IV. Conference Proceedings

Plenary Session 3: The Futures of Education

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The Futures of Education  



Hilligje Van´t Land, Chair of this plenary and Secretary-General, International Association of Universities in France, introduced the session by emphasizing that the development of education for sustainable development could only be achieved if the link between internationalization dynamics and sustainable development is strengthened. She highlighted the importance for the universities to engage in the United Nations’ (UN) 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals, while pursuing various activities in teaching and learning, research, and community engagement. She pointed out that there is also a need to better connect to the local, and a need to connect the local to the global. She stated that this initiative is designed as a co-construction project that calls for public engagement in all sectors. The Futures of Education plenary session discussed how higher education needs to examine the post-pandemic world moving forward. It also relates to UNESCO’s Futures of Education initiative, launched in September 2019, which aims to rethink education and shape the future. The initiative is catalyzing a global debate on how knowledge, education and learning need to be reimagined in a world of increasing complexity, uncertainty, and precarity.


Noah Sobe, Senior Project Officer on the Futures of Education Global Initiative, UNESCO Headquarters in France, Vice President of the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) and on-leave Professor of the Cultural Education Policy Studies at Loyola University in Chicago, posed the question: “how do we use knowledge and learning to shape the futures we want for humanity and the planet?” He spoke about the Futures of Education-Learning to Become initiative and how COVID-19 shaped and reshaped this initiative since its inception. He stated that the United Nations, and UNESCO specifically, are engaged in releasing an education initiative almost every generation. The Futures of Education Initiative, as he explained, is the third after two prior editions released in 1972 and 1996 respectively.

As part of the lessons learned from COVID-19, Sobe mentioned that we have demonstrated to be good at planning, but we do not really integrate crisis management in the planning process that would enable communities and societies to act and not react to the crisis. He said that “this is a really potent powerful moment— many decisions made now in the short-term are going to have significant long-term future shaping consequences”. While disruptions by COVID-19 call for building pandemic resilience for the future of education, he cautioned against the assumption that this pandemic resilience would prepare us to face all possible futures. He also mentioned that future disruptions are likely to continue to come from both expected and unexpected angles, and that “COVID has actually been useful in showing us that dramatic change is possible”.

Sobe stated that while there could be many other dramatic changes that the Futures of Education has predicted, it shows us that it is imperative, to not only adopt and think of the 2030 Agenda but to look towards a Horizon of 2050 which means to move beyond the SDGs agenda and to think about the world we want to shape. He stated that the latest scientific assessments demonstrate that the scale and implications of climate change are much more severe than anticipated when the SDGs were created. He said that more attention needs to be paid to the scale of technological transformations that are underway (e.g., artificial Intelligence, digitalization and machine learning algorithms) and the implications towards the future. He observed that these technology trends are working their way into more and more areas of human living, bringing great possibilities but also dangers.

Sobe highlighted the contradiction in some of the ideological underpinnings of the SDG model. He pointed out that the SDG model recognizes the inequality and the injustice resulting from the abuse of natural resources and the current practices of technological and economic development. Nevertheless, the SDG model does not clearly question the continued belief in economic growth as the main driver of development and the notions of development to bring societies within the caring capacity of the planet. He maintained that the key message in the Futures of Education is that our collective capacity to thrive in the coming century is going to require massive collective effort in intense stewardship of the common good, and that education is probably one of the most important global commons and one of the most important pillars and resources for human development on this planet. By considering education as one of the most important global commons (in the order of water, atmosphere and biodiversity), we recognize the diverse knowledge resources of humanity, the collective processes of education at use, and the various types of infrastructure that support learning and knowledge creation. His conclusion suggests the need of thinking about education in the future in addition to thinking about education for the future. Thinking through these two lenses involve different concepts and activities; however, they must be both considered at the same time in order to move from reacting to shaping change.


Tan Sri Dzulkifli bin Abdul Razak, Rector of the International Islamic University, Malaysia, mainly discussed humanizing education through the process of creating a roadmap and a learning ecosystem based on the SDGs in the International Islamic Universities. He stated that this initiative started in 2018 with the need to create a learning ecosystem where academics, staff and students would gather to increase collaboration, project and research development as well as knowledge exchange. Part of this process did not only involve adapting the SDGs in their current form, but they were adapted to suit the local environment in Malaysia and the University’s spiritual background. He translated Islamic beliefs in mercy, compassion and humanization to the SDG goals while creating links among the human traditional, cultural, and spiritual practices with the sustainable global goals. Razak stated that the University relied on transformation to move forward and searched for ways to eliminate the silos and leave the comfort zone that can block the moving forward towards sustainability. In consultation with the university community, the University created flagship programs that integrate people, curriculum, pedagogy and make them transdisciplinary to reduce segmentation when sharing and co-creating information. This is known as the Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) where researchers work together during the whole research and innovation process in order to better align both the process and its outcomes with the values, needs and expectations of the community. He also added that online and face-to-face knowledge versatility and blended environment acknowledging are both important. In addition, he mentioned that ethical research, project creation and reflective practices can increase collaboration and have productive and impactful outcomes that would expand knowledge sharing and growth. As part of this, it is important to replace tests as the only form of assessment with summative and formative assessments. He defined ethical research as research that deeply engages in knowing how people in the research are implicated in the process and to do research from a human ethical perspective. He stated that the learning ecosystem created an active and engaged community of practice where leaners and teachers are involved in a dynamic exchange of knowledge. This environment has enabled them to address gaps in research and identify opportunities for further pursuit of knowledge and research.

Tan Sri Razak introduced that this new model or learning ecosystem is known as Sejahtera Academic Framework: Humanizing education “Rahmatan L’l Alameen” (e.g., mercy to all) which includes all forms of life (human, animal, and the environment). This framework has four components: (1) International, cultural, and experiential learning; (2) High touch community engagement; (3) Responsible research and innovation; and (4) Global relevance and citizenship. With the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19, it is important to consider the topic of wellbeing by building a form of spirituality and value-driven thinking where people can be more resilient when it comes to issues around mental health. He stated that goal of this model is to create a balanced leadership with equitable prosperity, a balanced mind and heart, and the creation of a sustainable ecosystem that looks at inclusivity, ingenuity, and intangibility. He defined this framework as the common platform for collaboration, co-creation and cloning of research practices and knowledge exchange. He stressed the importance of knowing and measuring the impact of knowledge produced on the environment and the value it brings to humanity, not necessarily through key performance indicators, but through qualitative indicators as well. The outcome of this project included the creation of collaborative initiatives within the university and other partners to work on those projects, the creation of a broad value system, the creation of a knowledge management system to document and store the output by students and academics, and the recognition from national and international partners. According to him, this initiative’s outcomes and impacts included 300 SDGs proposals to the university as part of the community work, 100+ videos and posters produced, sustainable issues in the university diagnosed and identified, 100+ reflective journals, blogs, and websites, and at least 20 published articles in journals and mass media. Finally, Tan Sri Razak recognized Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous ways of knowing. He stated that there is an assumption that sustainable development is a recent concept that was only developed in the last 30 years, however, this was embedded in the Indigenous cultures hundreds of years ago. Because of this, there is a need to learn from others, from the past to mainstream it into what education ought to be.


Larissa Bezo, President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) Canada, spoke about the opportunities and the role that CBIE offers to post-secondary institutions in Canada, specifically for international education. She said that CBIE in the last year provided Post-Secondary Education (PSE) institutions with space and opportunities to connect and negotiate education for sustainable development. She explained that the Canadian education landscape is complex and multilayered because there are several factors involved such as race, gender equity, poverty, health, energy, among others. She thinks that those issues require PSE institutions to commit to the sustainable development agenda since 2015, which requires changes in strategic direction, in mindsets, in institutional culture, strategic direction, in institutional governance and in human resource capacity to allow this meaningful work to unfold. She said that lately, experts in the fields agreed that the world is at a critical juncture and that when politicians are busy putting up walls, universities should be opening the doors and creating spaces for conversation that can lead to concrete action.

Bezo acknowledged that the challenges of the pandemic have made institutions think much more inward than globally. According to her, it is the time to think about transdisciplinary education, intercultural competencies, and global citizenship education. She said that due to the inability to predict accurately and know the types of jobs the future will bring, institutions are responsible for training and shaping those future leaders on sustainable development. She suggests that institutions should include concrete operational elements that can be embedded in integrating the SDGs into the curricula, providing students not only with the knowledge but also with the skills to address these challenges. Finally, she mentioned that PSE institutions need to have concrete conversations with their local communities about the impact that they can have on the real quality of life in their societies. She called for these institutions to investigate deeply and engage into topics about racism and identity where knowledge is more valued in order to translate the SDGs locally.



The speakers in this plenary session engaged in a discussion on the transformative power of education, especially higher education, and its societal and economic impact in a post-COVID-19 era. They discussed the challenges and opportunities in adopting the 2030 Agenda and shared the lessons learned from the impact of COVID-19. Education is not anymore tied to economic development exclusively, but also its value and impact on the human and societal levels is a key to progress and sustainable development. On the other hand, the speakers presented different views on what it means by having a human-centered education. Abdul Razak highlighted the importance of sympathy and compassion in the discussions about humanity and integrating these values in the education system. In addition, Bezo stated that in order to create a system of education that is based on empathy and compassion, we first need to address systemic issues (e.g., racism) and engage in real conversations about them at the society and institution levels.

Sobe commented on his suspicion around the term human-centered education because he believes that we should center our relationships with the planet, with technology, with machines and with each other. On this topic, Tan Sri Razak mentioned that we need to start with ourselves and then outwards. He explained that we need to relate the SDGs to ourselves first and then externally. That would be a different approach, he said, from the present one where people talk only about external actions when it is difficult to change our environment when we are not changed.