What Would Gene Roddenberry Do: A 20/20 Vision of Knowledge Acquisition

Start Trek creator and futurist Gene Roddenberry

Start Trek creator and futurist Gene Roddenberry

Eugene Wesley Roddenberry, (1921-1991) was an American television screenwriter and producer perhaps best known as the creator of the original Star Trek TV series and the enduring, global cultural phenomenon the show spawned.  But Roddenberry was also a visionary and futurist of significant scale.  For the sake of discussion, and because no narrative on any futuristic topic would be truly complete without exploring the Star Trekian perspective, it would seem interesting and worthwhile — if not at least entertaining — to channel Roddenberry in an attempt to boldly go where no one has gone before.

Imagine we are living in the year 2020 — just 8 short years from the present.  The human race is officially inter-connected via ubiquitous Web 5.0 technologies on a global basis with no above ground dead spots.  These technologies exist as virtual extensions of our minds and bodies in the form of miniaturized, handheld and wrist-mounted devices (remember the old wristwatches?) that are always on and fully functional at a 99 percent reliability rate.  Optionally, they may be physically connected to us in the form of head-mounted visors and Ultra HD retina implants with 100 percent hands-free, voice-command user interfaces.

Innovations in computing have spawned unprecedented advances in artificial intelligence, speed and bandwidth to essentially eliminate all previous obstacles to online access.  Ethernet and other hard-wired technologies are effectively obsolete, having been replaced by fourth generation fiber optics and wireless satellite technologies with super-intelligent filtering algorithms that eliminate atmospheric interference and network downtime.  Many repeat consumable goods such as packaged foods and beverages are available in public spaces, dispensed via the latest in CloneDrone technology and accessed via any of the fore-mentioned devices.  For example, on the iVisor 13, one need only give a simple voice request to Siri for a medium iced latte, no whipped cream (the CloneDrone is still perfecting that one) and — voilá, the CloneDrone has the order up faster than one can say beam me up Scottie.

As a result of these technological developments, coffee shops such as Caribou and Starbucks have succeeded in shifting their business models from making lattes to becoming mobile classrooms and digital media libraries catering to the Semantic Generation (SemGen) of college students.  Caribou and Starbucks continue to derive significant revenue from licensing CloneDrone technology which they astutely co-funded beginning in 2015 with major fast food chains and beverage companies.

Impact on Adult Knowledge Acquisition, Sharing and Retention

So what might this not-too-distant future Star Trekian view of the connected human race look like in regard to adult learning?  Without a doubt, a paradigm shift of epic proportions is already percolating with regard to how knowledge and information is acquired, shared and retained.  By the time 2020 rolls around, colleges and universities will have re-emerged, like a Phoenix, from the ashes of the old tuition-based business model.

Imagine again, it is now 2020; most of the ivory towers have crumbled to the ground — casualties of the global learning revolution.  Those that remain in the traditional sense are accessible to only the uber wealthy — the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of old money born with silver spoons — who, therefore, do not have to earn a living after college.  Others institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Princeton and Michigan have adopted new, innovative models and continue to be pioneers in advancing higher education.

These innovative business models all share the following characteristics:

  • Physical boundaries have been eliminated via full implementation of Web 5.0 technologies into all curriculum
  • The cost of developing and delivering content has been reduced by an average of 1000 percent compared to traditional business models
  • Revenue is derived from strategic alliances and partnerships with industry, ad-supported Web portals, referral fees (when students are hired by companies), and fees for providing students with official certificates of course completions
  • Access to course content is open and primarily free according to the Creative Commons Licensing for Education guidelines; one-to-one mentoring sessions involving faculty are fee-based, but students defer the fees on a case-by-case basis via various options including: future donations to the institution once the student has gained employment and is earning money, sharing royalties from any publishing income, trading time as peer mentors for faculty mentoring, etc.
  • Course offerings are personalized to the specific needs of each student with customization easily facilitated by Web 5.0 technologies.

In 2020, the prototypical institution is not only connected, agile and lean, it is also open to anyone, anytime and accessible from anywhere in the world.  The classroom may still exist, but not in the traditional sense.  Today the classroom extends far beyond any physical boundaries; indeed, campuses have moved well beyond the concept of a central building or series of buildings within a close geographical proximity.  The campus is now anywhere the student and teacher need to be at a given moment in time.  Mobile technologies and m-learning have reinvented the concept of multi-tasking, elevating it to a level where there is no distinction between work, school and leisure time endeavors.

On any given day, a student enrolled in a course or training module can elect to apply theories learned in the curriculum to specific job-related tasks or projects.  They can get synchronous feedback from an instructor, classmate or readily available digital asset banks from any of the myriad connected devices and technologies available to them and then make real-time adjustments within the task or project at hand while on the job.  They can accomplish this while taking advantage of the hands-free, voice command technology that is built into every device.  In certain cases they may also be able to use thought command interfaces built into the most advanced of these devices.  Sometimes it’s as simple as needing an answer to a specific question.  In that case, all that is necessary is to ask the question of the semantic host built into one’s Instant Gratification Device (IGD).  The answer is immediately displayed on the device’s HD retina display or if so equipped, on one’s Physically Connected Device (PCD) such as a head visor, ULTRA HD retina implant or wrist-mounted unit.

In 2020, adult learning is completely integrated into the fabric of industry.  As previously described, the SemGeners or SemGens are even more innately connected to digital media and communication technology than are the NetGens who preceded them.  Together, these two generations comprise the largest segment of the global population by a very large margin.  That fact, combined with their integrated work-learn-life-learn philosophy has created a culture that can support and sustain the formation of strategic partnerships between higher learning and industry whereby businesses contract with the lifelong learning community (formerly known as colleges and universities) on a long-term basis to provide all employee training.

The lifelong learning institutions while generalists in one regard, also develop reputations as specialists in specific content areas related to the knowledge base of specific faculty as well as  the diversity of culture and life experiences specific to their part of the world.  History continues to play a major role in curriculum as it is history, foremost, that can help predict future trends.  In 2020, predicting trends with reasonable accuracy remains a significant differentiator and competitive advantage for businesses.

In the Final Analysis

Does all of this sound too science fiction and not nearly enough science fact?  Perhaps 8 years is an unrealistic window of time for any of this to become reality.  Or maybe this is an actual foretelling of the future based on past and current trends in technology and the emergence of phenomena like the Social Web, virtual communities and collaborative consumption.  One thing is certain though.  Higher education and adult learning is at a critical crossroads. Traditional business models are crumbling before our eyes; old-school pedagogy cannot keep pace with the changing needs of today’s students and industry; and the cost of both giving and getting a degree are not sustainable.

Clearly, it is time to stop lecturing at students.  Educators must begin the process of closely studying the learning behaviors and preferences of students by listening to them and then collaborating with them to develop content delivery methodologies that meet their need for personalization of the content.  Understanding how young adult generations best acquire, share and retain knowledge is mission critical.  If their contribution to the process is not clear and up front, there is little buy-in to the objectives, regardless of potential consequences.  One size definitely does not fit all in the digital age.