Dr. Chris Dede, Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education, is focused on developing new types of educational systems to meet the opportunities and challenges of the 21st century.
And as a leader in emerging technologies and policy related to educational transformation and innovation, Dr. Dede is also a central player in the Sixty-Year Curriculum (60YC) initiative, a new way of thinking about higher education that accounts for the roughly six decades that today’s students will be expected to work during their lifetimes.
In this episode of the Leading Learning Podcast, Celisa talks with Chris about the 60-Year Curriculum, why there’s a need for it, and what role learning businesses can play to support it. They also discuss the idea of “unlearning” and its potential impact on lifelong learning, as well the specific types of technologies he thinks will be most important in shaping the future of learning.
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Listen to the Show
Read the Show Notes
[00:18] – A preview of what will be covered in this episode where Celisa interviews Chris Dede, Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
[02:23] – You might consider the reflections questions below on your own after listening to an episode, and/or you might pull the team together, using part or all of the podcast episode for a group discussion.
- What threats does the 60-year curriculum pose to your learning business? (In many ways, the 60-year curriculum is about higher ed trying to remain relevant longer for learners and thereby probably inevitably competing with learning businesses.)
- What opportunities does the 60-year curriculum open up for your learning business?
[03:20] – Introduction to Chris and some additional background about himself and his work.
Chris shares that one of his areas of expertise is scaling up complex innovations, which doesn’t happen very often in education. He also does a lot of thinking about mobile learning. And when you’re talking about lifelong learning, often people have little bits and pieces of time and their mobile device is going to be the vehicle that they use to access that.
The Idea Behind the Sixty-Year Curriculum
[04:57] – It was the Sixty-Year Curriculum (60YC) that first brought your name to my attention, so let’s start there. What is the Sixty-Year Curriculum, and what sparked the initiative?
Chris explains that this is an initiative that comes out of the field of continuing education, but it draws on a long history of people interested in lifelong learning, people thinking about distance education, online learning, etc.
He says Dr. Gary Matkin (dean of the Division of Continuing Education and vice provost of the Division of Career Pathways at the University of California at Irvine), is the one who actually coined the term “the 60-year curriculum”.
The fundamental idea is that the next generation is going to live into their 90s, or beyond. And people start to think about their first job in mid-adolescence, around 15-years-old. So those students will probably have to work to age 75 if they’re going to live that long, which is six decades (and where the 60 years comes from).
Chris talks about how in education, we think about pipelines, so we think about K-12 or higher ed, or maybe even K-20. But this is a little different because it’s really thinking about ages 15-75 as a lifelong learning pipeline in which you’re not doing what we do in education now.
We now spend about 95% of the effort to prepare people for their first job as if it was going to be their only job and only career. Instead, this is focusing on preparing people to have a lifelong series of careers, perhaps 5-7 of them and some of which don’t exist yet.
This is over six decades to think about continuous upskilling and a lot of flexibility in how you think about and define yourself. Perhaps more as having a suite of skills rather than as a narrow kind of job role.
[07:13] – Where do things stand now with the Sixty-Year Curriculum? And what have been the challenges in moving things forward?
Chris shares that one of the things in terms of 60YC is that there’s an amazing amount of interest in it. And he notes that he co-edited a book about it (The 60-year Curriculum: New Models for Lifelong Learning in the Digital Economy is expected to be available later this year).
He discusses how in the course of writing the introductory chapter, he synthesized a whole set of reports that had come out in the last 3-4 years from a wide variety of global organizations. And all of the reports say pretty much the same thing—that we’re coming into a half century in the future in which the past is not a good guide to what’s going to happen.
This is for many reasons including globalization, failure to meet the UN sustainability goals, the advance of artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnology, nanotechnology, and climate change.
Chris points out this is going to be a very challenging time, but also a time of great opportunity. People are saying we’ve got to prepare the next generation of students for this half century of economic turbulence and disruption in which they’re going to be the engine of innovation that brings us through all of these challenges.
And to do that, they’re going to need—not just to be well prepared for their first job—but to have a whole set of dispositions: being open-minded and flexible, being able to listen to other people with understanding and empathy, loving to learn and wanting to continue learning, being very resilient and willing to face uncertainty and challenge.
He notes this actually reminds him of a book by Tom Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution, where looking at trying to prepare a generation or two that can really thrive on the chaos of this unusual half-century. And continuing education is the group he thinks has taken those reports most into account and worked to respond to them.
In the book he recently co-edited (The 60-year Curriculum), Chris says they have case studies of a number of different universities whose continuing education groups are really taking the lead. These include Harvard University, Georgia Tech, Arizona State, Columbia University, and globally, the University of New Castle in Australia).
So there’s a lot of momentum that’s building within continuing education as these different groups are sharing what they’re doing and getting a strong response from students.
Outside of continuing education, where all these groups are recognizing that the most important thing in getting us through the next 50 years is going to be preparing a group of students who are really going to thrive on having 5-7 careers.
Organizations Taking Action to Support Lifelong Learning
[10:57] – You mentioned some of the groups that are actively engaged with the 60YC. Maybe you could share an example or two of what some of those organizations are doing that sort of speaks to the 60YC.
Chris talks about Georgia Tech and how they came out with a [very influential] report about lifetime learning about how they’re going to work with their alumni so that, over the entire course of their lifetimes, would be able to continue learning.
They have also been very innovative in online education and the master’s degree they have in computer science online is far less expensive than the on-campus computer science master’s degree (and also of high quality). It has attracted a large number of graduates and been sort of a proof of concept for the field about what might be possible.
Also, Arizona State University, which Chris says is noted for innovation in higher education in general, has reached out to major employers like Starbucks and created situations in which students (as part of their work life) can earn different kinds of certifications and degrees. And in particular, Arizona State is focusing on students who traditionally have not graduated from higher education. So they’re looking at expanding the talent pool.
We’re going to need every strap of human innovation that we can find in order to face this difficult future that we’re staring down the barrel of.
Chris says these are just a couple of examples, but his book will do case studies showing how each of these places is involved in this initiative.
Role of Learning Businesses in the 60YC
[13:19] – The Sixty-Year Curriculum initiative came out of academia, but I’m wondering about the other entities that serve lifelong learners, like our listeners. What do you see as the role of learning businesses—professional associations, trade associations, training companies that serve individual learners, continuing education divisions, solo edupreneurs—what do you see as their role in the Sixty-Year Curriculum?
Chris believes that the 60YC will succeed or fail based on how well we integrate a whole variety of stakeholders beyond higher education in making this happen. This is because many of the things that are important in achieving the 60YC just aren’t a good fit for how higher education has operated to this point.
For example, higher education is used to large chunks of accomplishments being assessed so that you get a degree or some kind of major certification. But in fact, for lifelong learning, you need things that are much smaller demonstrations of competencies for which you’d get some kind of warrant and transferable so that [these certificates] are widely accepted by different kinds of organizations.
And that’s really happening much more outside of higher education through groups like Credly than it is inside of higher education—See our episode with Jonathan Finkelstein, founder of Credly.
Chris points out another thing higher education hasn’t done well historically is to provide life coaching for students. Not just coaching on the job they want and how to go about getting it, but thinking about that whole 60-year pipeline and helping somebody understand how they might evolve through a series of careers as part of that.
We are also going to be looking at the need for career coaches in a way that doesn’t exist right now. And in a way that’s not likely to come out of university. He also thinks there are dispositions that people are going to need—resilience, tenacity, empathy, and the ability to work well with others—that haven’t necessarily been the focus of courses in higher education and providing learning experiences of those types to complement academic courses. This is another opportunity for other kinds of stakeholders.
Also figuring out how people are going to pay for this, Chris says is an interesting puzzle. We now have unemployment insurance which means that if you lose your job you get some money to try and find another job just like it.
But when we see, for example, a whole group of autoworkers lose their jobs, they’re never going to be autoworkers again, at least not in this country. However, they might be very good vocational high school teachers if they were able to upskill. In fact, some politicians are talking about shifting from unemployment insurance to unemployability insurance, in which you get insurance to help you keep upskilling so that you always have multiple career options available to you.
Other countries use something called “lifelong learning vouchers” where you have a certain amount of money from society as an investment and you can use it across your lifespan to continue upskilling and developing your capacity.
There’s a lot of things that have to happen outside of higher education in a way that can be integrated or partnered with higher education in order for this to succeed. And Chris thinks this opens up a lot of opportunities for individuals, businesses, non-profits, and policy makers to become a part of this initiative.
[18:47] – Let’s shift topics a bit and talk about unlearning, which I’ve seen crop in your writings. First, what do you mean by unlearning, and what do you see as its role in serving lifelong learners?
Chris explains that unlearning is about overcoming the past shaping our future as individuals and as organizations.
Frequently people have a vision of how they might want to change as an individual or an organization, but they just can’t do it. They want to do it, they know what to do, but they’re not able to do it.
He says he sees this all the time—professors who are expert lecturers and who have a professional identity based around that—really struggling to shift to active collaborative learning by students where they shift from being the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”.
Chris also sees big universities that know that the big coming market is lifelong learning and that degrees are not the way we are going to meet that demand. But they really have trouble shifting from degrees that are certified by seat time and standardized tests to some kind of credentials that are certified by proficiency and competency and disconnected from how much time is involved.
Unlearning says that if there’s previous thinking that’s getting in the way of your acting in a new way, and that previous thinking is part of your identity, than you have to unlearn that thinking and that identity before you just transform to some new way of doing or being.
This is because there’s a lot of rational approaches to change in individuals and organizations that just assume it’s just thinking, just processing information. And once you know what you should do, then you just go ahead and do it. But what they’ve found is there are huge emotional barriers and concerns about how others perceive you that stand in the way of that.
With help from the Chan Zuckerburg Initiative, Chris discusses how he co-hosted an invitational workshop on unlearning a couple years ago where they looked at immersion virtual reality/mixed reality as a lever for unlearning. This is because your identity is created through experiences.
So, one way of trying to help you shift your identity is to provide experiences with the new identity. He shares some examples of how this is being used to help others including treating posttraumatic stress disorder and building empathy.
Chris says that unlearning is a big part of the idea of preparing for multiple careers because you can’t just think of yourself as a role, meaning if your job disappears you have to go find that same job. Rather, if you think of yourself as a suite of skills it suggests a much wider range of possible jobs than the narrow role.
Some of the unlearning challenge is helping people to understand how to see themselves in terms of skills and define themselves that way (rather than defining themselves in a particular label of the role).
[24:25] – A further discussion about the idea of trying to help the learner think more broadly, beyond just a job role and the impact this has not only on the learner, but for organizations serving them.
Chris shares how he has advisees/students come to him troubled by choosing between a couple possible career paths. He tells them they will do both – and a few other things they haven’t thought of – so what they need to ask is which they’re going to do first as a foundation for the next thing. And employers need to think the same way, also finding value in people who want to change and grow.
Learning Technologies – Benefits and Challenges
[26:14] – I know you work in and study many different aspects and types of learning technologies—immersion and VR/AR/MR, motivation, learning engineering, gamification, and more. What do you see as some of the primary affordances of digital learning, and what do see as the main challenges in using technology for learning?
Chris talks about how a few years ago, he was asked to write a handbook chapter for the Handbook of Research on Teaching about technology and teaching (which he wrote with colleague, Barry Fishman). One of the things they highlighted is:
You can use technology to do things better or you can use technology to do better things.
Chris thinks we’re moving into a time where, the right investments with technology and the right ways to make money off of technology, involve doing better things rather than doing things better. Because automating what we have is solving the wrong problem.
He notes we see this a lot with AI—one of the big themes is that it’s going to take over parts of jobs (there are relatively few jobs that will be completely done by AI). Therefore, fewer people will be required to do the same amount of work so there will be a shift in the division of labor.
But you can also look at AI as a means of doing what’s called “intelligence augmentation”. This is where the person and the machine work together and the tool does the simpler job. And the person—if they’re creative, have initiative, flexible in their thinking, etc.—can do whole new things that have never been part of that job before because they have the AI as a partner.
This is where the opportunity comes from in the future and the upside of the 60YC—using AI, not to replace human thinking but to complement human thinking.
In the chapter, Chris says they talk about different technologies they think are going to be particularly important in the future. These include:
- Collaboration tools because solving these huge challenges in the future is going to involve teams of people with different backgrounds and skills.
- Online and blended educational environments because reaching across distance and time is very important in terms of lifelong learning.
- Tools that support learners as makers and creators.
- Tools that build design skills of different kinds.
- Immersive interfaces (as already mentioned before) using VR as a way to help people develop empathy or to unlearn different types of things.
- Personalization through technology is a really important theme. Too much of education is one-size-fits-all. Chris notes recently coedited a book about learning engineering (Learning Engineering for Online Education), but he says it’s really engineering learning. Using the streams of data that come out of our online learning environments to personalize and understand the unique things about each learner and then craft their learning environment accordingly.
On the Horizon for Learning
[32:17] – When you think big picture about what’s on the horizon for learning and learning technologies in the near future, the next five years or so, what most excites you?
It’s the personalization through learning engineering that Chris says really excites him. He talks about how he and his colleagues have developed a series of pre-college curricula that use immersive interfaces. And one of his doctoral students is now using the data to find ways to diagnostically track where each student is as they interact with the world and what kind of supports they need to help them get to the next point.
Having this capability through a combination of rich media that evoke a lot of complex performances and learning analytics that help us to understand how to engineer good ways to tailor education to individuals is a tremendous opportunity that’s coming.
He’s also very excited about virtual and mixed realities and immersive learning. Chris admits he’s an advisor to a company called Mursion, which he describes as the Wizard of Oz—you’re interacting with digital people but they are played by a puppeteer behind the scenes. And he points out there are an enormous number of very interesting things that can happen when you have a skilled human being creating an experience where someone is interacting with students, employees, customers, etc. in terms of crafting their learning.
[35:13] – What is one of the most powerful learning experiences you’ve been involved in, as an adult, since finishing your formal education?
Chris reveals that teaching has been one of his most powerful methods of learning, which he has now been doing for more than four decades. He recognizes that he’s still learning how to teach because the content, the students, the desired outcomes, and the technologies he can use keep changing. He also talks about how the students give him a lot of hope for the future.
[37:34] – How to connect with Chris and/or learn more:
Chris recommends searching his name to see various talks he’s done, view reports, research articles, etc.
[39:00] – Wrap-Up
- What threats does the 60-year curriculum pose to your learning business?
- What opportunities does the 60-year curriculum open up for your learning business?
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[40:46] – Sign off