Beneath the Surface

Learning from the Millennials without forgetting an important factor

GUEST COLUMN | by Diana Muir

“A renaissance is boiling beneath the surface.”

Beneath the SurfaceThese words were written by Reem Abdellatif, an Egyptian journalist who has been chronicling social unrest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Despite the violence she witnesses daily, Abdellatif remains optimistic, because she recognizes that a process of change has begun and the contours of a new era are coming into focus. In particular, the emergence of the Millennial generation as an engine of social change is at the core of this renaissance. The first truly global generation (they currently make up half the world’s population), Millennials share a common desire to create social systems that offer equity and opportunity for everyone, regardless of geography, religion, gender or economic status.

The Millennials also possess a seemingly innate ability to harness technology to solve problems. For example, amazing work is being done by youth like Joshua Meier, a 16-year old who leads his own biotechnology company and conducts stem cell research (he’s also an iOS developer). Similarly, Talia Leman, a 10-year old, serves as CEO of an international nonprofit whose mission is to help kids launch their own philanthropic initiativesThese are just two examples of the many entrepreneurial Millennials who are creating profound change in the world.

However, this ambitious cohort faces a very serious challenge that could derail its progress and cause it to become a lost generation. In order for the Joshua’s and Talia’s of the world to make their unique contributions, education must be made available everywhere. This is a serious problem because educational resources are scarce in the developing world, leaving millions of Millennials with no access to basic education or information.

The United Nations has sought to address this crisis by making universal education one of its Millennium Development Goals. While significant progress has been made, recent estimates indicate that there are still 61 million children of school age who have never stepped inside a classroom, and 250 million who can’t read, write or count well.

Fortunately, others are stepping forward to assist the U.N. in creating opportunities for Millennials. Technology is often at the core of their solutions, as in the case of educational researcher (and TED 2013 prize winner) Sugata Mitra.

Dr. Mitra provided a computer to children in a slum, but did not offer them any instruction for how to use it. Not only did the children teach themselves how to use the computer, they taught other children to use it as well, thereby creating a Millennial-fueled, technology-assisted education continuum.

Unfortunately, while progress is being made in providing access to education, another challenge is becoming increasingly clear: Even when Millennials have access to education, the content is often not relevant to the needs of today. This means that many students aren’t being equipped with information and skills that will enable them to help shape the global cultural renaissance.

For example, an out-of-work youth in Greece would likely benefit from vocational training, especially if it is for an underserved industry in her local economy, more than a course on Elizabethan poetry. This is not to say that traditional liberal arts content has become irrelevant in today’s world, but re-starting the engines of global prosperity may be more closely tied to practical applications.

The severity of this challenge comes into greater focus when the global youth unemployment rate is considered. In some countries, it is now over 50% and predicted to continue rising for the next 5 years. Many experts feel that the crisis is directly related to a mis-match of industry needs and workforce skills.

Although these unemployment figures are daunting and – on the surface – seem to support many of the dystopian predictions being made about future global prosperity, there is also a more positive view that can be taken.

What if:

- Education and technology continue to be fused more closely together (which seems likely and is probably what led the New York Times to label 2012 the “year of the MOOC” )(massive open online course)

- The fused education / technology solutions are provided to youth all over the world, who have proven that when given access to information and technology, they can educate themselves and create transformative, globally-oriented solutions

- The educational content is made relevant for the specific needs of today’s global society by taking into account, and being tailored for, the needs of specific (read: local, on-the-ground) communities

If these conditions occur, the renaissance that Reem Abdellatif spoke of seems imminent and likely to spread to the remotest corners of the planet. And if that happens, a new age of human achievement and enlightenment would not be far behind.

Dr. Diana Muir is the CEO and director of One World School (formerly The World Virtual school) and the founder of the Hawking Institute, Inc., a non-profit educational entity whose mission is to provide free, K-16 education to 3rd world countries via the with state-of-the-art technology. Write to: diana@wvs.us.com

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