Gazing Into the Future

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I spent my last years working full time as Dean of Faculty in a KIPP charter high school. One of our mathematics teachers was an extraordinary educator who was originally from Nigeria. He once told us a story of his youth and how he wanted to become an engineer from a rather young age. His village provided him with enough education to be rather literate but not enough to gain admittance to a university. For that he needed an advanced course in Calculus but there was only one person that he knew about with the credentials to help him, and that person lived in the next village over from his.

My colleague was determined to earn a spot at the university and so he visited the teacher who held the knowledge that he needed and offered to help him with his farm in exchange for Calculus lessons. For a year the determined young man walked several miles after the regular school day to meet with his teacher. Ultimately my friend indeed earned a degree in engineering.

I was reminded of the many people across the globe who do not have instant access to education when I attended a little seminar at Rice University last year. The special guest was Salmon Khan, who is best known for Khan Academy an online educational platform.  Khan spoke of the power of the internet in bringing instructional opportunities to individuals who might otherwise not have them. He told stories of young women in Afghanistan who have used distance learning to earn college degrees in fields that might otherwise have been closed to them. Today’s world is filled with ever more opportunities for advancement because of individuals like Khan who offer lessons in multiple subjects.

We’ve seen the power of online education in recent days as millions of children have learned their lessons in the safety of their bedrooms. We know of workers who are continuing to do their jobs from their dining room tables. As doctors and nurses are on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 telemedicine is being used more and more.

My husband was supposed to have a follow up visit with his cardiologist later this month. It will still happen but this time it will take place via computer. When possible this method is being used more and more often during the pandemic and I suspect that it will become a commonplace way of providing general medical care in the future. I can see how it will be an important way of bringing world class medical care to rural areas and parts of the world experiencing a shortage of qualified doctors.

Of course this brave new world of computerized education, work life and medicine will require internet infrastructure but already internet cafes are cropping up all over the world. These are places where anyone may come and pay a fee to use networks for all sorts of reasons. Some cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma are actually leading the movement toward creating centers for online access. I can envision countries creating such places for the population just as we once built the interstate highway system after World War II. What a boon it would be to anyone living in a remote area to have a way to learn or work or get medical care or just to become more a part of the global community!

I remember watching a program about Arthur C. Clarke many decades ago. He was a futurist in every sense of the word. He lived on a Pacific island but was very much connected to the world. Of course he was wealthy enough to have satellites and computer power in an era when few people had access to such things. Nonetheless he predicted that it would one day be possible for anyone to live virtually anywhere and still experience modern conveniences. The computer era is proving him right on so many levels.

I suspect that as we move out of pandemic mode we may want to continue with some of the practices that we have been using and expand on them. While the economy may be battered I predict that new opportunities will arise as clever young people learn from observing what was essential and how we solved various problems during our time of isolation. We are experiencing lessons in supply chains, risk management, education, public health, computer power. Our teachers will be the geniuses among us who paved the road to linking the far corners of the world through online communication. We may be on the verge of a great civilizational shift much like the Renaissance or the Industrial Revolution. In fact it may have already started.

Sometimes great good comes from tragedy. Let us hope that the lessons we learn will lead us to ever brighter days ahead and a willingness to try new ways of doing things. I suspect that the greatest minds among us are already making plans.