Bryan Alexander has asked if I have any thoughts about his new project-in-the-making, FOECast, which is meant to serve as an exploration of the “future of education.” The project will serve, to a certain extent, as a replacement for the Horizon Report, whose own future is rather uncertain, intertwined as it was with the now defunct New Media Consortium. As I’ve been a long-time critic of the Horizon Report, I appreciate that Bryan asked for what’s going on in my head when I hear of this new endeavor; I know that others in the ed-tech community have wanted my head on a platter instead.

I’ll cite Alan Kay here (as I like to do) in order to question the unstated assumptions implicit in certain futurisms: “the best way to predict the future is to build it.” The best way to predict the future, in this aphorism, is to be part of the powerful industry that gets to build narratives (not just products) and gets to shape and constrain our imagination of the future, let alone our choices as we move towards it. If we’re not part of that industry then we have no agency in this framework except as consumers. The tech industry does not see educational institutions or its members (students and staff alike) as builders but as buyers.

Is this new forecasting effort for buyers? That certainly felt to me like what the Horizon Report was for: here are the things your school needs to buy in order to stay up-to-date, to be “future-ready.” How will a new effort, one that draws largely on the same community for input, be different? (Can it be different?)

I’ve gone through the Google Doc that Bryan has created as part of the “ideation week” that he’s facilitated for the project. And as I’ve read through the comments, I admit I find it hard to know how or where to weigh in “helpfully.” (The future of this project is already foreclosed in certain ways, I’d wager.) But there are a lot of assumptions that I’d like to point out (not because they’re flawed as much as they’re rather unexamined):

  • that the future is forecastable
  • that forecasts are utilitarian – that they are practical and not political
  • that the future is technological, that trends that are worth watching are technological, that a technological future indicates progress, that new technologies are something schools should adopt
  • that there is a future of education, rather than a variety of futures (depending on race and place and status, for example)
  • that those forecasting the future are objective or neutral, that forecasting is a science, that there are models and methods
  • that those forecasting the future can be trusted, should be trusted
  • that those forecasting the future are in a position to tell others how to respond, how to prepare and that the weight of that responsibility is recognized
  • that those forecasting the future are apolitical – or at least, that the choices the forecasting encourages are good and right (and never self-serving)
  • that the values and visions of those participating in the forecasting project are shared (by those in the project, by those in education broadly)

This sort of project is always shot through with questions of power and authority. There isn’t really any escaping that, I suppose. But there can be a better recognition of what that means and how it shapes the process and the outcomes – the decisions that are made based upon it. These questions of power seems particularly important when courting a technological future, one backed by a powerful industry with deep pockets willing to use lobbying and philanthropy, markets and politics, to shape the future to its own ends.

Can the end of the Horizon Report become an opportunity for a more profound break from the history of education technology futurism? Can there be a completely different sort of storytelling in its place? One that isn't a report? One that's about sharing nascent counter-narratives and semi- speculative fictions, perhaps, rather than the shopping list-like surety of an industry-oriented forecasting document? That's not helpful advice, of course. But maybe being helpful and useful without really examining how those are already deeply political value judgments has been part of the problem....

Image credits: The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio

Audrey Watters


A Horizon Report History

A Hack Education Project

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