David Houle

David Houle is one of the Co-Founders and Managing Director of the Institute. David Houle is a futurist, thinker and speaker. Houle spent more than 20 years in media and entertainment. He has worked at NBC, CBS and was part of the senior executive team that created and launched MTV, Nickelodeon, VH1 and CNN Headline News.


What Does 21st Century Education Look Like?




[Note: all columns published here concern the future of the 10 big issues The Sarasota Institute have as our focus. We publish a variety of columns that explore the big questions within those 10 areas to provoke thought, response and action toward our collective futures. The Institute creates the space for 21st Century thought as we must let go of the legacy thinking of the past. Should you want to contribute a column, please see the details below.*]


We must move past the ongoing discussion about what is wrong with our educational systems… what no longer works, the incremental changes needed and the technological add-ons that can help. We can no longer look back at tradition as our guide, only as our history. There is an urgent need to examine the disruptive present and unknown future, and create a new vision.


As a futurist, I have always looked ahead and advanced toward the “next big thing”. What is was always of less interest to me than what will be. Most of us regard reality  as something that is fixed rather than something transient that is always changing. Change is constant, so legacy thinking and structures from the past limit our collective ability to be as adaptive and resilient as we need to be to move forward.


Education is one of the 10 topics The Sarasota Institute has chosen to focus on as we look into the future. There are four college and university presidents on our advisory board, plus two additional global thought leaders in education. That is why our very first symposium – “An Educated Person in 2035” – was held on Saturday January 18th, 2020. Click here to sample the highlights of that insightful and thought-provoking symposium.


After we canceled our March and April symposiums due to COVID-19, we held a webinar on April 2nd about how the virus might alter higher education. From the vantage point of what was known about the virus at that point, the consensus was that a few hundred U.S colleges would be closing their doors by the end of 2021, that online learning would grow exponentially, and that the existing problems of both K-12 and higher ed would be highlighted by the pandemic.


Now that the Institute has fully converted to online and virtual, we are having our first webinar on Thursday, September 3rd for members only. The title of the webinar is “The Future of Education in the Era of Great Reset”. More information about the webinar will be available later this week. For now, please go here and then click on “Become a Member” to sign-up for this and the other 11 online events to be scheduled.


Here is a personal story that sets up one of the burning issues in education today.


Between 1997 and 2000, I was first the global head of sales and then managing director of a start-up. University Access was one of the first companies to create on-line courses. The University of Phoenix only had three online courses at that time. Back then the courses had to be asynchronous  as the bandwidth and speed of connectivity was a fraction of what it is today.


The basic problem I had to face was how to get both two and four year higher ed institutions to accept the concept of online courses. Their only reality was in-person physical classes. So how to frame this completely new way to deliver courseware?


I came up with a story.


300 years ago, a European fell into a long sleep, only to be wakened this year. He was taken outside and saw a car and didn’t know what it was or how it moved. He saw a flat-screen TV and thought it a window through which he could see strange things. He didn’t understand all the appliances in the kitchen, or the lights inside and out. He was completely unable to comprehend the airplanes flying overhead. Then he was taken onto a university campus and walked into a classroom. ‘Oh!’ he exclaimed, ‘a university classroom!’


That made educators laugh and realize that indeed, the model of a single person standing at the front of a room or lecture hall communicating information to a room full of people, had not changed in centuries.


20+ years later, the phrases “online courses” and “virtual education” are frequently in the news due to the pandemic. The consensus is that this form of education is not the same quality as that of in-person teaching.


Colleges such as the University of Southern New Hampshire and Arizona State University are delivering this form of education to tens of thousands of students. As of 2017, 3.1 million students (15% of the total number of undergraduates) were enrolled exclusively in distance education. In addition, another 3.2 million students took one or more online undergraduate courses. Quite an increase from zero at the end of the 1990s.**


In the U.S., online learning in K through12 has also exploded during this same time period. The 2017-2018 school year had 21% of public schools offering online courses, private schools had 13%. 19,000 public schools offered all courses online, which represents 21.1% of all schools. Again, explosive growth this century. The concept of online learning has fully taken root in the United States in the 21st Century.**


Now the reality of back to school for the fall semester 2020 is upon us… and there is great upset and strife. Clearly in this time of pandemic in America – the plague nation of the world with exploding numbers of new cases and deaths – sending kids to school is a huge health risk. The health risk to teachers, staff and faculty – many over 60 or with underlying health conditions – is frightening. The obvious solution is to make education virtual. The problem is that many college presidents, school superintendents and administrators, politicians and others are taking the position that in-person education is superior to online.




Why is this the case after two decades of rapidly increasing online education programs? Why does that legacy of ‘better in person”/“ better in a classroom” still exist? Why hasn’t the technological transformation of 21st century life been fully adopted by our educational systems?


Sure there are reflexive answers. Sure human in-person interactions can be perceived as being superior to technological interactions. If educators maintain the superiority of in-person interactions, why haven’t they worked to replicate it online? Lack of need perhaps. Now there is a critical, life-risking need and the educational system has been caught flat-footed. This at a time when colleges have increased costs to the point where massive loans have to be taken out by students to get a diploma. Across the board online education is cheaper than in person. Maybe that is why. Maybe it is the historical legacy thinking of always following the habits and forms of the past.


I recently spoke with a school superintendent who is questioning not just the perception of online learning, but also what is being taught. He said, “David, today’s second graders will be graduating high school in 2030. Are our educational offerings even relevant for preparing the youth of America for the 2030s?”


Yes, this column is stirring the pot, challenging the failure of education in our society. Educators at all levels need to let go of what was and move to create what will be. Start by realizing that technology is ever more a part of our culture. That it will be even more universal by the end of the 2020s.


Beyond our educational institutions, technology has changed almost everything we do. We don’t think shopping, banking, healthcare and business shouldn’t be done online because that’s somehow inferior. No, it is the way it is. The world we live in will be technologically ancient by 2030. Our educational systems should be immersed in technology to the point that online becomes superior to in-person.


This is but one of the challenges educators around the world must face. It can be done. It just takes some work and a significant amount of imagination. We hope that the Institute can help educators to vision and define 21st Century Education.



The Sarasota Institute has now completed its transition from producing live in-person events to fully virtual events. Please visit our updated web site and take a look around. Consider clicking on the button in the upper right-hand corner of the landing page to become a member.


*Publishing columns at The Sarasota Institute – A 21st Century Think Tank. Please reach out to me at with ideas, credentials and a rough first draft on one of the 10 topics across the top of our web site. Thank you!