What IS a Learning Futurist?

One of the things that’s been keeping me busy is my new position as the Learning Futurist for The LIFT Institute at Muskegon Community College.  This is, essentially, an advisory position (read: not full-time), and really, I think I’ve been doing the job for a couple years, but without any kind of official designation.  So I’m thrilled that the college has chosen to acknowledge the role I play at the college by incorporating it into our new faculty center.  (by the way, LIFT = Learning. Innovation. Futuring. Technology)

I got to choose the specific job title for our futurist position at LIFT and I was torn between Education Futurist and Learning Futurist.  Ultimately I chose the second, because I wanted to acknowledge that plenty of learning happens outside of formal education.  I also wanted to make sure that attention is paid to the non-formal learning that the college can foster in our students and in the surrounding community.

So, what is a futurist? First, a futurist does not “predict” the future, they use foresight skills to complement insight and hindsight.  One foresight skill is basic forecasting (trend analysis), but this only works if the field under investigation is relatively stable.  In unstable fields, futurists use scenario planning to project several possible outcomes – by examining the possibilities, an organization can plan for the most common outcomes, or at least think through some of the planning necessary for extreme possibilities (often, several extreme possibilities have some commonalities).  Futurists have to think creatively about the direction and meaning of trends, not just within a field, but in the surrounding fields.  You could say that Futurists have to be excellent systems thinkers.

Who does futuring? Well, technically, if you’ve ever made a budget for the next year, or participated in a strategic planning process, then you do.  In both of these activities, you look at the trends, social, technological, environmental, and political indicators to make your best plan for the future.  Is it a guess? Yes. But it is an informed guess, and we do it to help us to weather change.

So, what is a Learning Futurist, in particular? A learning futurist looks at characteristics of intelligence and brain development. They examine educational research to look for valid learning methods that might develop into technologies and learning strategies in the future.  They help people to recognize the necessity and importance of lifelong learning (with the acceleration of technology, you’re losing ground if your learning is not keeping up).  A learning futurist examines the available and predicted science and technology, social trends, and shifts to the political, economic, and cultural environment to thinks creatively about how learning will be impacted.   Because education, in particular, tends to move slower than business and other industries, it is particularly important to pay attention to the trends and technologies outside of education.  A learning futurist also keeps tabs on the future of careers and watches how “work” is changing.  After all, students eventually become workers, and even workers should still be learning.  To prepare our students (especially in higher education), we must pay attention to trends in the work force.

As far as I know, I am the first person to identify myself as a “Learning Futurist” (but you can find examples of many well-known education futurists).  In particular, I focus on higher education and adult learning in a timespan  5-15 years out.  I read voraciously, everything from academic journals to blog posts.  I rely on my social network (Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and social connections) to keep me informed about new developments in other fields that might be important to learning and education.  I share what I learn and think in open spaces, to encourage conversation and idea development about the future of learning.

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