Classrooms of the future

Digital technology offers many intriguing possibilities but cannot replace all-important human relationships, experts tell a Victoria University of Wellington ‘Education for 2050’ workshop.

Imagine a class of 30 students, each receiving the benefit of personalised tuition thanks to a computer tutor that can understand a child’s emotional state from their facial expression, body posture and tone of voice.

Or a virtual reality (VR) system that takes a child to places they could not visit. Ancient Rome, for example, simulated using the same technology used to make video games or movie visual effects.

Or even being able to take all the data about a child and use a machine-learning system to predict behaviour, determine which module might be best for the child to tackle next and assess their most appropriate career options, and therefore subject choices.

Such scenarios sound far-fetched for a New Zealand classroom today, but so did the internet and pocket computers when scientists predicted them from a pre-moon-landing world in 1968.

Education and computing experts offered these and other glimpses into an intriguing future when they considered the impact of digital technologies like VR, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data on education over the next 30 years at an ‘Education for 2050’ workshop at Victoria University of Wellington.

“Digital technology has developed dramatically in the past 30 years and we can expect it to develop considerably further in the next 30,” says workshop co-organiser Professor Neil Dodgson, from the university’s school of engineering and computer science.

Rise of the digital age

In the 1980s, the first computers were brought into schools, but were limited to a few machines in each school. Email and internet access became more common throughout the 1990s, while Google was launched in 1998 and Wikipedia in 2001.

“Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, schools increased the use of computers for administration, teaching and learning, but BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) didn’t become possible until the mid-2010s when prices of portable devices dropped significantly,” Dodgson says.

“The computer has gone from being a specialist piece of equipment to something ubiquitous and is taking over the role of the pen and exercise book. Googling has taken over from using reference texts and students have access to far more information than used to be possible.”

Over the next 30 years, it will be the developing technologies that are most likely to cause substantial changes, from machine learning and big data applied to students to inform teaching methods, to virtual and mixed reality providing uniquely interactive educational experiences.

“AI will provide a computer with the ability to recognise emotional states, will understand speech in context and will be able to answer children’s questions appropriately using intelligent searches of the whole Internet,” Dodgson says.

“I want to see digital technology being used to augment what human teachers can do.”  – Professor Neil Dodgson

Although there is excitement and anticipation about these new technologies’ potential for educating people, the assembled experts grounded it in a firm shared belief in the relational nature of education and the view that technology cannot replace human relationships.

“Much of education revolves around how people interact with other people. We need to get our values right before we start talking about any technology,” says Dodgson.

“Technology is just a tool and too much reliance on it could mean children fail to develop proper abilities to cope with inter-personal relationships. A big concern for the workshop participants was people who have a blind faith that technology solves everything.”

A prime example of how this issue might play out in a classroom of the future is a child who spends six hours a day with a computer tutor. Such a teacher is infinitely patient, never tires or gets angry and is never unpredictable, so how would that child learn to cope with a normal human being who is none of those things?

“I want to see digital technology being used to augment what human teachers can do,” says Dodgson. “There is much to be said for having personally tailored tutoring. However, we cannot believe computers can replace humans, because so much of education is about learning what it means to be human.”

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