Visions of learning in 2020 will help shape future ed-tech policy

A new report that forecasts what education will look like in the year 2020 will help shape the new National Educational Technology Plan due in January as required by the No Child Left Behind Act, as well as the president’s budget priorities for education research.

The report, “2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies,” was released Sept. 17 by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Technology Administration in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

“2020 Visions” is a compilation of 14 short stories written by experts and scholars that illustrate what a child’s day might be like in a futuristic, technology-infused world.

These fictional accounts describe students learning through simulations, immersive environments, game playing, intelligent tutors, networks of learners, and digitized content.

“They really stretch our traditional notions of education,” said John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology. “I think that is always helpful when you are setting out to plan education.”

Representatives from Harvard University, the National Education Association, Microsoft Corp., WorldCom, and more contributed to the report.

What is absent from the tales is as important as what they describe, Bailey said. “You don’t see a lot of reference to schools, you don’t see a lot of reference to grade [levels],” he said.

Some vignettes are optimistic and describe scenes where learning is engaging, enticing, and takes place all day. Students interact virtually with multiple experts, engage in hands-on simulations, and education is personalized for each student.

Others highlight sinister consequences in which students become anti-social, they drown in information, and robots replace teachers entirely while corporations profit.

Each author predicts which technologies will succeed and fail. For example, Randy Pausch, co-director of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, writes, “Virtual reality will (finally!) arrive, and we won’t use it very much. While the experience of being perceptually immersed is extremely powerful, the cost (not in the technology, but in the content matter) of developing these experiences will remain prohibitive. How often does Hollywood spend $100 million on a film to teach history to third graders?”

Different roles for teachers

Ruzena Bajcsy, director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, suggests that school buildings might not be necessary in 2020 because of a technology still in development, called tele-immersion. This technology could project a three-dimensional, life-like image of the teacher to a student’s home, for example, and they could meet and interact online in real time.

But tele-immersion could present some problems, Bajcsy said. “One open question remains—can the tele-presence reproduce a sense of being there, so that what is learned transfers to the real world?” she wrote. She added that this technology would require significant financial investment to be usable and sustainable.

Teachers would not lecture in the future, ventured Caleb Schutz and Vinton Cerf of WorldCom. Instead, students’ learning would be self-paced, they said.

Many authors predicted that computers imbedded in everything from furniture to clothing would assess, track, and monitor students’ progress and interest in various subjects—even from the moment they woke up in the morning. Computers would start creating these profiles for children when they are infants. Their toys, and other things they touched, would access and record their interest and behaviors.

Some expect robots to play a larger role in educating students. For example, Chris Dede, a Timothy Wirth professor of learning technology at Harvard University, describes a school where “machine-based ‘intelligent’ tutors” replace some teachers and reduce the need for so much staff.

“While the school board appreciated the cost savings with a pupil-teacher ratio of 150 to 1, maintaining order with that many students was hard even with the ever-vigilant Hal-tutors monitoring each classroom,” Dede wrote in his vision.

While some predict student-teacher ratios will widen, others predict technology will facilitate one-on-one tutoring and apprenticeship relationships, reminiscent of the days before the printing press.

Michael Zyda, director of the Modeling, Virtual Environments, and Simulation (MOVES) Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School, and Douglas H. Bennett, study director for the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board, described a future where students each have their own “constant school-time companion.” This companion—known as a “Cog” in the story—is a wearable robot that provides students with specific instruction and guidance.

“Spiral kicked at the dirt in the recess yard. He looked up and saw a group of his classmates looking at him and whispering. They knew his Cog, Vivian, was chastising him through his ear gels—the combination speaker and microphone that molded like soft chewing gum to the inner curve of each ear,” they wrote.

In their vignette, a corporation designs the Cog by studying the science behind teaching, and eventually these Cogs completely replace teachers.

“We put monitoring systems in over a thousand classrooms across the United States and watched them for over a year. We were able to break down exactly how the best teachers teach kids and turn that into a personalized teaching device for students. That is where the Cogs came from. And, in the process, we created a one-to-one student-teacher ratio,” Zyda and Bennett wrote.

Use of the report

Looking into the future nearly 20 years, the report aims to give policy makers some guidance as to technology’s potential to transform learning, for both good and ill effect. It also aims to suggest what additional research is needed and what challenges lie ahead.

“We can’t plan for what we don’t know, but we can set up some good guidelines for the technology that is going to exist,” said Bailey, who added that policy makers at the federal level likely will incorporate some of the concepts outlined in the report when they draft a new national ed-tech plan this fall.

Ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News were pleased that this forward-thinking document would be used to shape education policy.

“Here we have a very fine document written by leading lights in education, but what do we do next? I was very pleased to hear from John Bailey that this report is going to be used to help form the next educational technology plan,” said Irene Spero, executive director of the SchoolTone Alliance and director of external relations for NetDay.

“I read all of the vignettes with interest and am excited about what [some of] the visionaries are predicting. … [S]ome of the things they predict are starting to happen already in our schools,” said Kathy Schrock, technology coordinator for the Nauset Public Schools in Massachusetts.

“The one thing I did notice was that none of the vignettes was written by a practicing educator,” Schrock said. “I feel that a practicing educator could have written an additional compelling vignette which illustrated [his or her] perception of technology use in the classroom in 2020.”


“2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies”

eSchool News Staff

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