The future of learning
Computers have become a common feature of classrooms around the United States. As of 2009, ninety seven percent of teachers have one or more computers in classrooms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics with the Department of Education.
Online learning opportunities are abundant. According to the U.S. Department of Education, forty-eight states and the District of Columbia support online education, either as a supplement to the actual classroom or as a complete program. Full-time online schools are also available. Florida, Utah, and North Carolina each have an online school supported by the state. Blended learning is another practice. It integrates technology into the curriculum, combining both face-to-face learning with online learning.
Around the world, students are learning through technology. According to the Global Teacher Prize, in a school in Kenya, students learn through mobile phones with an initiative called Eneza Education. It supports distance learning for students through text message, and allows parents and teachers to evaluate the students’ progress. In Bangladesh, technology is neither a computer or phone, but boats. Solar-powered boats go through flood villages to ensure children receive education throughout the rainy season. In Singapore, the public has access to ultra high-speed wireless connection, which students and teachers can connect to with computers and tablets to access a wide array of resources.
Ball Bearings talked to three experts in technology and learning to find out what technological advancements we can expect in the next decade, and how education will be impacted by them.
Monica Burns is a consultant on devising curriculums and incorporating technology in education. She is recognized as an Amazon Education Teacher Innovator and Apple Distinguished Educator.
I think in the next decade or so, we’ll see more of virtual reality and augmented reality—more immersive experiences with technology than we currently see in the classroom. With virtual reality, you have a 360 [degree] view of whatever the experience may be. With augmented reality, you’re not wearing a headset. You’re looking through a viewfinder, usually on a smartphone or a tablet, and you are really able to peak, turn, interact [with], and move content. There’s [also] just going to be an increase in communication that can happen with technology tools, in a way that students now might use discussion threads and instant feedback. It’s just to really expand communities beyond their classrooms, and to reach experts and students in other places as well.
[This will impact learning because] you’ll have students in more collaborative settings, where although they might have their own device, it might not look the same as the device that their neighbor has.
So, it’s using devices for specific purposes as opposed to everyone having the same device all the time working through a similar module. It will be a more personalized experience, where students are going towards devices that they need to accomplish a particular goal.
It’ll be more of an open and free environment for students to explore and find answers to questions that are based on their own authentic inquiry. It will make things more relevant for students because it will connect to experiences that in the past were only outside of the classroom.
William Watson is a director at Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments. His research focuses on the application of technology for a personalized learning system.
My big focus on technology and where it needs to be is to support personalized learning, which basically means people are able to work at their own pace. If they need more or less time, technology’s going to account for that. That means technology would be integrated throughout the entire learning process.
So we’re not going off of a teacher/instructor-centered sort of educational process, where the instructor is the one who determines how long we spend learning something. They just go for x amount of time and then they stop. If instead, it’s based on each individual and optimizing their learning process, then technology is going to need to track what the learner is capable of—what they’ve actually demonstrated they learned.
It’s going to need to be able to support planning for their learning. So: These are the different projects the person could work on, these are the resources that are available, or here are other students who are in the same place who they can learn with together. It’s going to need to support providing some instruction or at least sample projects. And it’s going to need to help with assessing learning and storing evidence that people have mastered what it is they’re supposed to learn.
Every stakeholder is going to be able to go in and have a system where they are able to track how they’re connecting to that individual’s learning process. So on the learner end, you will be able to see your long-term goals, your short-term goals, what you have to complete next, and the evidence that you have collected for the competencies that you’ve met.
[For example] in video games like Civilization, you have what are called technology trees, which basically shows what things you have to earn to complete certain areas as you advance your civilization. If you want to focus on an area, you can see what you need to do in order to [complete] it. So it’s a visual map that kind of lays out your whole pathway and the different choices that you have in customizing it.
That is kind of how I see [things happening] on the learner side of things; to be able to represent their pathway through learning, their short term goals and how they connect to long term goals, and how that’s eventually going to lead them to mastering the professional competencies they’re trying to master. [There will then be] records on what they’ve learned [that are] connected to personal evidence for how they’ve learned it.
In terms of both augmented reality and virtual reality, I certainly think they have key roles that they can be playing. Some of my research surrounds educational gaming. Clearly I think that gaming is a really sound example of a learner-centered approach. I think we need more of that sort of thing. But adoption [of this technique] has been very slow by and large in the past, and I kind of think that will continue to be the case. So for me, I think we’re continuing to see a growth of that. I think we’ll continue to see an acceptance of educational video games as a legitimate form of learning. We’re going to continue seeing it grow, but in terms of it being commonplace within formal learning environments like universities or K-12, I’m a little skeptical that we’re going to see that within ten years.
[As for how this will impact learning], there will absolutely still be a place for formal education and schools that [students] go to. I just don’t think it will be the traditional classroom environment. I see it more in terms of students having their own individual learning space, where they are able to keep working on their projects, but there will also be areas where they will get together for group work and instructions. Certainly they will still be collaborating with teachers and other students.
As they learn, it’s just going to be different. It’s going to be learner-centered and project-centered rather than having a teacher at the front of the room and everyone passively listening to them all day. We’ll still need that space, it will just look very different. It will be technology-heavy in terms of what they are doing and completing work with technology, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not still physically interacting and interfacing with people. Montessori has been doing personalized learning for over a hundred years, so this is not a shocking new concept. There are some schools that are practicing that to varying degrees. There’s one in Minnesota, I think it’s called New Country School and basically every student has their own kind of cubicle desk where they’re working on various projects at a time, where they also have spaces where groups can get together and collaborate. So we’re going to need collaborative spaces as well as areas where students can be storing the work that they’re doing and engaging.
Tom Chatfield is an author of several books on gaming culture and is a gaming theorist. He has appeared on the Ted stage.
There are three broad directions of technological advance I see occurring in parallel here: the use of personal devices, the use of systems for capturing and tracking learning, and the use of tools for shared experiences.
On the personal device front, it’s becoming normal for more students to acquire personal devices at a younger age. Education in high schools doesn’t yet tend to incorporate these devices into learning, but I feel that over the next decade this will start to change, partly because the combination of familiarity and convenience is such a powerful thing. There are real challenges around control, discipline and focus here, but broadly I am excited by the idea that learning to become an adept, informed and critically-engaged user of everyday technologies like search and social media will become a more integral part of learning from a younger age.
The idea of imparting digital literacy and confidence in everyday digital tasks and interactions is thus hugely important, together with emphasizing the kind of meta-skills that allow people to take maximum advantage of such an environment: critical thinking, assessment and comparison of sources, good communication and collaboration skills, and creativity mixed with a healthy dose of skepticism. Looking ahead, it’s also important to note that these are the kinds of human skills that technologies like machine learning systems and advanced AI are less likely to make redundant; the kind of skills more and more people are going to need to refine if they want to find jobs, and add value to firms using smart systems to automate more and more tasks.
In terms of capturing and tracking learning, Virtual Learning Environments are already becoming universal, and I think that tracking and management tools like this are here to stay—in part because they are so integrally bound up with statistics, measurement, assessment, and demonstrating what is being done. This kind of integrated, web-based platform is only going to get more closely linked to more aspects of education—and there are both dangers and opportunities here, given that a fixation on measurement can distort the focus of learning. At their best, usable and rich VLE’s can help students take ownership of their own learning and progress, and can create a transparent and informed relationship between teachers, students, parents and educational institutions.
In terms of shared experiences, I think that more confident and fluent use of video and truly interactive multimedia will spread as this becomes at once more affordable, more advanced, and more completely understood as an educational resource. Simply showing people videos or images is not an especially impressive learning tool; but confidently using well-designed multimedia resources to illustrate and explore concepts in a highly impactful way certainly is. Consider the difference between showing students a YouTube video about childbirth and using an interactive screen to take students on a tour of the body in 3D while explaining, debating, answering questions, and interacting.
This then crosses over into the potentials of tools like VR, games and so on, in all of which cases, I think there’s a firm need to put educational values first and then adopt technology only if it enhances these. Technology for the sake of technology is a kind of magical thinking that helps nobody. Things like MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses), for example, have been praised because they “must” be good if they’re putting lectures and materials online for everyone. But a video of a lecture is just a video of something that is, often, neither advanced nor engaging pedagogically.
Platforms like the Khan Academy are much more exciting than most MOOC’s, because they have thought from the ground up about engagement, user experience, and rethinking content and structure so that it comes alive onscreen and in an interactive format. So much interactive educational material is hopeless: Quizzes, cue cards, allegedly responsive and adaptive mechanics that are insultingly crude and inadequate on the technology front.
People talk to me excitedly about educational games, but they are rarely clear how exactly these help or are educationally meaningful. It’s much better, I think, to focus precisely on the lessons about user experience, rewards, structure and interaction that both great games and social media teach, and use these to support actions and experiences that you know to have pedagogical value.
This brings me to my final point: the extraordinary richness of the informal learning arena, and how much can be gained by those who are confidently able to browse and experiment, and ask for help and advice. Getting people to this stage, and equipping them with questions and confidence and an ability to distinguish between quality and dross—this is the great challenge.
There is also an irony here, that those who have benefited from an excellent formal and formational education are more able than ever to learn more things, use technology to find answers and opportunities, and generally leverage their abilities, while those who lack the foundations can, unless we are careful, be left further behind by those able to take advantage of the riches on offer.
I’d also add that a profound challenge for education going forward is how well it equips students to deal with the wider information environment. It’s not enough just to say that there are a few reliable sources, or that you shouldn’t look at Wikipedia, or that cutting and pasting is bad. You have to look at what people actually do, and where they turn when they want to learn and understand something. Educational institutions can’t turn their backs on the immense, constantly-accessed resources of the Internet or its social presence and influence—and if they do, they risk feeling irrelevant or hopelessly out of touch with the world students are going to live and work in.
I do worry, however, about the tendency of VLE’s to turn tuition into an exercise in populating endless forms with data and evidence of practice, taking time away from real engagement. You can also end up with essentially meaningless exercises and tests being performed by students for the purposes of producing data and demonstrating progress. This is technology at its worst: deskilling and demotivating people in the name of efficiency and assessment. By contrast, rich, open, supportive discussions seem an excellent model of mutual learning, and something the best platforms should encourage and incentivize. There is a great deal to be learned from social media, here, in terms of dynamism and engagement; private Facebook groups are, I know, already some of the richest pedagogic and personal development resources around for some learners, trainees and practitioners across a host of fields.
It’s like the fact that most people using MOOC’s already have a degree, and come from the ambitious upper levels of society. Just putting stuff online and making it digital doesn’t mean you are being inclusive or progressive. Unless you’re careful, and think very hard about what it means to enable everyone equally to use the information environment in terms of both skills and access, the vast opportunities technology offers will remain dominated by a few.
Ball Bearings has edited statements for clarity.