How Computer Technology Will Transform Schools Of The Future

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In the 1800’s, students sat in a classroom, listened to a teacher and took tests. In 2014, students do exactly the same thing, with maybe the addition of a pocket calculator and some slides.

Nearly every other industry has been changed beyond recognition by the invention of computers.  Why not education, arguably one of the industries with the most to gain?

The answer is probably some combination of rank incompetence, institutional conservatism, and perverse incentives.  It’s a mess, but the good news is that it’s going to change — a lot — soon.  The situation as it stands is fundamentally unsustainable, and new titans are emerging from the startup world, ready to wipe the floor with traditional academic practices.  Today, we’re going to be talking about the five biggest ideas that are going to change education more than you’d believe.

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5. Virtual Reality is Going to Change Field Trips Forever

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Plenty of research shows that interactivity and education-by-example is one of the most important factors in educating children.  Field trips in particular seem to improve retention of knowledge and context, and improve comprehension.

Children have reduced capacity for abstract thought and a lower threshold for boredom, which means that the most effective way to teach them is to physically embody the concepts to the greatest extent possible, and to try to make sure that they’re having fun while they learn, hence the enormous popularity of hands-on children’s museums and educational games and television shows.

Students whose teachers emphasize higher-order thinking skills and hands-on learning activities outperform their peers significantly. Students who engage in hands-on learning on a weekly basis outperform those who engage in this manner of instruction on a monthly basis. Students whose teachers conduct hands-on learning activities outperform their peers by 72% of a grade level in math and 40% of a grade level in science. This study indicates that the most effective classroom practices involve conveying higher order thinking skills and engaging in hands-on learning activities.

Education Testing Service, 2001

Unfortunately, many schools are eliminating this kind of educational content due to pressure to cut costs under programs like No Child Left Behind.

How could this tie into the recent rise of virtual reality, with the Oculus Rift?  For a relatively low cost (less than $1,000 per unit), every classroom could be provided with a few virtual reality headsets and PCs capable of driving them, which would open up immense educational opportunities.  If you want to teach a child about the solar system, the ability to physically drop them onto the surface of Mars and show them what the gravity there is like is an incredibly powerful educational tool.

If you want to teach them about dinosaurs, giving them the experience of the creatures towering over them will help to ensure that that lesson sticks.  History class could take students to recreations of ancient cities and historical events, and even math classes would benefit from the ability to generate 3D, spatial props to demonstrate abstract concepts.

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Furthermore, if the software used can run in largely autonomous mode, without direct teacher supervision, we could cheaply provide inner-city students with first-class educational resources, despite a lack of funding and a deficit of competent teachers in those districts.

One compelling, life-changing educational experience may be all it takes to change the course of one inner-city student’s life for the better. That one headset and computer could replace traditional textbooks, teacher time, educational props, and field trips, which cost far more than a VR headset.

So-called “blended” elementary schools (which combine computer education with human teachers) are already coming into existence without virtual reality, and are proving to be enormously effective at improving test scores in low-income students.  Virtual reality will only make these resources more engaging and more accessible. In fact, it has the potential to turn every primary education experience into “The Magic Schoolbus.”

4. Campuses Don’t Make Sense

There’s just as much room for improvement at the college level as there is at the elementary.  It’s becoming clear, as average student debt rises, that making students pay to come live in a concrete box full of other adolescents for four years is not actually a sane use of student money, or a good way to foster a productive educational environment.

While dorm living is a rite of passage in middle-class American culture, it’s also expensive, inconvenient, and can damage the learning environment (“party schools”). Campuses are nice, but the ivy is just not pulling its weight in terms of cranking out people qualified to participate in the new global economy.  The Manpower Group reports that more than 40% of all employers can’t find enough qualified graduates to fill the jobs they have available.

We are now in the seventh year of a worldwide talent crisis. Over one-third of employers are reporting that they are unable to find the talent their organizations need, according to ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey. This number is up from under a third, just three years ago, during the worst part of the recession. As economies improve, the talent crisis gets worse.

The expense introduced by physical campuses (which has increased more than five-fold since 1985) is simply out of reach for most low-income students.

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Distance learning via a computer is increasingly a more economical and more productive option for getting an education for students on a budget.  The software available for it right now isn’t great, but if software has one notable property, it’s that it gets better over time.  And, lest you decry the loss of face-to-face lecturing, remember that…

3. Lectures Are Broken

There is no reason to believe that making teenagers wake up early, sit in a room, and listen to someone talk for an hour and a half is a productive way to get knowledge into their heads.  Making matters worse, research is where funding comes from, so the lecturers themselves are generally hired for their research ability, and not their capacity to teach.

Actually educating students is just a messy necessity for the benefit of the taxpayers, and many lecturers hate it.  The result is that, often, you’ll have classes taught in such a way that neither the professor nor the hung-over students really want to be there, and that’s not good for the students’ chances of coming away with very useful knowledge.

Khan Academy, a web service that provides online courses on topics including math, science, history, economics and even computer programming, shows exactly what’s wrong with the traditional lecture, as those of you who have used it know.  We’ve written about Khan Academy before, back in 2010, and it’s only gotten better since then.  Khan academy lectures are broken up into bite-sized videos, about five-minutes each, which teach you one concept in a succinct and simple way.  The lecturer is unseen, and the focus is on the voice and a virtual blackboard that becomes filled with illustrations demonstrating the point in question.

This format introduces crucial advantages over the traditional lecture format: if you get tired, you can stop between videos and go get a snack or take a walk.  If you get confused in a given video, you can rewind it, pause it to Google something, or otherwise consume it at your own pace and your own convenience.

The videos are short enough that fatigue isn’t an issue, and students can watch them at any time, which means when they’re awake.  Students who are confused can post questions under the video, and the lecturers (or more advanced students) can get back to them, allowing students to see not just the answers to the questions of a few classmates, but the answers to the most prevalent questions of millions of classmates.

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Khan Academy is freely available everywhere on Earth, and has been translated into 24 languages by volunteers.  The goal of the nonprofit startup is to provide a world-class education everywhere on Earth, and they’re largely succeeding.

Khan Academy has six million students log on each month, making it the largest university on Earth, and is an official or unofficial part of the curriculum in 20,000 brick and mortar schools (in dozens of nations) around the world, with growth that shows no sign of stopping.  It’s also obviously the future of education. In ten years’ time, it and its competitors are going to wipe the floor with traditional colleges all over the first world.  The Economist reports that economist Alex Tabarrok believes that online universities can offer a fundamentally, economically better value proposition that brick and mortar schools.

[A]s prices converge towards marginal cost, there will be little scope for undercutting the competition. Instead MOOCs are likely to compete on quality. […] Higher production costs are a small price to pay to attract much greater numbers of students. Such markets often evolve into winner-take-all, “superstar” competitions. The best courses attract the most customers and profit handsomely as a result. In this respect online education may more closely resemble information industries such as film-making than service industries such as hair-cutting.

On the for-profit side of things, Coursera and Udacity are both cheap, online institutions that offer university-level academic and vocational courses in a variety of fields, and issue certificates that are rapidly becoming respected throughout industry.  Even the big ivy-league universities have started putting their lectures online in reasonably-sized pieces, and have seen an enormous response.

2. Robot Graders are the Future

The thing that comes along with online lessons is online assignments, which have, so far, not been that great.  Those of you who have used Mastering Physics know it as an expensive, buggy, finicky waste of everyone’s time.  However, it’s worth taking the time to see how close Mastering Physics and its ilk are to something really useful.

Instant feedback is crucial to student learning, and having a human on hand to grade every assignment in real time just isn’t practical.

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Luckily, we have robots for that now.  Khan Academy includes exercises after every few lessons to let you test your knowledge of the material covered, and users instantly know whether or not they got the exercise correct, and can access hints on solving the exercise.

Users have access to an infinite number of machine-generated problems, so they can keep going until they’re sure they understand the material, and then move on.  This kind of automated homework grading is rather limited in some ways currently– it works well for math problems, and topics that can be graded via multiple choice, but less well for topics like English and programming, where creation of complex structure is a vital part of the curriculum.

1. Tutors are Better than Professors

There will always be situations, for most people, where it’s necessary to actually speak to a live human being in order to understand a topic or get feedback on an assignment.  In that case, rather than having a single full-time human employee to do this for one or two hundred students, it makes more sense to have something resembling a call center of tutors, who can use Skype, chat, and communal drawing tools to clear up points of confusion and provide feedback on assignments that computers can’t.

The technology would provide access to similar collaboration tools as are available in person, but allows tutors to constantly log in and out from all over the world. Tutors can be called as a subroutine in the software, appearing when they’re needed and vanishing when they aren’t, without the necessity of paying them for unused hours.

Tutors can pop in to give advice on a single problem, without requiring students to save up their questions and dispense them all at once when they have time to go see a tutor.  Services like these already exist, including InstaEDU and Kaplan Kids.  These services will only become more commonplace as they fill in the gaps for services like Khan Academy.

What do you think the future of education will look like? Will it become more remote and computer-centered, or will humans remain in the traditional style of classroom instruction for the foreseeable future? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Image credits: white robot Via Shutterstock, “Campus Lake View“, by momo & her bffs, “Forschungs Campus Garching”, by digital cat,  “Large Lecture College Classes“, by Kevin Dooley, “”Untitled“, by Renee Barron, “Homework“, by Sean, “Robot Kids Camp: Virtual Reality“, by Michael Janssen

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