There is an enormous digital 3D human eye in the middle of the room. The screen shows it sitting right in front of me. I know it’s not really there, yet I can’t resist reaching out to touch it.
The technologies on display at the recent Bett Asia 2017 global edtech summit in Kuala Lumpur were certainly eye-opening. Emerging technologies like augmented reality and artificial intelligence – once confined to high-tech design labs – are now making their way into our classrooms, as teachers embrace them as learning tools.
The kids in our classrooms today learn differently to kids ten years ago.
Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s Vice President Global Education describes today’s kids as ‘fidgetals’.
“We think of Generation Z as the first Fidgetal generation – students in classrooms who don’t see a difference between the education and the digital realms they enjoy.”
Most students these days are as proficient on an iPad as they are on a scooter. Salcito says when it comes to education, schools need to meet their market.
“Technology is inherent to them. This will create tensions as we play ‘catch up’ and try to understand how they think about the world around them.”
Salcito says it’s not about using technology for technology’s sake. The focus should be on helping students find new ways to learn that produces good outcomes – and if this means more immersive experiences using the latest technologies, then great. Here are a few that are set to enter our classrooms:
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
We take it for granted that Google can predict what we want to find and that Facebook can recognize our faces in photographs. We know it’s only a matter of time before our car drives us, rather than the other way around. AI is set to be part of our world – not just in the way we use our devices, but in our everyday existence. So the entrance of AI into the humble classroom is not totally unexpected.
Even so, seeing a robotic hand used as a learning tool still blew me away. Teachers can now get their (human) hands on lesson plans and equipment that allow students to build machines that emulate human body parts. In a collision of life sciences, robotics, data sciences, and engineering, students can build a sensorised glove and from there, a robotic hand.
Back to that 3D eye in the middle of the room. Mixed or augmented reality is a blended form of virtual reality and real-life and can make learning feel more ‘real’ or ‘touchable’. Kids can create something – anything! – in a program like Minecraft and export it into Mixed Reality Viewer (free and native to Windows 10) where it seemingly becomes part of the real world.
Tools like Microsoft HoloLens – essentially a headset that transforms abstract concepts into 3D experiences – can bring new meaning to interactive learning. Social studies is set to become much more exciting with opportunities to recreate historical sites and explore other countries and cultures. Lessons on space and astronomy will be transformed. Learning a musical instrument will be easier than ever.
Advertisers have been aware of the potential of big data for some time – data driven marketing has led to the era of personalized online ads.
In education terms, online learning tools and learning management systems can gather achievement data and socioeconomic information to help us understand where New Zealand schools sit on an international stage, where our schools sit in relation to each other, and even the performance of individual students.
Collecting and analysing data is one thing; it’s using it to identify trends, predict outcomes and knowing how to intervene to drive better outcomes that’s the real key. As with targeted online ads, data should enable us to provide a more personalized learning experience to meet the needs of each individual student.
Graham Brown-Martin, founder of Learning without Frontiers, believes in order to achieve a more personalised approach to learning we need to value small data more.
“This has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with talking to our students more.
“A Harvard longitudinal study showed that the key to happiness is relationships – yet there is nothing in our schooling to teach relationships.”
Brown-Martin says the focus of education should be on projects, passion, peers and play.
Internet of Things (IoT)
The days of stuffy classrooms with poor air conditioning, dim lighting and dodgy internet connection are nearly behind us. The Internet of Things – basically a network of connected devices – can enable “smart” classrooms that collect, analyse and package data about noise, temperature, lighting and so on to enable optimal learning conditions. Some research suggests that our students could one day find themselves sitting on smart chairs with pressure sensors collecting data about them.
Learning in the cloud
Bett Asia speaker Dr Matt Harris from the British School Jakarta says many schools have evolved beyond platform loyalty when it comes to BYOD (bring your own device) programmes.
Opaheke School in Auckland is one such school. Its BYOD scheme is called ‘My Mobile Learning’ and principal Sean Valvoi says it doesn’t matter what device students use.
“It’s not about the device, but the pedagogy behind the device.”
Being able to access their work in the cloud at any time or place is more important than which device students use, according to Harris.
“I always say to my students, ‘A broken device is not an excuse’,” he says. In a cloud-based environment, there are other ways to access your work beyond your device.
The cloud has introduced more flexibility into education. It has given rise to flipped learning – where traditional homework time is used to read the learning materials and class time is used to discuss specific issues and engage in project-based learning.
For all the bells and whistles available to the modern educator, there is broad agreement that a teacher’s focus should be on pedagogy and enabling 21st century skills like critical thinking, collaboration and creativity. Emerging technologies are merely tools in a teacher’s toolkit.
“I always say, ‘If technology isn’t useful, don’t use it’,” says Microsoft’s Don Carlson.
Minecraft Education director Neal Manegold agrees.
“It’s not enough for teachers to say, ‘I’m cool, I’m using Minecraft’. Students need to be able to show the benefits of what they’re doing and what they’ve learned.”
Education is fundamentally changing. But while technology is inevitably part of the new order, Salcito says it isn’t merely a proxy for tools and systems teachers have used in the past.
“We’re not using technology to recreate an old system of education.”