My friend John Creighton and I have been thinking together about what it might mean for education to become far more “student centered – a trend that has already begun. Education is one of those areas that so far has been sheltered from some of the more turbulent changes taking place in society. But we think that may soon change.

It will be important, in that context, for people who care about civic life to have an understanding of what these changes will mean for public life in general. What civic norms will be created? What expectations? How might public life benefit? How might it be made more difficult? What unforeseen side effects might there be?

Here is a brief piece we wrote (John did most of the writing) recently setting up this question:

The 25-year debate about the quality of public education in the United States has brought about marginal changes in how we deliver education in this country:

  • Families have a few more choices about where to send their children to school
  • We pay more attention to education standards than we have in the past
  • Most schools and school districts are working to maximize instruction quality and time

However, the way the nation’s schools are organized has remained largely the same for the last half century. This is true both for public and private schools. American schools continue to be mostly institution-centric, place-based hierarchies. Indeed, public education has been one of the few areas that has remained immune to the new realities emerging across the globe.

The lack of change is about to change and it is important to try to understand the civic consequences of it.

There are three forces at work that make a deep change in public education a distinct possibility:

First, demographic shifts have brought new expectations for all institutions. Post-GenXer’s (incoming parents of school age children) have very different expectations for how they relate to organizations, both public and private — they expect deeply personalized products, action-oriented or participatory experiences, and an explicit role in the relationship. They expect their experiences with organizations to focus on them, not on the needs of the institution. This is most clear in the private sphere but it is driving even more powerful change in the public sphere. Personal choice is becoming non-negotiable. Research suggests that there is a growing political consensus to support personalized education, too.

Second, the physical world is enabling and driving change. The infrastructure is taking shape and increasingly in use to support these new expectations – cheap mobile communications devices, individual citizens with easy and deep access to technology (across the economic spectrum) and growing networks of people and organizations that span time and geography. It is now possible for students and educators to be connected in ways previously unimagined.

Third, educational policy is already responding to the new reality. Curricula are housed online and delivered electronically. Educators are increasingly digitally fluent and have coalesced into robust social networks. Liberalization of charter school laws makes personalized instruction and “designer” schools feasible. State laws are already facilitating online public education (in Florida, in fact, the laws require it).

It is not hard to imagine that the future of public education will be dominated by personalized learning and student-centric (rather than institution-centric) schools that are neither entirely place-based nor time-fixed.

This is not a story about “the new economy” or “advanced technology.” It is a story about an already-changed world that is dragging all institutions along with it.

Of critical importance, in this landscape, is to develop an understanding of what effects this transformation of a central civic institution will have for civic, community and democratic life. Those interested in self-rule in communities will need to try to understand the types of questions and challenges communities (and the nation) will confront as public education adapts to a new generation of Americans.