By Jonathan Ward
For many cosmopolitan observers, this year of successive shocks and sustained stresses to systems and institutions has engendered a new urgency behind global collaborations that address planetary problems. The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, known as the SDGs or the Goals, are one such collective aspiration. Opinions on the Goals vary widely, but recent events make it hard to ignore the underlying ills their designers hope to cure. Goal 4 calls on societies worldwide to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” by 2030.
As a first-generation college graduate employed in the higher education sector, I consider SDG4 a moral imperative and a guiding principle. Public education helped me rise from the poverty of government housing projects and food stamps to become a productive taxpayer, but I don’t assume the wisdom of investing in educated citizens to be self-evident. From my perspective as a public university staff member and as a parent of two children engaged in the great remote learning experiment of 2020, it is clear that my community, along with the rest of humanity, is not on pace to meet SDG4, but failure should not be seen as inevitable, just as our children’s birthplace should not predetermine their educational prospects.
New solutions and growing problems
The transition to online learning forced by the pandemic has many lessons, one of which is the inadequacy of current systems to provide basic access to education during a 21st-century crisis. The tragedy of COVID-19 is a test run for the coming mega-disruptions of climate change and technological displacement, and the higher education sector is currently failing the accessibility test. As schools and families at every level do their best to adapt, this turbulent year is teaching us all how we can constructively face our shortcomings. As a species, we have no excuse for failing to prepare for future disruptions. The tools needed to realize SDG4 are in their incipient forms today as a new era of rapid technological advancement dawns. Unfortunately, the disparate repercussions of climate change are also intensifying and growing while economic inequality is rising, and tomorrow’s transformative learning tools are products of wealthy countries that could tilt the playing field further.
The higher education sectors of rich nations can contribute immensely to SDG4 by using the next generation of educational technology to democratize access to advanced learning on a global scale. Time is running out and humanity won’t get a second chance to prepare for the upheavals of a hotter, more crowded, highly automated, and less egalitarian future.
A new torch that can light up the planet
I believe access to knowledge is a fundamental human right. Education at all levels should be open to anyone who wants to learn. This idea is at the foundation of SDG4 and at the heart of the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gifted it to mortals. In that ancient science fiction tale, fire, as a symbol of advanced knowledge, empowered humans with mastery over their environment. This defiant act of knowledge distribution brought an eternity of torture to poor Prometheus for his insolence, as the archetype goes. I’m sure the generations of storytellers who passed down tales of that heroic Lightbringer across millennia would agree with the French scientist, Louis Pasteur, whose biological research continues saving millions of lives, that “knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.”
The beacon-hand of higher education and the transformative expertise that comes with it should be extended in “worldwide welcome” to everyone who commits to the work of learning. Progressing toward this ideal of accessibility and inclusion requires affordable and available higher education everywhere students are, so there is much work to be done. It’s worth doing. The value of higher education for civilization increases exponentially with broad access, but policymakers and voters are moral beings, so they don’t need evidence or material incentives to justify bold action to achieve SDG4. It’s the right thing to do for those who can.
As a planetary endeavor, SDG4 is primarily concerned with addressing the lack of access to primary education in developing countries. For the higher education industries of wealthy societies to advance Goal 4 rather than being another chasm for those in poverty to cross, the sector as a whole must bridge advanced learning gaps, innovating for the greater good as well as for viability and profit. New waves of breakthroughs can empower educators to improve access, if societies choose inclusion over exclusion. It’s a decision individuals and organizations cannot avoid, because a tsunami of change is coming to 21st-century higher education.
The dawn of the Age of 4IR Ed-Tech
A Fourth Industrial Revolution is here and it’s global, bringing with it a new generation of highly advanced “4IR tech,” in development today. New 4IR spheres of knowledge such as AI and biotech are on a trajectory to become so powerful, they will surely transform every sector eventually.
Accelerated by the pandemic, evolving educational technology, or Ed-Tech, is starting to reshape the landscape by enhancing and expanding traditional campus and online models with truly immersive, interactive experiences. Leaps in virtual and augmented reality (known as mixed reality or MR), quantum computing, and robotics are poised to coalesce, fuse, and morph, spawning new learning and teaching modalities, new telepresence modes of instruction, new tools for building dynamic learning environments, transcending limitations for reimagining them.
Rectangular computer and phone screens are morphing into digital environments, moving beyond screens, bit by bit intertwining with our physical, lived realities, our eye and wrist pieces, clothes, homes, cars, and eventually wherever we want them. Most sensory perception will soon be a potential computing interface with a dizzying range of ways to interact. For many, this means a photo-realistic cinematic online experience in which their entire field of vision can be populated with digital objects and digital people.
Although direct human cognition linkages are a legitimate research field, you may not be able to download martial arts into your brain anytime soon like Neo in The Matrix back in 1999. However, we won’t have to wait as long for mixed reality to provide immersive classroom experiences, and students will soon have an AI tutor for every class, a highly advanced interactive assistant professor that can answer most questions, leaving the most nuanced pedagogy and mentorship for human professors. These robot tutors and teachers’ assistants will be on students’ mobile devices, capable of quizzing them at midnight for an upcoming exam, even if they’re on a ferry crossing Puget Sound or studying in a remote part of the Namibian desert using solar energy. Barriers such as geography and even affordability can be surmounted with the advent of 4IR Ed-Tech, which has the potential to be a game-changer in two primary ways:
- It can empower us to immersively replicate and project face-to-face classroom settings, making intimate, relational learning deliverable to more students in more places than ever before.
- And it can enhance traditional learning systems with new digital tools such as AI tutors and ubiquitous content delivery platforms.
These groundbreaking abilities will enable 4IR Ed-Tech to significantly narrow or widen gaps in access to knowledge-expanding experiences for learners of all ages. As with all technology, the outcomes depend on how citizens and societies choose to use the new tools.
4 ways to use 4IR for SDG4
4IR Ed-Tech ultimately has a small role to play in the big picture of what it will take to achieve SDG4, but it can be impactful. Decision-makers in government, business, and civil society can turn things around by taking, or supporting these four big steps:
First, prioritize robust funding for public education at all levels, from pre-K through post-doctoral research and scholarship. Societies must fuel the engine of knowledge creation and knowledge transfer. Academic institutions should be empowered to make taxpayer-funded 4IR learning available to all. Second, make access to broadband internet universal and invest in computers for underfunded schools and libraries. Third, design 4IR learning tools from inception to improve learning outcomes for all people throughout their lives. Tomorrow’s Ed-Tech must feature engineered inclusivity, which means it must be built to ensure affordability, accessibility, and availability for life-long learning. 4IR Ed-Tech must include content tailored for women, girls, and marginalized people in vulnerable settings, including non-traditional learners looking for reskilling. And Fourth, a global project is necessary to train and pay new generations of tech-savvy teachers, instructors, and professors, the ones who will make the knowledge that lights the world available to anyone willing to work for it, regardless of where on the planet they are born. Very few educators are equipped to keep pace with the rapid technological changes the 4IR is already manifesting, especially in poor communities. Bold collaborative action to teach the teachers how to leverage technology is critical to SDG4.
If societies choose to continue treating knowledge as a commodity to be hoarded, the forces unleashed by the resulting escalation and intensification of economic inequality could have disastrous consequences as 4IR advancements in fields like biotech and AI transform the global economy. It’s time to start treating education as civilization’s most valuable capability and begin tapping into human potential as never before. We can start by shaping Fourth Industrial Revolution educational technology into a force that can help achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4.
Jonathan Ward is Media Relations Manager at ASU’s Thunderbird School of Global Management and a resident of Mesa, Arizona.