Ed Tech and the Future of School

“Our technology has exceeded our humanity” – Einstein said. And this was before the information age had even started! Today, technology changes faster than ever. How are we keeping up?

Technology is what we – humans – do. It’s what defines our species. Throughout our history, we invented tools that didn’t just help us survive, but improved our lives enormously. Our motto could very well be this: We are humans, therefore we invent. We are born curious, explorers, discoverers, problem solvers, and we satisfy these needs by building technologies. This is how we solved many challenges along the way. And yet, we never seem to run out of problems. In fact, many of our new problems are themselves the result of technologies; for example, the threat from nuclear warfare, or climate change.

Come to think of this paradox: some technologies both solve and breed problems. And, more often than not, the smarter the technology, the bigger the problems it creates. Indeed, the biggest problem we may be faced with is how to avoid extermination by our own technology: intelligent machines. According to luminaries in science and technology, robots could one day abolish humanity. How ironical would that be? How tragic!


However, doomsaying isn’t my intention at all. I appreciate thinking machines for all the good they do for us. But I hope humans will be wise and prevail. This will depend on education, of course. And it seems in this area too, modern technologies could be both solving and creating problems. These thoughts formed in my mind as I was listening to a podcast: the keynote panel at EdSurge California EdTech Summit from August 2015. It’s an excellent discussion that touches on many topics critical for education, with a focus on new education technologies. A key topic is blended learning – a school model combining online and offline learning.

To me, the concept of blended learning seems broad and fuzzy. As a teacher, reading this definition from Clayton Christensen Institute, I’d say most schools are already “blended” and, in fact, they have been using this model for many years. So, if there is indeed a new blended learning model, what’s new about it? Although this isn’t explicit in the definition, I think what’s new is the personalization and flexibility enabled by emerging online and digital tools.

New and powerful technologies make possible more than “some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace” of learning. Web-based tools such as Knewton and D2L are designed to adapt and respond to the individual needs of each learner. Others, like Khan Academy, lynda.com, or Coursera, offer extensive online learning resources at affordable prices or free. And internet applications, such as Google Docs or Slack, open new possibilities for communication and team work. As they are being developed and improved, ed tech tools are growing in popularity. Before long, school as we know it could become a thing of the past. And I’m glad.

Rhizomatic learning

But I wonder about the risks we are taking. I’m afraid that, because of how fast things are changing, risks are given short shrift. Keeping abreast is hard enough. Before we get the chance to adjust to new tools and resources, technology has already moved on. This, I think, is the main danger: the pressure to keep up leaves us little time to apply and evaluate new tools properly. The constant race to update and upgrade makes us, of necessity, shortsighted. It makes the future look increasingly obscure and harder to predict.

Ironically, the only outcome of education which counts is the future. Can we find that “measurable, quantifiable outcome” that would tell us if new learning models and ed tech tools do the job right? According to one of the panelists at last month’s EdTech summit (see podcast), finding this metrics should be “the rallying cry” of the entire education community. It’s a serious challenge. Many of the attributes needed for dealing with an unpredictable and constantly changing world are hard to quantify. How should we measure qualities such as resilience, initiative, adaptability, creativity, passion, independence, tolerance, compassion…? Schools have struggled with this question since before the era of the internet – It’s tough.

Most likely ed tech will continue to advance even if we don’t find a proper school metrics. The pressure will force schools to adapt, or else more and more people will opt out of formal schooling. Will we manage our technologies wisely? What will future schools be like? Will schools disappear? Will we? Only time will tell.

Image: Robot playing piano in Shanghai Science and Technology Museum  by Jakub Halun / Wikimedia Commons

Image: Embracing Uncertainty          by Giulia Forsythe / CC







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