The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

Ten Educational Innovations To Watch For In The Next Ten Years

A team of education experts at the Open University (UK), led by Professor Mike Sharples, have identified “ten innovations that are already in currency but have not yet had a profound influence on education” in this new report. Of course, you can find similar lists in just about every business magazine and newspaper, but what’s different about this report is that it’s been generated by researchers working at the cutting edge of both technology and learning sciences research. It’s a must read for teachers, academics, and policy makers–anyone who cares about how schools and learning will change over the next ten years. Here are quick summaries of their ten predictions:

  1. Massive open social learning. Imagine MOOCs but with their power multiplied by social network effects.
  2. Learning design informed by analytics. Design and analytics work together to support the development of successful learning and teaching. (If you find this interesting, you have to read the new chapter on learning analytics in the just-published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition, by the leading experts on this topic: Ryan Baker and George Siemens.)
  3. Flipped classrooms. At home, or in individual study time, students watch video lectures that offer them opportunities to work at their own pace, pausing to make notes where necessary. This allows time in class to be spent on activities that exercise critical thinking, with the teacher guiding students in creative exploration of the topics they are studying.
  4. Bring your own devices. Teachers become managers of technology-enabled networked learners, rather than providers of resources and knowledge. This shift opens opportunities for connecting learning inside and outside the classroom. (Mike Sharples is the co-author, along with Professor Roy Pea of Stanford, in a chapter on Mobile Learning in the newly published Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences, Second Edition).
  5. Learning to learn. Web tools and activities such as reflective journals and concept mapping have been designed to support learning to learn, but these are rarely well integrated into a learner’s social world. There may be more value in adapting for wider use social research environments such as ResearchGate, or question-answering communities such as StackExchange and Quora.
  6. Dynamic assessment. The assessor interacts with students during the testing phase of the process, identifying ways to overcome each person’s current learning difficulties. In the dynamic assessment process, assessment and intervention are inseparable.
  7. Event based learning. Examples are the ‘maker fairs’ that gather together enthusiasts who are keen on do-it-yourself science, engineering and crafts projects, and the ‘Raspberry jams’ where fans of the Raspberry Pi computer meet up and share ideas. Local events spark national gatherings and these build into international festivals.
  8. Learning through storytelling. Developing a narrative is part of a process of meaning making in which the narrator structures a series of events from a particular point of view in order to create a meaningful whole. Writing up an experiment, reporting on an inquiry, analyzing a period of history – these are all examples of narrative supporting learning.
  9. Threshold concepts. A threshold concept is something that, when learnt, opens up a new way of thinking about a problem, a subject or the world. A challenging aspect of threshold concepts is that they often seem strange and unintuitive.
  10. Bricolage. Bricolage is a practical process of learning through tinkering with materials. It is a fundamental process of children’s learning through play. It also forms a basis for creative innovation.

If you like this report, you might also be interested in my conclusion chapter in the new learning sciences handbook, “The Future of Learning: Grounding Educational Innovation in the Learning Sciences”.

The Future of College

I just watched this fascinating 30-minute interview from June 2012, discussing potentially dramatic innovations in higher education. The on-stage interview was part of the Wall Street Journal’s “D: All Things Digital” series, and the host was the Journal’s legendary technology columnist, Walt Mossberg. The two guests were knowledgeable, brilliant, and well-spoken:

  • Salman Khan, creator of the Khan Academy web site (with its instructional videos)
  • John Hennessey, President of Stanford University

There’s a lot of serious change on the horizon. MIT and Harvard have teamed up to offer many of their courses online, for free, through EdX. Stanford has its own consortium of universities, also offering free courses online, called Coursera. These initiatives are called “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOC for short. My employer, Washington University, just announced a partnership with ten top universities to offer online courses–but not for free, and only for students who meet admissions criteria.

Khan and Hennessey describe several potential futures. For example, maybe some students could get a college degree without ever setting foot on a campus. Maybe others would do a hybrid degree, with some courses on campus and others over the Internet. Khan proposed the most radical change: maybe employers will stop treating elite college degrees as a certification of your ability to do a job. Instead, your abilities would be certified by an entity that is unattached to any college, and anyone can take any test to demonstrate mastery of a specific ability or topic. It doesn’t matter how you learn it–on a campus, at home, in an informal study group with a few friends. If you  pass, you would get a certificate that today’s digerati refer to as a “badge” (by analogy with boy scout merit badges). Khan talks about “separating out the teaching part of college from the certification part.”

Also see my post “Will the Internet Transform College?” from May 31, 2012.

What do you think the future will be?