This post originally appeared on Education Personnel in October 2014.
Predicting the future is no easy business. In fact, attempts to do so are often amusing. So when asked to imagine where the education technology (edTech) space might be in five years, we might save some face by leaning on the classic:
“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.” — William Gibson
In other words, let us look at what the most progressive schools are doing, right now, then extrapolate from there.
But before we go any further I had better clarify what I mean by “progressive schools”. To me these are schools that focus on equipping students with “21st Century skills”. They create curriculums and learning environments that put the development of these skills at their core.
One of the things that differentiates progressive schools from the rest is the prevalence of inquiry-based learning. Here students are given freedom to study topics that interest them. And it’s happening across subjects. It’s not something that’s left for a couple of English and History standards. edTech, specifically internet-capable devices and access to Google, have had a massive impact by enabling this style of learning.
In the past, inquiry-based modules might have involved some textbooks, photocopied handouts, and a few sessions at the library. While at the library a student, Sarah, might find a book on lions, then use the index to find the specific section that she was after. While reading, a question pops into her mind: “I wonder what other ‘big cats’ there are in the world?”. It dawns on Sarah that to answer this question, she’ll need to break her flow, find another book, then go through the whole process again. The friction crushes the spark of curiosity.
For students in “bring your own device” (BYOD) or 1:1 (one device per student) environments, the world’s knowledge is but a few keystrokes away. In today’s paradigm Sarah—device in tow—might be on a webpage about lions when that same curiosity bug strikes. This time, she can open a new tab in her web browser, type in a few keywords, and fall down an intriguing rabbit hole. It’s these slight digressions that keep students engaged in moving forward with their research. (Coincidently, I’m a part of a team that’s building a browser extension that embraces this idea).
“Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal.” — Albert Einstein
So, where to next? Teachers in these environments are already adapting to their new role as guides, rather than lecturers. But for our teachers to become better guides, they need a clear idea of where their students’ are struggling so that they can provide personalised feedback.
When teachers needed such data in the past, they would set assessments for their students. These work both ways. They provide learners with feedback on how they are progressing, and they provide teachers with the data they need to improve their own practises. Often though, assessments mean a test, exam, or report to submit at the end of a unit.
I believe that over the next five years edTech will enable new types of assessment—in addition to tests and essays. Students are using devices thought their learning process: from brainstorming and research, through to publishing. And as we know, technology has a knack for generating data. Buckets of the stuff. So with the right tools and analysis, I believe that formative assessment will occur, passively, while students learn.
When students are fully immersed in their learning, the last thing they are thinking about is recording all the steps they took to get there. For the most part this process goes unrecorded, making reflection difficult. With the right technology this process will be recorded automatically. Learners will have the data they need to know how to learn more effectively next time. Teachers will have the data they need to be better guides. Khan Academy’s reports are the first taster of this.
As students embrace this natural way of learning and teachers become more comfortable facilitating it, it follows that schools will begin blurring the lines between subjects. Some of the most progressive schools are already well on this path.
I believe that over the next five years edTech will assist this transition by developing a new generation of course management tools. Such technology will enable personalised curriculums for each student—something best illustrated through an example:
Sarah is a passionate animal lover. In a learning environment that worked for her, she’d tick all the traditional subjects’ boxes while she studied her passion: animals. Sarah would tick the “Science” box by learning about the distinction between ‘big cats’ and other mammals. The “Social Studies” box would be checked as she learns about different cultures’ relationship with lions. The “Mathematics” box would be ticked as she learns that measuring the population of lions requires some concept of ‘statistics’. “English”? Perhaps in the interpretation of poetry inspired by the African savanna; or the static image she produces to create awareness about the issues facing the wild lion population.
Pulling off such an immersive curriculum is no small undertaking. Just consider coordinating the teaching of one topic—lions, in this case—across different teachers’ areas of expertise. Now imagine doing the same exercise two hundred times for the other students in Sarah’s year group, then again for the four other year groups in the school. From this perspective, Blackboard or Moodle are woefully insufficient.
The realisation of the “e-portfolio”
As we continue blurring the lines between subjects, our students are going to need a new set of tools to help them reconcile it all. I believe that this will be the e-portfolio’s moment of glory. However I look at many of today’s interpretations of this concept and I’m less than enthused. I see the digital equivalent of manilla folders, sitting on students’ bookcases. It’s hard to see these as “living” bodies of work.
I am certainly excited by the thinking behind them. These are intended to be common records that will help our life-long learners connect new information with what they already know. They are places where learners will reflect on their accumulated knowledge throughout their life.
“We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.” — John Culkin
My final prediction is that over the next five years we see e-portfolios that resemble pantries of ingredients, rather than finished cakes. A focus of edTech companies, such as ourselves, will be on making this a reality.
So, where will the edTech space be in five years?
- edTech will provide teachers with more insight as to how their students are learning.
- edTech will enable immersive, student-directed programmes of study.
- edTech will help students create portfolios of learning, portfolios that they’ll actually return to in years to come.
The groundwork this sector continues to lay over the next five years, will spark an education renaissance in the following five years.
It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a technologist in education.