12/20/2012 07:10 pm ET | Updated Feb 19, 2013

The Future of Education: Constant Schooling

Writer Thomas Friedman recalls his parents telling him, "Finish your dinner -- people in China are starving." Now with his daughters, he wants to say, "Finish your homework -- people in China and India are starving for your job." One glance at the most recent results of the Program for International Student Assessment shows what he's talking about. Students in Shanghai scored stellar results that put them ahead of even Singapore, an education dynamo.

Most cultures worldwide value education. More than three million South African children walk an hour or more to school every day, for example, while at the other end of the scale Americans racked up a trillion dollars in student debt in 2011 to fund their schooling.

But Asian cultures have upped the ante by a big margin, and not just in Asia. In the United States, Americans of Asian origin stand out as the highest-income and best-educated racial cohort; 61 percent of new arrivals aged 25 to 64 have at least a bachelor's degree. The wider world got a bracing taste of Asian educational attitudes in 2011 when Chinese-American Amy Chua published Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which emphasizes Chinese parents' demands of high academic standards -- more Lockdown Lane than Sesame Street.

It's no coincidence that an Asian American developed one of the hottest new educational initiatives of the decade. With three degrees from MIT and an M.B.A. from Harvard, Bangladeshi-American Salman Khan started using simple online videos to tutor his young cousins in math. His Khan Academy now offers a growing corpus of thousands of free online educational videos in science, math, computer science, finance and economics, and it has the backing of Google and the Gates Foundation.

The field of online learning has been opening up fast as some of the biggest names in education offer massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Coursera is one of the front-runners; the core launch group including Princeton, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania has expanded to 33 institutions including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Among other MOOCs competing for student attention are edX (Berkeley, Harvard, MIT and the University of Texas) and Academic Room.

Why All the Education?
Worldwide, wherever possible, young people are spending longer in education. When it's effective, they learn more, they become more skilled, they are better able to get jobs and earn a decent living. Even so, just leaving college with a good degree is no longer enough.

This is partly because competition is driving escalation -- a sort of educational arms race. The more job candidates have higher qualifications, the more employers can demand higher qualifications, so the more candidates have to get even higher qualifications and so on. Even companies that used to hire a lot of low-skilled people now need fewer workers, and those they do employ need to be higher-skilled.

In all fields of activity, from machine tools to medicine, the body of crucial knowledge and skills is constantly being updated. New insights, new technologies and new regulations make it essential for even the most qualified people to keep adding to their knowledge. Top professionals such as physicians, lawyers and pilots have to keep learning throughout their careers. Not only do they have to update their knowledge and skills to stay competitive with newcomers, but they also have to revalidate their competence to keep their jobs.

Whether formal or informal learning, most education from grade school up is now delivered as blended learning, with various combinations of face-to-face and computer-based activities. One effect is that more people are getting comfortable with using online resources to find what they need when they need it in a variety of formats. Hundreds of thousands of people, for instance, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have signed up to learn computer coding online with Codecademy.

At this stage of online learning, the workhorse platform is YouTube. Good for a lot more than kitten videos and backyard antics, YouTube is the delivery channel for structured learning systems such as the Khan Academy and how-to instructions for virtually anything you could want to learn, from saying a Danish tongue twister and fitting a new car muffler to playing a tricky New Orleans rhythm on drums, repairing a laptop and understanding ethics in cognitive neuroscience.

All this knowledge and information available to anyone with Internet access is driving a growing and self-reinforcing trend of self-directed learning. People expect to be able to go online and find out what they need to learn. The flip side is that educators and employers expect people to be adept at using online resources to find things out; being digitally literate is now the equivalent of being able to read and write a century ago. They also expect people to be proactive, self-directed, lifelong learners.

That might sound like a lot of work to anyone who expected to finish their education when they left school, and maybe it is a lot of work, but it pays off in money, opportunities, satisfaction and relevance. Plus, there's another benefit for anyone who plans to live a long time: A growing body of research indicates that thanks to neuroplasticity, the brain responds to new challenges at any age. Learning new physical and mental skills helps slow and even prevent the onset of senility in late adult life.

This is the seventh in a series of 14 posts expanding on Salzman's forecasts for 2013 in her annual trends report, a program of global communications group Havas Worldwide. This year's book, What's Next? What to Expect in 2013, was published on 12/12/12 and is available at Salzman is CEO of Havas PR North America and an internationally respected trendspotter.