Futures: Technology

SMUS-Views-Bob

“… and read these 50 pages for tomorrow.”

Teachers were able to introduce this innovation to education after the year 1440, when Johannes Gutenberg invented possibly the most disruptive technology of the last thousand years: the printing press. By the time my teachers were giving me this homework, over 600 years later, it was no longer an innovation. Its latest iteration is called the “flipped classroom.”

Our school has done its own exploring and investigating of the best uses of technology; we no longer rely so much on the printing press. Briefly, five or six years ago, we introduced online courses of our own creation; we even went to the trouble of establishing St. Michaels University School (again, briefly) as an online school, since it seemed to be a requirement of offering online courses in the province of B.C. To make a long story short: although many online courses and online schools now exist, they do so flying in the face of emerging research – at this point modest in scale – that students learn better when a teacher is around.

Learners and teachers shouldn’t unplug, however. An article I recently read informs me, “researchers at Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, who’ve been experimenting with computer-based learning for years, have found that when machine-guided learning is combined with traditional classroom instruction, students can learn material in half the time.”

I would say that now, or very soon, at SMUS, some version of the flipped classroom will be the norm. Simply put: the learner watches the lesson, or reads the material, or conducts a simulation, etc., online, and class time is spent on thinking, learning and interacting at a higher level than the intellectual operations involved in simply absorbing and trying to remember material.

These paragraphs are a little peek into some of the consultation and discussion that has taken place as the Futures Project has unfolded over the past year. For readers who skipped the first couple of blog posts (to get to the “good part”, no doubt) about the Futures Project, this is a task I have been asked to undertake to identify those three or four main themes – or three or four most important questions – that we must contemplate when we look ahead 10 or 20 years as a school. It’s not so much an exercise in prediction; it’s more an exercise in peering through binoculars into some very shifting mists. After a lot of peering, a few shapes become discernible.

One of these shapes, to no one’s surprise, is the influence of technology. In 10 years’ time, a few things will be different: the Internet of Things will have become the Internet of Me. When I walk into a room – a classroom, say – the room won’t wait for me to turn things on; it will already know who I am, what my preferences are, what information I am probably looking for, and I probably won’t have to take a screen out of my pocket. The screen will be embedded in any number of surfaces, or will dance in front of me as a hologram.

Virtual Reality will be our normal classroom reality: simulations and interactions will be the water our students swim in, rather than a novelty they plug in. Not only this, a more profound evolution will cause us to question one of the foundations of a school like ours. These are two examples of the broader and almost ubiquitous (already) development of Artificial Intelligence. In the future, when Artificial Intelligence has taught itself to conduct (as it will) even the high-level intellectual operations of critical thinking, computation, fuzzy thinking, problem-solving, then a student’s effectiveness in acquiring these skills will no longer define excellence. So what will it mean to be excellent, in this context? If we don’t ask this question, and ask it soon, we will be at the mercy of other people’s answers.

Our School aspires to excellence; we believe our students should aspire to excellence. It is a defining element of SMUS. It is not a notion where we can afford to follow the thinking of others; we have to lead.

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Bob Snowden
Bob Snowden is Head of School at St. Michaels University School.

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