Stefan Drew

The agricultural revolution was followed by the industrial revolution and we have now entered the digital revolution.

The digital revolution means the end of teaching as we know it.

Am I being alarmist? Or sensationalist? Or maybe just plain stupid?

Well don’t judge me quite yet. These ideas are being considered at the highest levels. There are credible predictions that machines will largely replace teaching and lecturing staff in the foreseeable future.

Who is making these predictions? Thomas Frey, the senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, recently addressed this issue with the World Economic Forum in Davos. He predicts that by 2030 the largest company on the internet is going to be an education-based company that we haven't heard of yet. He doesn’t predict that teachers will disappear completely but that many of the things they now do will be replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Frey predicts that by 2030 most teaching will be via a very sophisticated type of MOOC with each lesson plan personalised to the individual sitting in front of the screen. The prediction is that because of the personalisation of material and teaching style students will learn at four to 10 times the normal speed.

He argues that AI is rapidly improving to the stage where this is “becoming” possible.

Twelve reasons teaching will rapidly change

“Becoming” is a word much spoken of by another futurist. Kevin Kelly lists it as one of the 12 inevitable forces that will shape our future. Each force is a verb that he predicts will shape our future.

Kelly says we have reached a time where technological change is no longer slow. Change is becoming extremely rapid with machines, especially those that employ AI, repeatedly becoming something new. An everyday example of this would be the Google search algorithm. Google is the number one search engine worldwide because it provides search results that provide great answers and user experience. Google have achieved this by using an AI powered algorithm that changes over 1000 times a year. Does your business improve 3-4 times a day like Googles?

Google isn't what it was yesterday. It has improved and is “becoming” something different every day.

Kelly's ideas suggest that in future AI will present lessons to our students in a variety of ways and build personalised programmes based on their responses. The verb he uses is cognify. In other words the machine will recognise and learn. Simple examples are car parking apps that recognise which car park you are in and sell you a ticket based on location. Or satnav systems that recognise that it is 7am on Monday and I'm probably going to the station. More complex examples include Google’s DeepMind software that can learn how to play video games! These simple examples are rapidly expanding and growing. They justify the prediction that Kelly makes of low cost, AI based, accelerated and personalised teaching being possible.

Will FE go with the flow?
Kelly's next verb is flowing. He believes that new ideas flow through society very quickly. Social media is an example where breaking news often reaches us via social media rather than newsrooms. A world where presidents make announcements on Twitter?

With ideas and information easily and quickly flowing through society then it can be argued that education and courses become a commodity. Why? Simply because anyone can copy them and deliver them online at nil cost. The value of good education in the future must be based on both the personalised delivery and the added value that can be added to the commodity.
A quick Google search for high quality free courses from some of the world’s leading universities will through up 1000s of results from Yale, Cornell, Penn, Oxford, Cambridge, etc. If you doubt that commoditisation exists then look at these courses. What makes these MOOCs stand out is quality and ease of access.

Kelly then goes on to talk about screening. We live in the world of the screen. Walk around your home and count them on TVs, iPads, Kindles, PCs, phones, microwaves, dishwashers, video recorders, security keypads, etc. There are billions of them in society. They are ubiquitous.

With screens you can share this article with friends and colleagues and there can be no doubt that each of us use numerous personalised screens every day. So why do we use a single screen at the front of each classroom? Why does each student not have a personalised screen providing material for them at the stage of learning they have reached?

With screen ubiquity comes access. Accessing information is so easy today. Look around you as you work and travel. How many people are accessing information through earphones or screens? Access is not time static, it is real time. Video recorders are dying out as real time access accelerates. Why record a film when you can access it on your TV to iPad for weeks, or even years, after it was live screen? Today we can all access Hangouts and make our own videos very quickly .. and to a reasonable quality standard.
A few years ago I used to carry a large heavy laptop when I visited clients. It stored all my files on its huge hard disk. Today I access those files in the cloud via an iPad that weighs next to nothing.

And speaking of iPads, and related technologies, they have promoted access by becoming platforms for other technologies. Today we have apps for our smartphones and iPads that can show where the train I'm on is in real time, can tell me which platform I need at the next station and allows me to order coffee before I reach the coffee shop. Teaching apps are in their infancy but promise to be the next big growth area.
The cloud has also stimulated access. The file I worked on in my office is now automatically shared with my iPad so I can access and work on it when travelling.

I previously mentioned sharing. Sharing per se is not the real benefit as I see it. It is sharing and collaborating that makes this a winner. Put a document in the cloud and your team or pupils can collaborate and improve it.
With so much information being available and shared Kelly identifies filtering as his next verb.

If you have as much music and other files as I have online, then the ability to filter that information makes it manageable. So when I want to find a particular genre, artist or song it is easy. I don't even need to type in my request. I can talk to my device and instruct it to stream my next lesson to a given classroom. And while I have my smartphone out I might as well change the room temperature settings.
Of course my device will record who accessed the temperature controls as easily as it tracks and records where each student is in their individual learning plan. Tracking and recording are more Kelly verbs.

So are interacting and questioning. To be able to question a machine and get a high quality answer is a revelation. Until recently it was not possible. But for the last six years I've been helping providers put AI driven QA systems on their websites. Ask the website a FAQ and before you can finish typing it the system can use predictive text to determine the question and provide an answer. This AI driven Chatline, because that is all it is, is able to learn from answers people have provided previously. The next time the question is posed it will respond before the questioner finishes typing the question. And like Siri and other voice activated controls it is very fast when the question is spoken rather than typed.

As education professionals we know about learning styles. And in future we will be able to embrace them in more depth with personalised learning. Let's for example say one student would like to visit a factory or beauty spot on the other side of the world because of their interest and learning style preference.

Today we can use virtual reality and immerse them totally in their visit without leaving the room. If you doubt the ability to do this at a reasonable cost look at the way some estate agents are now portraying houses. See this virtual house tour ..... and walk through via an iPad or immerse yourself totally with virtual reality goggles.

For the times they are a-changing
When I took my Cert Ed there was a session on epidiascopes, OHPs and coloured stencils. There was no mention of the BBC computer even though a few colleges had them in classrooms. In my lifetime we have moved from epidiascopes (look it up if you missed that lesson) to cloud based, AI dominated, personalised opportunities to teach and learn.

But as Kelly points out this is just the beginning. The question is will the sector continue to teach in groups where education is a commodity? Or will it pick up the gauntlet and provide each student with the high quality personalised learning they deserve?

On a personal note I believe teachers will not die out. But I do see their role changing to that of a mentor and guide. They will “light lamps rather than fill buckets”.

And is the above farfetched. As a child I read Arthur C Clarke and Asimov and was told I was a dreamer. Clarke predicted the ridiculous notion of geostationary satellites and Asimov wrote about robots.

If you use a satnav today then it will use used satellite technology. Your mobile phone also depends on satellites most days and robots will have built the vehicle you travelled in.

Of course I read Clarke and Asimov in a thing called a book published by a publishing house. Today only a third of books are published by publishing houses, two thirds are self published and the majority of books sold by Amazon are digital and never see a printing press.

This is only the beginning.

About Stefan Drew
FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US

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