The Future of Educational Technology?

“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.” Nils Bohr

Among the many treasures of the excellent Public Domain Review is a collection of illustrations of possible future technologies, as seen from the 19th century.[1] The collection includes this vision of technology in education.

school-of-the-future

Here the role of the teacher seems to be to select texts and, via some mechanical text-to-speech device, have the content of these directly piped into students’ headphones. It’s mildly laughable but it’s also interesting in the way that the picture also illustrates some of the ways educational technology has often been used.

First, there’s a focus on the novelty of the technology, as a new shiny gewgaw. Technology here also serves to support existing models of teaching. In this case, where students are passive, seated in rows and have no contribution to make to the direction of their learning. Then there’s the inference that education is merely knowledge-delivery and that the role of technology is to make this more efficient. If technology is to have a key part in education in the future, it will have to avoid these assumptions.

But the 19th century illustrator has also captured something important. The picture shows a large single device in the classroom and a crude infrastructure of wires to enable the contents of the device to be distributed. The illustration thus shows how technology can provide access to learning. In painting this picture, the artist is both right and wrong: right in that infrastructure will be important; and wrong in the emphasis on the classroom device.

Schools, now and in the future, will require fast, reliable and secure Internet connectivity. With this, schools have access to the cloud – and via the cloud – access to resources, tools and anytime/anywhere learning.

These tools exist now. They have the potential to develop even further with an emphasis on ease and speed of use – for all users. Google Classroom, for example, already enables teachers to allocate, collect and respond to students’ work online. For students, this means instant access to teacher comments, learning materials, timely support and peer collaboration.

Where the 19th century illustrator got it wrong was in the emphasis on the teacher-controlled classroom device. Looking at the experience of today, there’s a reasonable chance that in the future we will see more use of mobile Internet-connected devices in a blend of school and student-owned appliances. These will remove the need for students to be tethered to their desks, unlike they’re shown in the picture! Mobile connectivity enables technology to be integrated into every part of the curriculum and for learning to take place outside of the classroom. This ready access to resources and learning provides an opportunity for schools to personalise learning to a greater degree than today, and to develop a more independent approach to learning.

It seems clear that robust, speedy and safe Internet access and the adoption of cloud-based technologies will be the means by which educational technology will develop. Already, it means that, schools are not far from successfully adopting the following approaches:

  • Social Networking: Schools use social media tools for group teaching, and teach students how to use these effectively to develop learning networks; to connect with experts across the world; to build safe online profiles of achievement; and to support others. Teachers regularly use these tools and principles for their own professional and career development.
  • A Wider Campus: Schools become a combination of physical and virtual spaces. Students beyond the catchment area join specific classes their physical school is unable to provide; schools employ teachers from distant parts of the country and overseas to fill gaps in expertise, and provide classes that would otherwise be economically unviable.

But technology is disruptive. Across all industries, technology has displaced long-established, even cultural, practices and completely changed the way the industry works. In some cases technology has created completely new industries. Disintermediation (the name given to a process that provides a consumer with direct access to a product or service) has already transformed the way we buy insurance, holidays, retail products – even grocery.

It’s much less clear how this phenomenon of disintermediation will apply to education. Professor Sugata Mitra famously observed children using technology to teach themselves in his Hole in the Wall[2] project but an education system that minimises the role of the teacher seems unlikely (certainly at primary and secondary ages) – in any future. As one famous technologist is quoted as saying, “Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.”[3] Perhaps the biggest conundrum when looking forward is how much the role of the teacher will continue as it currently is and how much it will adapt.

Painting a picture of the future brings the danger that it is as inaccurate as that of the 19th century illustrator but, in closing, here are a few technologies that perhaps we will we see schools adopting in the coming years:

  • Virtual Reality (VR): VR headsets will become a staple technology across the curriculum in providing rich, sensory experiences of real, historical and imagined places.
  • 3D Printing: Students will regularly design, prototype and make models, products and artwork using 3D additive manufacturing tools.
  • Internet of Things: Technology will be embedded to create ‘intelligent objects’. Buildings and devices will become ‘smarter’ in automatically recognising students, teachers and visitors for access authentication. Eye-tracking technologies will provide insight into student’s learning strategies, information gathering and the effectiveness of commercial and school-created resources.
  • Disintermediation: Since parents have online access to their children’s progress data, Parents’ Evenings have become much more consultative. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cloud-based systems, enable students to access learning materials and resources independently of a teacher.

[1] http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/france-in-the-year-2000-1899-1910/

[2] http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/

[3] http://sourcesofinsight.com/lessons-learned-from-bill-gates/