How Technology Will Reshape Education
by Peter Marino
Thanks to advances in technology, the way we access and process information has been permanently changed. Information that would have taken hours to uncover only 20 years ago can now be accessed in an instant on a smart phone. The proliferation of tablet computing has only magnified this effect. Information is no longer regionally based or even tied to an electrical socket; it is literally in the air.
This change in the availability of information is transforming the learning process. The educational system has attempted to keep up by placing more computers into the classrooms. However, a few extra laptops may not be enough to handle the fundamental shift in how technology is rewiring our brains. In his book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,” writer Nicholas Carr cites recent case studies that show that the brain activity of adults is measurably changed by using the Google search engine.
If Internet browsing can transform an adult’s brain, what impact does technology have on the brain of a child? More importantly, how will these changes affect the future of education? Lesson plans, class schedules and the profession of teaching itself will all likely have to make adjustments to adapt to the age of information.
The Integrated Approach
Technology doesn’t just encourage our brains to process information differently. It also encourages teachers, software developers and business owners to work together in ways that would have been impossible only a few years ago.
Consider collaborative educational software projects. Professionals from around the world are now working together in real time to create complex and comprehensive educational software. These projects span the gamut from international curriculum development to “minimally invasive education” experiments with impoverished children in the slums of India. In each case, these programs are designed to challenge the way in which a traditional classroom operates. The results are astonishing.
In 1999, Professor Sugata Mitra of Newcastle University ran an experiment he called the “Hole in the Wall.” He inserted a computer into a wall in Kalkahi, Delhi in such a way that it could not be removed. However, the computer was placed at a height that made it easy for children to access. No teachers or professional training guides were present to educate the children on how to use the computer, although some helpful prompts were programmed into the software. Dr. Mitra discovered that the impoverished children who had no previous computing experience had no difficulties educating themselves on how to use the “Hole in the Wall.” In fact, these children subsequently developed language skills and the ability to answer advanced examination questions from traditional schools. They also developed the ability to “detect indoctrination” and think for themselves. Dr. Mitra later expanded the experiment to over 300 different locations around the globe. Regardless of the surrounding economic conditions, the children performed well in each location.
Other collaborative software ventures take a more integrated approach. Sakai software is an open source educational platform that has been developed by both teachers and professional researchers. The end goal of the software is to be able to share information more efficiently with educators, students, and other researchers. The broad approach of the software makes Sakai a suitable tool not only for traditional education but also for other industries that base their revenue stream on complex research.
This integration of both education and industry is compelling, if for no other reason than the fact that education has traditionally been based in the realm of the abstract. Children are taught to think in generalities, or base their educational exercises on pure theory. Most professionals will vouch that although “book learning” is important in preparing for the challenges of the real world, nothing is more valuable than experience. Thanks to technology, combining both carefully crafted abstract theory and real-time industrial experience may be a new educational model that is both pragmatic and advantageous.
Instead of spending years performing theoretical exercises that lack the urgency and complexity of real-world challenges, children may be able to at last witness and learn from real-time scenarios without being subjected to the consequences. Put another way, collaborative educational software like this makes it possible for children to quietly observe the real-time operations of a company or profession without being responsible for its outcome. They can literally learn from other people’s mistakes.
Theoretically, children could spend three days a week learning in a traditional abstract classroom setting and two days a week interacting with real businesses and professions via the collaborative software. This model could benefit both parties. Children would be able to accurately preview their ideal profession while businesses could begin recruiting promising candidates at earlier ages. This recruitment would allow children to efficiently guide their educational choices. A student would not graduate from his primary schooling at age 18 with no idea of what profession he wishes to enter. The more integrated approach of educational software would allow him to make informed decisions about what he should do with his life.
This emphasis on moving education away from abstract theory and into a more pragmatic, results-driven direction is echoed by the website/software developed by MIT graduate Salman Khan. The “Khan Academy” has garnered praise from such luminaries as Bill Gates for its ability to teach math to virtually anyone. The Khan Academy works by offering students access to a variety of videos that illustrate math problems step-by-step. Students then attempt to complete problems generated by specialized testing software. The software keeps generating problems of a certain complexity until the student is able to correctly solve 10 of them in a row. The software then “advances” the student to the next level of complexity. What is particularly innovative about this software is that it also has a built-in dashboard that tracks student progress, allowing teachers or other administrators to note when and how students encounter difficulties in their learning process.
The website does not charge for its services. Khan is privately funded by a group of investors including Bill Gates, who decided to give Khan money after Gates’ children started using the software as a study aid. The software is currently in use at the public school of Santa Rita Elementary in Los Altos, California. What is intriguing is how the software has both pleased and angered educational professionals. Some teachers feel that the software benefits their students by providing them with customized instruction at their own pace. At Santa Rita Elementary, one teacher “flips” her classroom, instructing students to view the Khan lectures at home and then do their “homework” in class so she can provide personalized guidance when needed. In essence, the teacher uses the software to do all the hard, repetitive work of rote learning. She then concentrates on helping students with educational growth that can’t be accomplished by a pre-recorded lecture or programmed sequence of tests. The students themselves have demonstrated tremendous growth as measured by their mastery of any given mathematical subject. Thanks to Khan, some elementary school children are now learning calculus.
The software has come under attack from critics who deride the rote methodology of the videos. These critics feel that the Khan Academy encourages people to treat education as test-prep and not as a forum for mind expansion. However, the popularity of the software indicates that there is a need across the educational system for more rigorous and personally paced instruction. Many educational professionals agree that the best instructional ratio for truly effective learning is one teacher per student. Obviously, this ratio is economically impossible for public school districts. The Khan Academy makes it possible for each student to have the equivalent of a dedicated electronic math tutor while still retaining access to a living, breathing human teacher. With Khan, teachers no longer have to “teach to the middle of the class,” while students are able to learn at their own pace.
Needless to say, this kind of educational approach would have a transformative effect on teaching as a profession. But what will this mean for the educational system as a whole?
What Happens to Teachers?
The “Hole in the Wall” experiment proves that children have an innate learning ability that is not dependent solely on a teacher. While the experiment reaffirms that children benefit from guidance, they do not need someone to hover over them eight hours a day, five days a week. Similarly, the Sakai collaborative software project makes it possible for previously inaccessible real-world scenarios to become practical educational aides. While teachers are still part of this model, they share some of their duties with real world professionals. Finally, the Khan Academy allows teachers to shift the burden of rote drilling and customized pacing to highly effective software models.
In each of these models, the teacher’s role is significantly transformed from a full-time instructor into a part-time guide. In previous decades, teachers were responsible not only for mastering all of the information but also for disciplining the students and creating lesson plans. The information is now largely provided by technology in an intuitive learning format. While teachers should still be familiar with their chosen subject areas, their role becomes less about regurgitating information and more about gently guiding children to discover it on their own. In a sense, primary school teachers could become more like college professors. The number of hours they “teach” per week could be dramatically reduced as technology and interactive real world models provide elegantly formatted information. Teachers can ditch the chalkboard in favor of the touch screen.
This does not necessarily mean that all teachers would become part-time employees. Those with the ability to best “guide” their students would become highly sought after. However, the profession would no longer attract people who are simply looking for a job where they receive three months off each year. Instead of having to suffer the fools who clog the tenure system, the teachers who can genuinely teach would be rewarded.
The integration of technology would also likely curtail the traditional summer recess. Studies have shown that while students do benefit from breaks, exceptionally long recesses interfere with their ability to retain information. Students would likely switch to a year-round academic calendar punctuated at regular intervals with multiple week breaks.
What may truly be extraordinary about the integration of technology is the inadvertent standardization of school systems. Instead of highlighting the paucity of inner city schools in comparison with affluent educational enclaves, technology will even the playing field. Children will excel based not on their zip code but on their ability to comprehend information. “Schools” may be replaced by “Guidance Centers” where children split their studies between instructors, specialized teaching software and real world professionals and business owners. Industry will benefit from more specifically educated candidates. Ultimately, technology has the potential to revolutionize education while providing the opportunity for a better future.