Rethinking Education Technology

Although the iPhone was introduced only ten years ago, few of us could now imagine a world without touch screen technology. However, digital devices like the iPad are yet to have meaningful impact inside schools. All this will change within the next few years.

There is a reason for this change: machines are getting cleverer and the software and networks that support digital devices are getting more sophisticated. Put an iPad in the hand of most teachers and they will struggle to use it in an impactful way in their classrooms. Design intelligent learning systems that sit behind and around the iPad and things start to change.

Edtech: a help or hindrance?

At the centre of effective learning lies three things:

  • Relevant, interesting material,
  • delivered in an engaging way by someone we trust,
  • with learning assessed in a timely and impactful fashion.

We should be interested in the subject matter. It should fit into where we are in our learning. We should trust the person delivering it (that they know what they are talking about). We should know if we have learnt the material correctly before moving on.

The problem is that much of our current use of ed tech gets in the way:

  • There is so much information out there and it is hard for students to work out what they should be reading or watching. They can become lost in a sea of often competing ideas and messages.
  • Computers distance us from human interaction. This is a growing problem. I also firmly believe that the ‘guide on the side’ has to know their stuff. Kids trust teachers who are masters of their subject matter.
  • Work that is auto-corrected by a computer (in the shape of multiple choice quizzes) only really examines surface knowledge. But what about complex literature or philosophy essays? Can a machine really understand the nuances of deep analysis and abstract reasoning?

What we need is to take these three problems and design solutions around them. It is therefore not about the tech, but about the challenge of getting the best materials and teachers in front of the most students, and ensuring their responses are assessed in a timely, meaningful fashion.

1. Artificially intelligent content curation and dissemination

It’s not only students who struggle to make sense of the exponential growth in information. Teachers also find this a challenge.

We need intelligent machines to sift through this morass (based on the assessment criteria we input) and curate the ideal suite of learning materials.

Each student would then have their own bespoke learning pathway, that would adjust based on how quickly they learn. This would not only create true differentiation, but also free up a great deal of planning time.

The deployment of learning analytics would enable students and teachers to understand the effectiveness of the learning. This would have enormous impact on ensuring interventions happen in timely fashion, whether that be supporting those who are struggling or stretching the more able.

2. The very best teachers spreading their excellence further afield through virtual and augmented reality

Imagine a virtual classroom where the student feels like they are in a classroom with the teacher, and is able, through wearing haptic gloves, to raise their hand and for the teacher to see them do so. 

A teacher might be delivering a lesson in the UK which is being watched by hundreds of students in developing countries. Once barriers to entry such as fast internet access have been resolved, the potential for this to allow universal access to excellence is enormous.

This might also cut down on the drop-out rates we see with MOOCs. People need a human connection and don’t get this with MOOCs. Truly virtual classrooms might be one step closer to this.

3. AI as a lifetime mentor 

I mentioned this in a previous post but would like to return to it now. A time may come, and fairly soon, when each student will have an artificially intelligent ‘mentor’, who will be with the student for the span of their academic career (and perhaps beyond). This AI mentor will learn precisely where the student is on their learning journey and be able to offer feedback on their work as they progress.

From the simple one-page book reviews they might do in year 7 through to their university dissertation, the machine will learn over time where the student is and support them as they learn and grow. They could even remain with the student as they progress into work, suggesting micro degrees based on where they are in their profession.

This mentor would work in the background: bringing a child into the world should still be a fundamentally human job. However, if the teacher is freed from much of the paperwork that drains their time, their role would naturally change for the better. They would truly become a guide, supporting and challenging students through their learning

It’s really not about MOOCs or iPads. It’s more about taking what we know works (founded on basic learning psychology) and using tech to augment it. If we focus on education technology in this way we might finally see it have meaningful impact.

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