As much as I have enjoyed my vacation to Kenya and Uganda this winter, the experience has caused quite a significant evolution in my thinking about this continent I had never visited before, but had already built up so many impressions of from various sundry sources. More importantly, reflecting on the future of education has led me to some conclusions about the profound impact that technology can and ought to have for students who have historically had little access to schools, teachers, or the knowledge that many in the industrialized nations take for granted.
I suspect that Africa is a place that spawns significant reflection for a lot of visitors, from the failure of policy, governments, aid, and progress, to discussions of human need and the corruption of power. I had an intriguing discussion with a previous colleague about the systems of power and the building of more meritocratic social structures, and this got me thinking more broadly and hopefully about the future of education in the developing world as a driver of social equality.
Someone recently told me that their son had struggled with an online course in Algebra, in which the students had to work their way successfully through modules which taught and tested specific skills in math. And unlike being a kind of supplement for the course, this essentially was the course. This is, in its essence, a significant change in education that will occur over the next several decades: a push towards classes that rely heavily on tech and little to no teacher-student interaction. As much as many in the western world will complain, and in some measure with good reason, this is in fact an important and dramatic shift in educational thinking which will have reverberating consequences for learning worldwide. While I could focus on the negative aspects of this approach within the western world, I would like to instead focus on the amazing potential positive effect this will have on the developing world.
Consider the situation in Africa. Many children have practically no access to decent educational opportunities. There are not enough schools, and not enough teachers, and more importantly, not enough money for them to even attend those schools. Children who otherwise have all of the intellect, curiosity, and motivation to become teachers, artists, lawyers, leaders, or anything else that they are inclined to become, are relegated to crushing poverty and hopelessness because of their lack of resources. Now, with the advent of the internet and the slow progress toward effective programs that do not require significant input from teachers, the possibility for self-motivated individuals to satiate their personal interest in a subject will only become only more and more accessible.
But what will these future lessons look like? I once had a discussion with several people who thought that I was crazy to think that teachers could be mostly replaced in the learning process. But I think they were seeing the future much too narrowly. I can’t predict the timeframe of this vision, but I can see a not too distant future when students step into a pod surrounded by screens, or perhaps wearing virtual glasses, and the computer says into his headphones “Welcome, Jimmy, it’s been 3.4 hours since your last lesson. Would you like to continue where we left off, or are you interested in something else right now?” and Jimmy could literally have coherent conversations with his private computer tutor. I’m not just talking about robotic scripted dialogue. I’m talking about whole conversations where the computer literally remembers what Jimmy has said previously and speaks to him just like a human adult.
After a while the computer might say, “You look a bit tired. Would you like to play a game for a few minutes?” Or maybe the computer would say, “Remember we had that conversation about the domestication of maiz by the Aztecs. Do you remember the Aztec word for aiz?” and then when Jimmy responds “No, I don’t remember.” ZAAAAAPPPPPPP!!! As an electric shock runs up Jimmy’s spine. “Jimmy, do you remember now?”
I’m kidding, but the point is that every student on planet earth could have this software available to them for free. And granted it might not be the best way for all students to learn, nevertheless, it would be an effective way for any student to learn, whether child or adult. And this would be an unheralded step towards leveling the playing field for everyone, for giving access to learning to everyone, particularly to those who have been left out of consideration for far too long.
I am looking at a timeframe of 50 years here. Not at these primitive first steps we are currently seeing. I see a future where the computer is actually a better teacher than a human, because the computer has infinite patience and reacts to meet the needs of every individual student. And perhaps my vision is too revolutionary to be accomplished in 50 years, but when I look at photos of Shanghai just 20 years ago, or when I consider what Taipei must have looked like 50 years ago, I can look at Africa now and despite all of the pitfalls see the potential for a positive future.
Of course from a socio-political standpoint, there are still many questions to address. Practically everyone I know says we want to give every child an opportunity to learn and be successful, but when a software developer in the US hears that an engineer in India will work 16 hours a day for 1/5th the pay, they start to get squeamish about equal opportunity for all. It is still to be seen how the current power brokers will react to this threat to their influence, and whether they can devise new artifices to maintain their hold on power by continuing to marginalize large blocks of people, as they have always done, or whether a much more truly meritocratic society will emerge.