Discussing The Future Of Education

The Future Of Education: Tomorrow’s Technology Will Make Us Either More Enlightened Or More Stupid

Recently, I was privileged enough to share a stage with Sugata Mitra, the esteemed Professor of Education Technology at the University of Newcastle and a seasoned TED speaker, at the Redesigning Education conference this year, where we presented our thoughts on the future of education.

In case you’re not already familiar with Professor Mitra’s work, back in 1999, he started his “Hole in the wall” project in India, and the learnings from one simple experiment continue to have deep implications on how children should learn today.

The Internet Debate  

As the debate unfolded, Professor Mitra proposed rather controversially that all students should have free access to the internet when they take exams. The counter argument for computers being decommissioned from classrooms has been well publicized. One study published by MIT recently showed a negative correlation between student performance in exams and frequent use of computers and tablets in classrooms.

Yet Professor Mitra’s logic, at one level, is sound. In the real world, you always have access to the internet and from a real world productivity perspective, it’s more important that a student knows how to effectively use the internet to answer a question than it is for a student to be able to recall the answer from memory.

Elaborating on this further, he used the example of the question: “Why are flowers shaped the way they are?” He further explained that when young children are asked this question as a group and given access to the internet, they rapidly come up with the answer that it has something to do with fractals. Through employing this process, children learnt a great deal and their confidence grew.

But here in lies the conundrum.

Google's Artificial Intelligence

Two years ago, if you had been asked that very same question, you might have typed into Google “flowers shape”. From then, you would probably have looked at five to ten of the resulting answers and perhaps seen the word “fractals” mentioned several times. To examine this further, perhaps you would have then refined the search again and typed in something like “flowers shape fractals” which would then yield relevant articles explaining the relationship in more detail.

Today, the efficiency of search is much more sophisticated. You could type in: “Why are flowers shaped the way they are?” and Google might actually give you a decent answer, with little requirement to refine your questioning. In fact, we are rapidly approaching the point where you can type into Google almost any question you’d like and get the perfect answer every time.

It’s clear that Google is getting smarter and its AI (Artificial Intelligence) engines are starting to hone in on real answers to real questions.

From the student question perspective, there are now even websites such as Brainly, where you can go and type in an exam question and get an immediate answer. If it is the first time someone has asked that specific question, other students using the platform will quickly answer. If the question has been asked before, the answer will come up immediately.

This is just the latest education-specific example of a crowdsourcing approach to answering questions originally pioneered by products such as Yahoo Answers.

But is the very idea that a student can take an exam, type a question into Google, and then copy and paste the perfect answer into their exam paper an ideal and effective way of testing ability and competence? Probably not. Yet, we’re perhaps about five years away from getting to the point where Google or other search engines reach this level of capability.

What Will "Learning" Mean in The Future?

The exam question is really a bit of a distraction. The real question is: What will “learn” mean when you can immediately get the answer to any question for which the answer is already known from a resource like Google or some other search engine?

I asked Professor Mitra this question and he gave a fascinating answer: If a student can translate any text simply by pointing his phone at it, then there is no point in the student learning foreign languages. To all intensive purposes, the student can understand all foreign languages.

Yet the reality is that we aren’t that far away from having our own personal real-time translator in the palm of our hands.

Ultimately, these developments will have profound implications on the future of education. Some of the questions we need to consider are, as AI technology advances, will we –as humans– be able to advance to a new level of learning whereby the only interesting questions to ask are those that no human has been able to answer yet?  Could we be entering a new age of questioning, a new age of enlightenment, unleashing a new hunger for knowledge that will lead us to push the very boundaries of what we already know about our world and our universe?

And what about the flipside? Could AI developments incur the exact opposite of enlightenment to the point where we start to rely ever more on computers to answer our questions and therefore lose the ability to answer them ourselves ,or are we in fact entering a new age of stupidity?

Even before AI and crowdsourcing “solve” this problem for answering every question, you and I have already have started using computers to answer questions which we could very well answer ourselves.  As Professor Mitra pointed out, if I asked you to answer the question, what is 14.5% of 63, you would, without a second thought, get out your calculator or phone or even go to Google search and type it in. The answer is 9.135.

Artificial Vs Human Intelligence  

In our tech-optimized world, are we growing to become ever more lackadaisical in our approach to learning, interested only in finding out the correct answer with ease and accessibility with little regard for the intrinsic methodologies used to calculate the correct answer in the first place?

Outside the classroom, perhaps. Inside the classroom, it still remains the role of the teacher to inspire, encourage, support, and elicit a child’s innate curiosity in a way that personally and intellectually nourishes them. It’s about unlocking interest in how things work. Teachers need to forge a productive relationship with technology and use it in a way that enhances traditional pedagogy to drive meaningful engagement and effective learning.

Aside from Google’s own AI innovation, data and algorithms have the power to really transform learning and optimize teaching to drive progression: From teacher dashboards such as those that we’re currently pioneering, which give that instant deep dive analysis on pupil performance to identify those all-important learning gaps, to the creation of a virtual tutor that will learn and remember –in intimate detail– every single exercise that you ever did, and compare that to the millions of other students in real time for a truly bespoke and personalized lesson.

The future of education lies in harnessing technology to make us learn quicker, memorize effectively, and teach better. Used effectively under the direction of passionate and experiential teachers, Artificial Intelligence will be a tool that helps us strive towards a new age of enlightenment, which in turn, will transform the teaching and learning process into something more immersive, engaging, and effective than ever before.

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