The Digital Blue Yonder - what's on the digital horizon for education and how might we harness it?


Over the last six months I have been delivering variations of the above presentation, looking at what I believe to be the biggest disruptors (and enablers) on the digital horizon. 

The presentation begins with the well worn introduction to Moore's Law and covers off a myriad of examples of technology that has continued to double in speed and processing power whilst reducing in size and cost. This is then reinforced by an excerpt from Kaila Corbin's Introduction to Exponentials from the Christchurch Singularity U Summit where she deftly describes the concept of doubling curves and the inability for human brains to actually comprehend such a bonkers rate of change. What I particularly like about this presentation was the way she paints this visual of such an extreme acceleration of change it paints a vertical line, the only problem is we, as humans, standing on the horizontal part of the continuum, tend look back and only see the gentle incline that got us to this point in history, blithely unaware that we are literally backing into a rate of change that will blast us Space X style into the stratosphere. As much as we might like to comfort ourselves that technological change will always be a matter of evolution, there is much on the horizon that suggests it may be more akin to a revolution. 

We are sitting in an interesting space in education. On one hand we are hearing messages about the potential for AI Machines to replace teachers in as little as 10 years, and then on the other hand, we look around and see many secondary schools that have barely evolved (particularly in terms of physical spaces, timetables and subject offerings) in the last 20 or 50 years. It is for this very reason that I believe teachers and schools are being lulled into a false sense of security, not really believing there is a need to change....much. Not only are teachers potentially risking being blindsided, they are also potentially missing out on the benefits that these technologies can provide both them and more importantly, their students.

So, irregardless of where we might sit on the digital-loving-kool-aid-drinking-continuum at present - what is on the horizon that may disrupt education and more importantly might enhance it?

AI (Artificial Intelligence) Machines would be my number one. Most of us will have heard of IBM's Watson which is an AI platform for business which was first designed as a question-answer computing system that could answer questions posed in natural language for the express purpose of beating humans at the quiz show Jeopardy. Not only did the computing system beat the humans, it also provided a computing platform that would transform how we process and utilise information and learning. Consider this, according to John Rennie, Watson can process 500 gigabytes, the equivalent of a million books, per second. This processing power is now being applied to all kinds of jobs and processes. For example IBM Watson is working the American Cancer Society to create a virtual cancer advisor, using it's unprecedented processing power to deliver personalised care to cancer sufferers.  IBM Watson and Sesame Workshop are collaborating to combine Watson’s cognitive computing with Sesame’s early childhood expertise. Using Watson's vast processing power to design powerfully personalised learning within a early childhood setting.

And this isn't just some 'American thang', in New Zealand we have incredibly exciting examples of AI being used in the business and learning sphere. Soul Machines is an Auckland based company who are designing "artificial humans" that bring a human face to the AI technology. Air New Zealand already has Sophie the AI assistant, NatWest UK are also testing their first AI banking assistant. Imagine what this might look as a teaching assistant? This is a question that could be closer to being answered than we might think, particularly when you consider the exciting development of the, just this week launched, Amy the AI Maths Tutor. Like Soul Machines, Amy is another piece of the AI puzzle being developed out of Auckland and picked up around the world. Amy the AI Maths tutor uses AI software to provide Maths tutoring, getting to know the learner and their specific learning needs so as to provide just in time, personalised learning support. Consider the benefits as outlined on the homepage:

  • Always online - Amy is there 24/7 to help you learn whenever and wherever you need her
  • Faster learning - Amy understands why you make mistakes so she only teaches you what you need to learn
  • Real time feedback - Amy gives you feedback as you solve problems so you learn as you go and never get stuck again

Who wouldn't want this as a teaching assistant?! And it all designed to support the NZ Maths Curriculum and NCEA (note - the breadth of this is a work in progress) and at present is completely free for NZ teachers and students. Developer Raphael Nolden is very clear in his intent for this technology to simply support classroom teachers, however I do think the Maths teacher who is still wed to a dusty text book should be warned, you can either embrace such gifts or risk being made redundant. I don't think any teacher, who develops meaningful learning relationships with their learners and delivers engaging creative courses, is at risk of being replaced by these AI Machines, I do however suspect such technologies may have the unintended consequences of sorting the wheat from the barely-teaching chaff!

My second big ticket item in the disrupt and enhance digital developments is the growing availability of online micro-credentials. Micro-credentials (online micro or small credentials or certifications) are not a new concept, in fact online certificates and MOOCs (mass open online courses) have been providing distinctly average online learning opportunities for some time now. What is changing is the quality of these courses and also the way in which these courses are now beginning to be recognised as part of more formal assessment frameworks. Just last year NZQA kicked of the 'Micro-credential pilot' working with three providers (Audacity, Otago Polytechnic and Young Enterprise Scheme) to offer three online micro-credentials that will be recognised as part of NCEA (The YES certificate contributes 24 credits at Level 3 on the NZQF that can be used toward NCEA) or even recognised by NZQA as the equivalent of Masters. From the NZQA website:

Udacity's Self-Driving Car Engineer Nanodegree is a micro-credential that has been assessed by the NZQA for the purposes of this pilot as equivalent to a 60 credit package of learning at Level 9 (Masters Level) on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework (NZQF).

On one level you might say, so what, but think again, what if there was a whole suite of micro-credentials that would allow learners to gain NCEA or beyond with setting foot with a bricks and mortar school?? My personal dream, as outlined in an earlier blogpost, is exactly how I would love see high stakes assessment happen albeit with learners still seeing the value of learning with a school environment - that's if those AI Machines aren't also out-teaching us! Personally I don't see this as a threat to schools and teachers, rather I think both online micro-credentials  and AI Machines might just be a way of addressing teacher workload whilst also supporting greater personalisation and pathways for our learners. And quite frankly, if an AI Machine is more engaging and better at forming  relationships with our learners than we are, we probably need check our career choice! I will however jump at the chance of having an AI assistant if it means I can better meet the needs of increasing complex and diverse learning needs.

Other developments worth mentioning are virtual and mixed reality. Whilst these seem, for the most part, to be ensconced in the land of entertainment, the increasingly sophisticated experiences now available at a fraction of their original cost thanks to the likes of Google Cardboard means virtual reality as an educational tool is quickly becoming democratised. Multi-player virtual reality gaming is growing quickly in both popularity and sophistication. It is not hard to imagine how multi-player VR zombie killing games might quickly evolve into rich and immersive learning experiences.

Also, it is worth noting the impact that the Digital Technologies curriculum may have on the learners who will be arriving in secondary school classrooms in the coming years. Particularly when we consider that learners from as young as five will be designing and developing digital outcomes. What will be their expectations as to what learning will look like by the time they reach high school. I believe we are already seeing young people taking massive steps backwards in both levels of engagement and creativity when they set foot in high school. What will this look like when they are also engaged in creating increasingly sophisticated digital outcomes?

So what will be the impact of this level of disruption if and when it does happen? What will be the value proposition of “bricks and mortar” schools when students can genuinely learn anywhere, anytime and gain their qualifications independent of schools?

Basically, I think we need to focus on what humans do well, connecting with learners and developing warm and demanding learning relationships with our students. We also need to focus on the skills (and yes, the knowledge) that really matters:

  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Collaboration Across Networks and Leading by Influence
  • Agility and Adaptability
  • Initiative and Entrepreneurship
  • Effective Oral and Written Communication
  • Assessing and Analyzing Information
  • Curiosity and Imagination

I also think we need to future proof our schools by ensuring they are as relevant and as engaging as possible. Creating a physical space where we can support learners face to face whilst embracing the very best that technology has to offer. This might include:
  • One to one devices with an open Internet
  • Spend more time doing less.
  • Connected interdisciplinary learning.
  • Large scale long term   project learning.
  • Home rooms with academic and personal coaching.
  • Secondary schools move from teaching subjects to coaching young people through their learning journey.
In terms of how we might personally prepare for what is likely to come, I think we need to do what the best educators have always done. Be open, curious and critical. Keep abreast of digital developments and be open to testing and trialling tools and interventions, curating and collecting the best for enhancing and supporting teaching and learning any way that we can. We need to also recognise the power for what is on the 'digital horizon' to help teachers, alleviating workload issues and helping us to personalise learning in real time. 

I would love to know your thoughts. What do you think are the most likely digital developments to disrupt education in the coming years? And what do you think we need to do to ensure it enhances rather than replaces what we do in classroom?

You can also view the full presentation here (as delivered to AUT lecturers at SOTEL): 
http://ondemand.aut.ac.nz/Mediasite/Play/0b776ad969754281ac2dc4b4cab52fe91d

Related blogposts include: 

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