since students want to be there.

The school of the future offers families a variety of options from full time, brick-and-mortar instruction to hybrid models of learning that allow parents to select specific courses and activities or enroll for a select number of days each week or design their own yearly school calendar. Emerging AI tools assist administrators to adapt those calendars and daily schedules while teachers easily deliver radically customized education plans. Other areas of school operations, from transportation and food service to personnel and public relations, will become increasingly dependent on AI tools to deliver cost-savings through more efficient and user-friendly processes.

There are still constraints on students’ schedule choices for those who wish to participate in competitive team events like sports, robotics, or music. As more parents question the health and safety related to football, and districts examine the cost of those programs, esports leagues have emerged as the dominant high school sports competition. The arts are again a highly valued part of education at all levels and offer a meaningful connection to school for many students. Generative AI allows for new creative pursuits that are no longer dependent on personal talent.

Students receive guidance that enables them to interact with peers in-person and around the globe to create a unique set of skills that prepare them for the ever-changing world. Most districts finally have a serious focus on global and cultural awareness across grade levels, even though early-adopters had added it to their vision statements when Thomas Friedman’s, The Flat World, was published in 2005. Technology continues to “shrink” the world – and the universe – through enhanced communication as it breaks the bonds of place and time. Graduates are comfortable and prepared to work or study on global teams.

Citizen-ready is a goal for all students which means they understand their role in a democratic society, how to manage their finances and health decisions, and all aspects of behaving in a digital world. All students are equally encouraged to have the foundational skills to explore college or career pathways through internships, certifications, apprenticeships, dual enrollment, or college. With AI’s increasing role in daily tasks, the school experience is designed to prepare all graduates to engage in a well-lived life with more free time for leisure pursuits.

Final thoughts

Although education is primarily a state responsibility which is unlikely to change in the next 50 years, local districts will have increased flexibility to adopt new models. State leadership will need to create new metrics to determine the success of these future public schools as well as evaluate other learning environments where state tax dollars are being used. Assessments aligned with standards will be designed to measure skills and understanding rather than the simple regurgitation of facts. Instead of fearing AI tools will enable cheating, they will be strategically incorporated into certain aspects of assessments.

Academic knowledge will no longer be the most valuable type of knowledge by 2030 according to the responses of 15,000 global education leaders from a 2014 study by the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). Instead, 75 percent of the respondents thought personal skills would be fundamental and 59% believed that know-how or practical skills would be most valuable. The acceleration of generative AI makes these results seem even more likely by 2072.

That survey aligns well with the 21st century skills discussions of the past 25 years. The importance of the “C’s”, like critical thinking, communication, collaboration, curiosity, creativity, and character are the human elements necessary to make sense of the facts quickly delivered on demand.

I learned large scale education innovation is more often an evolution and slow acceptance of ideas rather than a sudden revolution during my career. Education is at the cusp of innovation which can come in many forms – societal, pedagogical, or technological. The current excitement for vastly different models of schooling may diminish over time as employers force parents back to in-office work and families see local public schools reinvent their services.

Past futurists often overestimated short-term consequences and underestimated long-term implications. Sure, there will be more alternatives than in the past 50 years, but the majority of our country’s children will remain in public education systems. Public education must survive for our nation to flourish. I have faith educators and school leaders will develop the capacity for adaptation and evolution with AI, but they cannot do it alone and society cannot thrive without them. After reflecting on the past 50 years, I only regret I won’t be here to watch the next 50.

About the author

Ann Lee Flynn, Ed.D. is the CEO of Flynn Strategies, LLC. She has spent 30 years working at the intersection of policy and practice to support K-12 school and industry leaders. As the National School Boards Association’s Director of Education Innovation, Flynn oversaw membership programs, site visits, events, and established the “20 to Watch” and Technology Innovation Showcase recognition programs for emerging leaders and start-up companies. She focused on innovative approaches for teaching and learning, administrative practices, communications, and digital equity.

Flynn is a past President of the National Coalition for Technology in Education & Training (NCTET) and has been active with the edtech industry DOLS for more than 20 years. In 2014, she was honored as one of the 30 Top Technologists, Transformers and Trailblazers by the Center for Digital Education where she is currently a Senior Fellow.