We live and learn in a world where technology and digital advancements have dramatically impacted nearly every aspect of our lives.
We exist (currently in isolation) amid an ever-evolving and endlessly dynamic state of techno-mediation; often by choice, but more often by social necessity. And if we examine the domain of international education, these exponential advancements have made their mark on nearly every system and student. At our collective fingertips, we now hold the power to access any and all information, gain limitless knowledge, and learn and acquire informal and formal credentials with unprecedented ease.
We’ve entered uncharted territory as the phenomenon of digitalisation quietly collides with international systems of education, sweeping swiftly across the global landscape. Distant curiosities about whether personal smart devices would have an impact globally have been laid to rest, never to be reawoken. The collective hunger for data synchronisation and our insatiable appetite for virtual connectedness hasn’t just redefined education, it has restructured humanity itself.
Learning never looked so good, right?
With disruptive technological waves washing over us with disorienting frequency, it’s worth asking whether learners will find their way to the center of this exponential story or continue to be pushed to the edges by petabytes and profits. Will we aim to build systems that respond to, and integrate with, learner’s unique needs or will we allow a bifurcation to forever divide man from machine? Will we demand systems that favor agency and access or are we content to hand over the keys to our biological castle? Is it too late to start designing a post-pandemic world in which digital technology not only supports, but amplifies, that which makes us most human?
The flexibility, granularity, and frequency of educational credentialing has also been forever disrupted amid this new international, data-driven learning economy. Distributed ledgers (blockchain), Self-Sovereign Identity (SSI), Verifiable Credentials (VCs), Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs), and a host of new privacy-preserving standards and frameworks have increasingly entered the conversation. Micro-credentials, skill-stacks, open-badges, and student-owned digital wallets are all becoming legitimized as we push forward into the unexplored, and often uncomfortable, counter-realities of tomorrow..
It’s unquestionable, international education and the many parameters that increasingly define it have been forever changed.
In a matter of months, education and learning has quickly splintered from traditional forms of training in classrooms to a distributed paradigm where virtual learning and digital mobility is the expected rule rather than the exception. Will this shattering of boundaries become a realized benefit as traditional learning limitations grow increasingly unconstrained or will we find ourselves yearning for the days defined by bricks and mortar? As the world takes a deep collective breath, there are still many questions yet to be answered.
The current convergence of systemic and political uncertainty and technological maturity marks an ideal inflection point. In Europe, the UNESCO Global Recognition Convention is supporting the digital transformation of international education by providing unprecedented political scaffolding to make global and interoperable “portability of recognition” an emerging reality rather than a future utopia. In the U.S., the Chamber of Commerce Foundation T3 Innovation Network is wrapping up an extended phase of research and is now directing focus on the harmonization and mobilization of Interoperable Learning Record (ILR) pilots across the country. Still further, there are associations and organizations like the Groningen Declaration Network (GDN) and the European Association for International Education (EAIE), who are increasingly addressing digital, interoperable, global portability of recognition.
These and many other emerging efforts are challenging traditional conventions and providing the infrastructure needed to explore how we might collide technology and policy to forge creative new pathways towards a truly inter-national system of education. So what force is working to catalyze this range of internationally aligned momentum? The suite of recognition technologies, digital credentials in particular, thrive on one core underlying value, that of shared trust. Nearly all of the emergent trends we see today aim to define communication architectures that support the secure verification and exchange of information in an increasingly “trust-less” world; one which often seems to have lost track of the importance of integrity, security, privacy, and truth.
The Neuro-chemistry of Trust
It’s often much easier to appreciate a concept via the experience of its privation. In other words, we only come to truly appreciate what we have (e.g. country, food, family) when it’s ripped from our grasps. The realization of this truth has never been more apparent than it is today amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of us who have been separated (in the worst case permanently) from the things we have come to know and love are struggling to cope with a new and much less familiar normal.
Similarly, across the globe, human beings have come to (re)discover a new appreciation for trust as we continue to find ourselves immersed in systems which fail to uphold and maintain its value. In education, trust (or a lack thereof) is often indirectly surfaced by speaking of academic fraud, diploma mills, and fake degrees. As emotional animals, we often find ourselves hopelessly pulled towards the negative and sensationalised; so much so that we often convince ourselves that its pull is just our inescapable human nature, when in fact, our deepest nature (i.e. our biochemistry) is wired for equilibrium and trust. A shared and agreed upon truth isn’t something we should have to laboriously search for. Trust is already within each of us; a remarkable, genetically encoded positive feedback loop produced and regulated by four key chemicals: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin and Oxytocin. Collectively, you might view this quartet of chemicals as the biological blueprint for trust.
Mapping Trust onto Education
- Endorphins: the chemical released when we exercise that helps us power through our studies. Endorphins = Learning
- Dopamine: the chemical responsible for our feeling of achievement that helps us stay focused on our goals. Dopamine = Achievement
- Serotonin: the chemical that strengthens human connection, helping us combat loneliness and reinforce the teacher student bond. Serotonin = Verification
- Oxytocin: the love chemical that creates a sense of belonging and helps to keep us together as a community. Oxytocin = Recognition
If we accept this rough mapping, then how might we leverage our own biology to reframe narratives and build pandemic-proof systems that generate positive links between ourselves and our technology? EAIE is just one example of how we might start to neuro-hack international education. With a focus on “intimacy by design” (Serge Ravet, Open Recognition Alliance) and through the creation of “circles of safety” (Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last), GDN and EAIE have created a global network for natural hormones to thrive, forever augmenting the education process—learning from endorphins, accomplishment from dopamine, growth from serotonin, and affirmation from oxytocin. In concert with learner-centered technology, this biohacked blueprint might allow us to build new systems of trust at the scale of the internet.
A Post-pandemic Limbic System
International education, unlike other systems, needs to be diverse and decentralized if it’s to serve an equally diverse population of teachers, learners and employers. There is no one-size-fits-all model. Fortunately, with new distributed technologies, biological blueprints, and reimagined networks of trust, we can build new protocols and systems that allow for harmonization and diversity. The models being pioneered to comprise our next-generation societal “limbic systems” are dynamic, non-linear, and mapped to the full range of potential human experience: learning happens in games, on the subway, in virtual classrooms, outside, on the job, and just about anywhere else humans interact with each other and their environment.
Much like our own limbic system, which is a network of brain regions known for regulating emotions, we envision an upgraded education system after the pandemic that serves a similar purpose for our shared cities and societies around the world. Whether it be managing our collective memory, laughter, joy, or even sorrow, this new limbic (i.e. education) system will serve a central role in shaping the collective emotional state of the world. With intrinsic value tied directly to skills and learning, the post-pandemic learning economy, fluidly regulated by an upgraded system of trust, becomes the engine of human potential. The industrial model of education and work no longer maps to the reality of most, if not all, humans on earth. Perhaps we need to look inward at our own biology as we aim to shape the pandemic-proof future we all imagine to be possible.
This article was first published in the 2020 Group of Nations Global Briefing Report.