(This short essay is based on a talk I gave recently at MIT’s Future of People Conference)

Earlier this year Uber made the first-ever autonomous delivery truck shipment in the United State. It shipped 50,000 cases of beer.

This scares the shit out of me.

Not because I’m concerned about the danger of the self-driving trucks. (I think those are probably safer than humans.)

But because this is the current most common job in every state in the US:

The #1 most common job in almost every state of the United States is Truck Driver.

And even though it’s clearly a social problem and a cultural problem, I think of it primarily as an education problem, which is: How do we reeducate and upskill a large percentage of the US population very quickly?

Our education system is not prepared to deal with this problem.

What sucks about our current education system?

This should be fairly obvious:

  1. High Cost — 68% of college graduates take on an average of $30k in debt
  2. Low Completion Rates — the average 6 year college graduation rate is around 60%
  3. Lack of preparation for employment / job skills —
    Only 27 percent of college grads have a job related to their major

So what does the school of 2050 look like?

Allow me to get science fiction-y for a second.

In 2050, I don’t think people will “go to school” in the traditional sense.

Instead, society will adopt an idea known as lifelong learning.

Right now, a person is educated for roughly the first 21 years of their life and then that’s it. It’s time boxed.

Unless you go back to get a graduate degree, it’s assumed that you have all the education you’re ever going to need for the rest of your life.

But that’s crazy right? Because we know that only 27% of college grads reportedly have a job related to their major. And the most recent stats show that the average millennial will have four job changes before the age of 32.

In 2050, learning will look more like continuous skill acquisition.

Did you ever play one of those video games growing up where you had a skill tree that you leveled up?

I loved the game Civilization as a kid

That’s what real life is going to look like, both in terms of learning and assessment. In fact, already education tools like Duolingo look like this:

And Khan Academy has their knowledge map, which maps out the learning of mathematics from the very basics of counting numbers:

To Reimann sums (who here knows what Reimann sums are?) … to Taylor & Maclauren Polynomials.

This is presumably where math ends

In 2050, we will see the rise of the million dollar teacher.

There’s already a teacher in South Korea that makes $4 million per year.

He teaches English online to 140,000 students.

He spends a few hours a week making online lessons and videos, and the rest of his time answering student questions.

I have a friend who likes to say, “There should be only three calculus teachers in the entire world.”

He figures there are only so many unique and interesting ways to learn Calculus. Why not learn it from those amazing instructors online like TED talk?

Yes, I can already hear the skeptics saying stuff like, “But online education will never replace in-person education.”

And I agree.

There’s nothing better than having a great teacher in-person.

But most teachers are not great.

And most people across the world do not have access to great teachers — they can’t afford it or they’re not physically near a school.

As a result, in 2050 almost all learning will take place online.

Think about this:

  • 7% of the world’s population has a college degree.
  • Meanwhile 40% of the world’s population has an internet connection.

Most of the world’s population is not located near a school, or they can’t afford it. So it makes sense that the internet should be the primary method of distribution of information and knowledge.

But even for students at MIT, 70% have reported that they prefer some online components to their courses.

Every class will be custom designed for the level of understanding and pace of each student

So there will be no more “let’s move on because we don’t have time.”

I think this is a key point that can’t be stated enough, and it’s one of the biggest reasons online education could become more powerful than offline education.

When you’re teaching in person, it doesn’t matter if 10% of your students already get it and 10% of your students are too confused to move on — you have to move everyone along at the same pace.

That’s not a problem in online education.

What steps need to happen before we can get there?

Schools have to die.

Most colleges are going to go out of business.

Not the top 200 that you and I are familiar with — they’ll probably be fine. But the other 3600 in the United States that have taken on debt to build new facilities and campuses to attract students that haven’t come.

Inside Higher Ed expects college closures to triple in the coming years.

New schools have to be born.

These schools will be online only and 100x the scale of today’s biggest universities (because they can be).

Content needs to become smaller.

A study by EdX found that the ideal video length for an online lesson is 6–9 minutes (compare that to the average college lecture, which is 90 minutes).

In the Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of MIT Education, MIT said that:

“The way in which students are accessing material points to the need for the modularization of online classes whenever possible. The very notion of ‘class’ may be outdated.”

They go on to say:

“The unbundling of classes also reflects a larger trend in society — a number of other media offerings have become available in modules, whether it is a song from an album, an article in a newspaper, or a chapter from a textbook.”

We have to use technology to improve and update education faster.

That means making use of technologies currently used by most startups and tech companies, such as A/B testing, personalization, and real-time analytics & feedback.

Cultural norms need to shift to make it acceptable not to get a degree.

It started years ago with the idea that a Harvard dropout could go on to start Microsoft or Facebook. But parents need to become okay with it.

We need people to develop growth rather than fixed mindsets.

To accept that learning is something that needs to happen throughout your entire life, and that there’s always an opportunity for improvement of one’s circumstances.

So what can I do?

Every blog post is supposed to end with a call to action. The question is, what can you do in this case to make this world come true faster?

Commit to learning something new.

Become a part of the new learning paradigm. Get familiar with the newest tools and methodologies available in education. Learn something new in the next 30 days.

Anyway, you don’t really have a choice. Especially if you’re a truck driver.

Award-Winning Faculty at Columbia Business School. I write about startups, technology, and philosophy.

Award-Winning Faculty at Columbia Business School. I write about startups, technology, and philosophy.