Each industrial revolution has wrought change with technologies created and processes introduced, to reshape the landscape of manufacturing, supply chain management, labor and workforce dynamics, and production efficiency. These transformations have been driven by the necessity to overcome material shortages from our limited earthly resources and to address inefficiencies from simple human labor, empowering us to achieve more and accomplish more. With each revolution, businesses adopt and adjust to new norms, revolutionizing not only their internal operations, but also paving the way for widespread adoption across diverse industries, vast spans of management, and various regions around the world. The processes ultimately trickle out of the manufacturing world and their ripple effect into mainstream adoption permeates the fabric of everyday life and institutions, notably in the realm of education.

Pre-Industrial Revolution growth through universal enablers

Before any Industrial Revolution, it was assumed that basic education happened in the home. Education outside of the home was very much job-based, with apprenticeships under a master to learn the necessary skills to perform the work needed to keep society functioning. Remarkably, the first public school in America was founded in 1635 in Boston, Massachusetts; the American school system spread from New England out of the first colonies. Remember that early American settlements were founded based on religious freedom, which was heavily driven by the ability to read and learn the Bible in one’s own native language. Education and expansion went hand in hand, as literacy rates for religious purposes were critical. Think Gutenberg and the printing press: this invention was inherently necessary for educational access. Though the printing press predates any formal industrial revolution, as a technical and educational enabler, it cannot be overlooked.

The First Industrial Revolution Introduced universal need

The period spanning from 1760 to 1840 marked a transformative period in human history, known as the First Industrial Revolution. I’ll note that this was quite a long period of time, and adoption likely took so much time because written word was the only form of communication, much slower than those created through subsequent IRs, but at least we had that printing press. Fueled by the development of trade and the rise of business, this Revolution launched a global transition toward widespread efficient manufacturing processes, notably the shift from hand production to machine manufacturing, accompanied by the emergence of new chemical and iron production processes. The era witnessed the increasing utilization of water and steam power, the development of machine tools, and the establishment of mechanized factory systems. These technological advancements not only revolutionized manufacturing processes but also led to an unprecedented rise in population, as the output of goods soared due to the efficiency of machine manufacturing.

As towns settled into a new industrialized rhythm, common schools emerged, providing education for students of all ages under the guidance of a single teacher, while parents went about the tasks of running farms and the necessary businesses of the day. These schools, though publicly supplied, were not entirely free. As student literacy and skill mastery ranged dramatically based on individual capabilities and opportunities, eventually systems of higher learning were constructed for those who would study specialized fields like mathematics and medicine.

In 1833, as the First Industrial Revolution reached its zenith, the American Library System was born when the first public library in the country opened its doors in New Hampshire, responding to the universal need for a well-educated populace. This initiative was a pivotal step in the direction of fostering knowledge dissemination and educational accessibility. The onset of public libraries in the United States, however, took a more significant turn with waves of immigration and the adoption of the philosophy of free public education for children, signaling a crucial moment in the democratization of knowledge and the expansion of educational resources for communities across the nation.

The Second Industrial Revolution and the need for universal standardization

Also referred to as the Technological Revolution, the Second Industrial Revolution unfolded between 1870 and 1914, ushering in a period of rapid scientific discovery, standardization, mass production, and industrialization. This transformative phase was propelled by significant advancements in steel production, the widespread use of petroleum, and the harnessing of electric power, enabling the construction of structures at competitive costs and facilitating the expansion of transportation accessibility. Notable inventions certainly required standardization: the telegraph, telephone, lightbulb, assembly line, automobiles, aircraft, and the transcontinental railroad became emblematic of this era, fundamentally altering the way we communicated, traveled, and worked.

The introduction of these innovations to the public marked a paradigm shift, redefining the fabric of society and reinforcing the need for universal standardization in various aspects of life and the drive for standardization in production manifested in society as a drive for standardized education. Leading the way in 1852, Massachusetts passed first compulsory school laws, but by 1918, all American children were required to attend at least elementary school. Public schools were formed for three primary purposes: to develop a productive workforce, create an informed citizenry, and provide for social mobility to realize the American dream - that anyone can study and work to try to become whatever they want to be, regardless of what they are born into.

Universal standardization of education as tied to an Industrial Revolution cannot be represented any better way than one of my favorite moments in history. Midway through this public school system organization, at the opening of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (aka, the Chicago World’s Fair) on Columbus Day, all American school children across the country stood to recite the original Pledge of Allegiance as a coordinated effort. I can only imagine and appreciate the efforts that this entailed to arrange, as well as the romanticism of educational efforts to join the country as one by reciting this verbiage in unison at arguably the most famous technological celebration of all time. The trifecta of commemorating colonialization, celebrating technology, and championing education as One Country at a single moment should give all of us a nostalgic feeling of pride.

The Third Industrial Revolution and universal development

Spanning from the 1950s to the 1990s, the third Industrial Revolution marked a transition from mechanical and analog electronic technologies to the advent of digital electronics. The period saw a widespread adoption of robotic technologies and culminated in the dot-com era, marking a significant milestone in the integration of digital technologies into everyday life. The impact of the Third Industrial Revolution extended beyond economic development, influencing crucial aspects such as the standard of living and life expectancy.

This era saw a remarkable diffusion of progress, reaching almost every corner of the globe and transcending traditional boundaries. While the preceding industrial revolutions were predominantly driven by Western Europe and the United States, the third wave brought about a seismic shift that propelled the entire world into an era of unprecedented prosperity. Global wealth increased approximately tenfold during this period, fostering economic development around the world, and even ventured beyond the confines of our planet to include outer space. Universal development truly.

The role of the federal government had witnessed substantial growth in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that K-12 education became a focal point of federal involvement. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s vision of a “Great Society” in 1964 included a significant policy shift, as the federal government assumed a more prominent role in shaping educational policies.

This period represents a multifaceted evolution, where technological progress, global development, and government intervention converged to shape the landscape of education, laying the groundwork for the educational landscape we navigate today. The subsequent years witnessed a dynamic interplay between public and private education, with a notable shift back towards personalized learning through private and homeschool options. Initiatives like “No Child Left Behind” became emblematic of the commitment to ensure that educational opportunities developed all children equally, while many families sought better than public education for their children. Regardless, education clearly became a driving development across society as more individuals and families maximized educational opportunities, including the utilization of student loans to leave no stone unturned in the quest to accumulate more knowledge.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution brought universal access

From 2015 to the present day, the fourth Industrial Revolution has ushered in an era of universal access, fundamentally transforming the way we communicate and conduct business across the globe. This revolution has enabled the seamless flow of relevant information (data) at every stage of the production chain, bringing together processes such as inventory management and production efficiency. At its core, the digitization of the manufacturing sector has been driven by disruptive trends, including the rise of data and connectivity, advanced analytics, and the evolving dynamics of human and machine interaction.

This current era is characterized by a profound trend towards automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and processes. Innovations such as the Internet of Things, connected devices, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and sensors have played pivotal roles in redefining industrial landscapes. While machines cannot replace human expertise, they have proven to be more efficient in various aspects of production, especially from an Industrial Revolution perspective.

We have seen the proliferation of data, in this instance content, to the extreme levels that it is almost too challenging to discern quality content from worthless drivel; educational content is no exception. Universal access to create content and to auto-launch the next mindless video may have been more dangerous to education than universal access to view it. Assuming you have or know a child with access to YouTube, I’ll just leave this one here.

Further in the realm of education, the fourth Industrial Revolution has brought about significant changes, particularly in the rapid adoption of virtual education. With Covid, what was once a novel concept became a standard for learners everywhere. I was exposed to a rudimentary form of virtual education through the Florida Virtual School system to recoup credit requirements during an unforeseen shift from public to private school. Rudimentary is a polite term, I assure you, but this was a necessary means to an end at the time, as it was during Covid shutdowns. Even post-pandemic, virtual education is here to stay, even for extremely hands-on, operator-intensive courses like Driver’s Education. My 15 year old just completed his course, which included the basic rules of the road we all had to go through, discussion components on topics like how to interact with police officers, and virtual “ride-alongs” so his teacher could demonstrate driving to these teens.

Covid ushered in a new era of need for educational access, only made possible through the advent of the internet. Had the Fourth Industrial Revolution not already been in motion, business and education as we know it would have ceased altogether, and our readiness to support the urgent shift to a completely virtual world opened regulators eyes to the importance of universal access as delivered by our industry, spurring more investments and government funding for digital infrastructure than we have ever witnessed. Because we’ve all recently lived through this one and felt a little pride at the recognition of the mission critical industry as essential workforce, this needs no further explanation, and could be a valid capstone to the full study of how Industrial Revolutions have continually impacted education, if it weren’t for the fact that another Industrial Revolution looms promising on the horizon.

The future: universal opportunity

The continuous evolution of technology promises further transformations, challenging us to adapt and innovate in the face of an ever-changing industrial and societal landscape. As we reflect on the profound impact of Industrial Revolutions on education and society at large, we have moved from universal need to universal access. To meet today’s infrastructure needs, organizations building with universal access in mind will outpace those who do not, but those working to build or incorporate the next wave will surpass even further.

Each IR builds on the technology of those prior, and as a timely example, AI has existed in previous Industrial Revolutions, but couldn’t offer the potential or adoption we are witnessing now. I would suggest that the sun is already rising on the next round: AI innovations will launch the next separate revolution instead of falling into our current (or even the previous) IR in which it was first borne.  

This will be driven by universal opportunities, with generative systems made accessible and usable to “the common man,” making it possible for each of us to digitally access and plan our own educational journey, or possibly even have a customized path plotted for us based on our individual interests and capabilities. Imagine the potential of open educational platforms and endless possibilities to truly build The American Dream of opportunity for all. The impacts to education could tangibly be witnessed with predictive or generative education, where what we need to learn is delivered to us almost instantaneously. We may not be able to learn as quickly as the untethered and free revolutionaries in The Matrix movies, but with this new technology looming large, it’s possible our machines can. As John Lennon sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”

This brings me to a final point: we must all consider how we are building for the next level of access and of societal need. Is your organization setting the infrastructure in place to reach the unreached? Are you contributing educational content that helps others learn and grow, instead of just solutions-based messaging to hit a sales target? We should all be using these newfound technologies to make the world a better place, so that our next Industrial Revolution brings about yet a new dawn of forward-thinkers to lead us to new technological heights.