School's Out: Why Embracing Technology Will Only Expand What's Possible
Voices from the Field 02 October 2018
By Oscar Brinson
If we can take on this challenge, the coming century in education will witness the convergence of many technological advancements and resultant societal challenges (aka opportunities), resulting in mutually beneficial solutions.
On October 8th, five educators published School’s Out—an invitation for communities “to explore how profoundly we need to alter our perspective on the meaning, feel, and delivery of learning.” To amplify the voices of these learner-centered leaders, we have invited each to author articles that express the context from which they approached the question: What if school did not exist?
The fourth article in this series comes from IT Consultant, Oscar Brinson, who throws open the curtain to reveal just how far and fast technology is going. And, why we need to think about creating systems that can sustain themselves over the long haul amidst this rapid fire change.
There is a striking negative correlation between the intentions behind conventional school building construction and wholesale changes in pedagogy and curricula. While school buildings are built with the intention of lasting for decades, if not centuries, policymakers often rethink and redesign education frequently. What would need to be true for society’s systems of learning if they were to stand the test of time, just as we hope our physical infrastructure does?
This question should not be taken so literally as to conjure up images of rigidity. Rather, it should invite long-term, high-level thinking that generates a system that is adaptable to an unknown future, while remaining steadfast in its governing principles. Buildings are commonly renovated and retrofitted to adapt to the modern day, while the foundation and load-bearing walls remain tried and true.
In this time of accelerating technological and resultant societal change, one might argue the futility of planning for the distant future of education—that with traditional logic, planning so far ahead defeats the purpose of preparing citizens for whatever the societal needs are at that time. In fact, appears likely that the next 100 years will present a convergence of new technologies and economic trends like automation and artificial intelligence such that “school” and learning will look very unfamiliar to what we practice today. Arthur C. Clarke’s third law seems apropos, that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
However, the rapid change in technology does not mean we must change our education system every five or ten years to keep up. Rather, we need to elevate the conversation and ask what system of learning can naturally adapt to the unknown, keeping pace with the next 100 years of change?
Thanks to the accelerating nature of Moore’s Law, there will be more fundamental enhancement of human capability in the next 100 years than in the last one thousand.
Before exploring that question, let’s get ourselves deeply familiar with just how phenomenal the rate of technological change has been. The history of technological adoption rates unequivocally demonstrates that the accelerating nature of Moore’s Law—processing power for computers will double every two years—is broadly applicable; electricity reached societal saturation in five decades, the radio in three, the PC in two, the Internet and smartphones in less than one.
Moore’s Law also predicts the moment, referred to as the Singularity, at which artificial intelligence will surpass the human brain, followed by an unpredictable “intelligence explosion.” Ray Kurzweil, a renowned futurist, AI researcher, and author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, suggests that 2045 is a likely time for the Singularity—only 25 years into our 100-year education thought experiment. It is anticipated that this will begin an AI race, where the capability of AI will become rapidly more useful at more sophisticated tasks, likely overtaking human capabilities in more ways than we’d wish to admit.
Imagine how systems and structures in education would change if every learner had 24/7 access to a personal AI like the character “Data” of Star Trek Next Generation? Could such an AI, human form or not, become how we define “teacher” or even “school”? It’s so overwhelming; how and why would we even try to imagine what education will look like a century from now? Simply put, because education isn’t immune from external societal change; and arguably, it’s often the seed of societal change.
Monumental changes can easily occur in 100 years, and new unimaginable technologies will be widely adopted even if we cannot readily envision or predict these advances now. Make informed judgements, but resist the urge to declare far-out ideas impossible. Rather, educators should embrace the unknown, guiding this adoption of technology into new learning paradigms. For decades, as a K-12 Tech Director, I was often heard preaching that we can either paddle like hell to catch the wave and ride it, or we can tread water until it hits us in the back of the head.
Is it All About Technology?
Accelerating change isn’t just the purview of modern information technology. If we look at the whole of human history, we can see how change has accelerated in all aspects of our lives.. Looking back over the past century, we are shown how much can be achieved and societally normalized in relatively short order.
Humanity all but mastered Newtonian physics in the last 100 years. We went to the moon and back to prove it (is there in fact a better example of project-based learning and competency-based assessment?). And, Steven Pinker, Harvard evolutionary psychologist provides a bevy of such examples in his book, Enlightenment Now, pointing out the once unimaginable advances that have been made in the last century.
Just 10% of those under the age of 25 were literate 100 years ago, compared to 90% today. By any measure, human poverty, life expectancy, social justice, diet, and safety have all improved on a whole beyond any reasonable prediction of a century ago. This inspires us to dream bigger, think outside the box, for what might be possible in the next 100.
Thanks to the accelerating nature of Moore’s Law, there will be more fundamental enhancement of human capability in the next 100 years than in the last one thousand. What’s more, while societal adoption rates of new technologies, such as social media and ridesharing, now take well under a decade, change will come fast, and it will feel even faster to our perpetually primate brains. In that context, in that 100-year speed lab of innovation, imagine how transformed, how different education could be. This allows us to shed the wet blanket of conventional systems and structures and really consider the feasibility and envision the workings of a community-dependent learner-centered model.
How to Think Like a Futurist
The School’s Out working group, five educators with a keen interest in the future of education, came together from across the country in 2016 at a national convening of learner-centered educators, hosted by Education Reimagined. With broad professional experience across private and public school administration, we began with the collective realization that comprehensive reform of education was too slow to keep up with external change. We went so far to say that imagining a new learner-centered model within conventional systems and structures was creatively and functionally restrictive in practice. Thus the epiphany came; if current systems and structures are rigging the game and stifling necessary reform, let’s just change the rules.
We embarked on a no-holds-barred project to reimagine education without the conventional school systems and structures we often assume are a necessary part of efficiently educating the masses. What would education look like without physical school buildings, district administration and school system budget mechanisms, seat time, grades, age-based cohorts, traditional instructional roles, or standardized testing? With this slew of considerations, we established our guiding question: If society “did away” with schools, how could student-centered learning be implemented while maintaining a sense of order and advancing equity, learning, and employment in communities?
Examples from around the world and throughout history, as well as many innovative models today, lean heavily on local community businesses, organizations, facilities, professional expertise, and local resources. In short, the model became “it takes a village”—a highly connected village.
It seems the sky’s the limit on rethinking, even eliminating, many traditional education systems and structures. Imagine what you could do with Steven Spielberg’s “Oasis” virtual reality world from Ready Player One in your instructional toolbox?
As the School’s Out team workshopped the idea with learner-centered educators from varied environments, it was quickly apparent we’d get no further than ten years into the future unless we could get outside the box of the traditional education paradigm. Recognizing the difficulty of imagining any School’s Out model a century in advance, we took a cue from the big-thinker futurists at MIT and developed a thought experiment leveraging “Science Fiction Prototyping” in an effort to wrap our minds around the seemingly impossible task of formulating the future. As the late Stephen Hawking posited, “Science Fiction is useful both for stimulating the imagination and for diffusing fear of the future.” While specifically predicting the future is not a realistic goal, envisioning a roadmap that steers clear of undesirable future scenarios is.
The School’s Out group took its prototype to another Education Reimagined convening in 2017. Participants were shown thought-provoking clips from select Sci-Fi films and presented with a rural community scenario to envision the infrastructure of a future learner-centered model, one free of conventional education systems and structures.
Concerns of creating economic inequity or high rates of under-employment and of dealing with limited budgetary resources were common stumbling blocks, so we encouraged workgroups to consider smaller rural communities where scale would not stifle creativity. Despite the limited resources and expertise in smaller isolated communities, the more feasible and effective such experiments seemed to be in comparison to simulations done within an urban context..
An important question arose from the ideas generated within this small town context: As the model begins to scale, how do we ensure the resultant policy infrastructure doesn’t begin to limit flexibility and personalization? Perhaps the greatest challenge in implementing any future learner-centered model without conventional systems and structures will be in scaling the model effectively, while ensuring equity.
What Happens When Connectivity Becomes Ubiquitous?
We can be assured that a variety of new technologies will increasingly be leveraged to address these issues of scale and equity in the coming century, while enhancing learner agency and other learner-centered elements. Although there is room for improvement in education’s overall embrace of technology, we have seen a relatively swift adoption in the last few decades. This demonstrates how new, previously unfathomable technologies might be embraced in the future, some significantly altering the landscape of education.
At present, ubiquitous connectivity is a road under construction. But, it will ultimately pave the way to augmented and virtual reality, as well as ever-present AI assistants—learning tools that will soon be as commonly accepted as the textbook is today. In today’s world, Google Glass might be the pinnacle of ubiquitous connectivity, but consider how such a product might advance in 100 years. Imagine a product the size of a dime, implanted subdurally, with increasing sensory and cognitive integration. Couple that with society’s increasing trust of ever-present AI assistants to handle more sophisticated tasks. It seems the sky’s the limit on rethinking, even eliminating, many traditional education systems and structures.
Imagine what you could do with Steven Spielberg’s “Oasis” virtual reality world from Ready Player One in your instructional toolbox? Could this one advancement call into question the need for physical school buildings as we know them (and a host of other supporting systems and structures)? Once again, these calls to imagine, although fun, are not frivolous. Tablets were conceived all the way back in 1968 in the classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Using Ready Player One as a way to look into the future is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Lastly, however unpalatable the thought, the endless quest for human enhancement is embedded in our DNA (no pun intended). The next century appears ripe for cybernetic enhancement, gene manipulation, and pharmacological advancements. One might scoff at any educational relevance, but consider the unquestioned acceptance and benefit of eyeglasses or hearing aids for those who are vision or hearing impaired? New technologies specifically designed for cognitive enhancement or learning acceleration actually exist in rudimentary form today and will promise benefits far greater than current assistive technologies. This tech is likely to become exponentially more sophisticated and commercialized over time such that future advancements in human enhancement could bring periods of significant educational inequity if we fail to design with this lurking problem in mind.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. If anything, it’s a gut check to get our minds thinking in new and transformative ways.
If we can easily envision a school bus driver, food worker, or groundskeeper being replaced by automation, then it seems quite probable that AI will take on other traditional roles in education, even instructional roles. A shocking notion perhaps, but when the school system implements driverless buses because they are cheaper and statistically 100 times less likely to be involved in an accident per mile driven than human drivers, resistance to such change will be brief.
Without question, similar exponential improvements upon normalcy will challenge our standards and further raise our expectations in many areas. The better the AI and automation gets, the more traditional careers it will infiltrate, if not entirely replace. Jobs and careers we assume are immutable today, even white-collar professions, could all but disappear for humans. Robotics is expected to be a $67 billion industry by 2030, ten times its size today. Automation is already emerging in driverless cars, logistics, postal mail, accounting, medicine, call centers, food service, and the travel industry to name just a few.
So far, automation has often improved the desirability and number of white-collar jobs, as blue-collar jobs disappear, at least in industrialized countries. However, that ten-fold growth in robotics by 2030 will result in the elimination of some 800 million jobs worldwide; jobs not likely replaced by more lucrative white-collar careers. While the pros and cons of these technologies in education will no doubt remain an unsettled debate, you can bet that the quest to lower costs and better predict outcomes will be difficult to resist. Regardless of any trepidation within education or the path it chooses in the future, adoption of automation, AI, and other new tech will certainly continue throughout all human affairs to dramatic societal effect. It’s the sci-fi equivalent of “resistance is futile.”
It’s not all doom and gloom though. If anything, it’s a gut check to get our minds thinking in new and transformative ways. If we can take on this challenge, the coming century in education will witness the convergence of many technological advancements and resultant societal challenges (aka opportunities), resulting in mutually beneficial solutions. Tech visionaries, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have suggested that these fundamental changes in the labor economy will necessitate and justify greater social support systems available to all citizens, such as healthcare and universal basic income.
Of interest to the educator’s perspective, small-scale experiments with such programs have resulted in very different, presumably truer-to-self education, career, and life choices of participants. That education and lifelong learning would be considered of greater societal value than they are today is not a stretch.
We will eventually ask ourselves, as future automation technology satisfies increasingly more of society’s labor needs, why would humans wish to continue to endure such monotonous and laborious work tasks if we don’t have to? From futurists to economic anthropologists, many thinkers are debating whether, contrary to our traditional full-employment work ethic, society’s goal should be 100% UNemployment. Would we not rather spend our short time alive learning, exploring the world, participating in human interactions, contemplating, creating, engaging in the arts, furthering science, or perhaps teaching the next generation how best to cope with change?
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