Blog · Ed-Tech · Policy

Education 4.0, Optimal Learning Experiences and Disruptive Technologies

In this blog, I want to examine the impact on education of what the World Economic Forum (WEF) describes as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR).

Purpose of education

An important consideration is the highly contested purpose of education. Policymakers pursuing Human Capital Theory (HCT) have traditionally considered education as an investment, which produces higher-earning and more productive individuals 1. Policymakers also see education as a  way to resolve economic problems. An example is the well-publicised productivity gap in the UK. It does sound like the educational equivalent of a widget factory; more importantly, does it deliver?

Another view suggests education enculturates young people into a canon “the best that has been thought and said” 2. The unresolved question is who decides the canon and to what end?

A third view sees education as a social discriminator 3. Institutions award qualifications to those considered worthy; however, they often benefit from socio-economic advantages as much as intrinsic ability.

If education is a social discriminator then technology will play a lesser role; however, if policymakers are seeking to leverage human capital then you would expect technology to be a significant factor.

Education 4.0

Adding further complexity is the view that 4IR will fundamentally alter the way we live and work:

We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society

(Schwab, 2016).

Education 4.0 has a part to play but will also change due to disruptive technologies.

Disruptive technologies

If the purpose of education is to create the knowledge and skills that fuel economies and communities then it has traditionally done so in benign waters. Christensen and Eyring (2011) argue educational institutions have had little competition other than from institutions operating similar models. Things are changing, Ed-tech companies, universities and commercial organisations now offer online courses and blended learning opportunities 4. Disruptive technologies are at work.

Jisc, historically the Joint Information Systems Committee, is the UK’s post-compulsory not-for-profit organisation for digital services and solutions. It considers institutions like universities could become “learning hotels” and “concierges”, helping their students get the best learning from across the world. Individual students accumulating credits within a different funding framework than today. Jisc cited the example of the self-driving car engineering “nanodegree” launched by Stanford spin-off Udacity in autumn 2016, attracting over 30,000 students.

You can see the appeal for policymakers looking to reduce the complexity of educational provision and reduce costs. Education 4.0 is here, whether wanted or not, but will it generate higher-earning and more productive individuals?

One dystopic vision entraps students into:

(…) an ‘ever-intensifying network of visibility, surveillance and normalization’, where the ‘embodied expert judgement’ of their teachers is displaced by disembodied algorithmic and adaptive decision-making technology 5.

An alternative view sees teachers using:

(…) technology to work out which students need more attention and support, when the time they would have spent deriving this insight is no longer a cost to them, they can spend more of their time doing what technology cannot do – inspiring young people and changing lives. In short, good edtech has the power to make teaching a happier profession.

A middle ground should be wary of disembodied algorithms but also of misplaced technological distrust.

Optimal Learning Experiences

According to Massy, educational institutions like colleges and universities should pursue a value-driven proposition. He argues, education delivered using technology is not as effective as the traditional humanistic university experience.

Massey identifies 4 key attributes that need preserving (1) on-campus learning (2) the professoriate (i.e. pool of expertise), (3) research and scholarship and (4) non-profit status. Massey refers to the business of academic institutions as “teaching and learning-outputs” that have been implicit and unexamined. Universities have not traditionally sought to improve or measure learning 6.

An optimal approach would see technology used in blended models to support and enhance Massey’s four attributes.


If policymakers want to pursue HCT and economic models as a purpose of education, then they must deliver. An emerging view from economists suggests they are not delivering 7. Adopting an optimal approach blending online and traditional models but maintaining the humanist aspect of education offers a way forward. Equally important is ensuring the autonomy of knowledge curators within fields, whilst acknowledging the future resides in sharing knowledge across multiple fields to emulate real-world practices.

Education 4.0 will bring change. Ill-considered assumptions about economic approaches are not going to deliver the knowledge and skills needed by 4IR. The disruptive impact of technology needs a managed approach, policymakers need to preserve effective practices enacting change only where there are identifiable improvements. Most importantly change needs to be measured against improvements in the learning experience for students and classroom practitioners.


  1. Lin, N. (2017). Building a network theory of social capital. In Social capital (pp. 3-28). Routledge.
  2. Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Wolf, A. (2002). Does education matter?: Myths about education and economic growth. Penguin UK.
  4. Christensen, C. M., & Eyring, H. J. (2011). The innovative university: Changing the DNA of higher education from the inside out. John Wiley & Sons.
  5. Buchanan, R., & McPherson, A. (2019). Teachers and learners in a time of big data. Journal of Philosophy in Schools, 6(1).
  6. Massy, W. F. (2016). Reengineering the University: How to be mission-centred, market smart, and margin conscious. JHU Press.
  7. Caplan, B. (2018). The case against education: Why the education system is a waste of time and money. Princeton University Press.

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