Forecasting the Future Over Three Horizons of Change

May 21, 2010
Phil McRae

Making predictions about the future is an inherently fragile activity. Rarely is the imagined future of education accurate; more often than not it tilts heavily in either an overly optimistic or a deeply pessimistic direction. For example, in the early 1920s Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and ... in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks” (Oppenheimer 1997). This prediction was followed 40 years later with psychologist B. F. Skinner’s assertion that the dawn of the machine age of education had finally arrived and that “with the help of teaching machines and programmed instruction, students could learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom” (Oppenheimer). Well, the proliferation of motion pictures has not fully withdrawn the desire for educational print, and the teaching machines (whatever you imagine those to be) have not yet displaced the will for teachers and students to gather together to learn in classrooms.

For many years, I have found myself researching, teaching and scholarship with one foot in curriculum studies and one in emerging technologies. I am most intrigued by the way technology is taken up in the field of education and society, and prefer to explore the sociological implications of technologies to enhance learning rather than the physical technologies themselves. Even more important to me is how technology is (re)presented, or should I say marketed, as an object of desire and an item of necessity for educational progress. Let me attempt to forecast some of the effects of technologies on education within three horizons of change.

The first is the short-term horizon of one to two years, with the trends well along the way to becoming a reality. The second horizon is a midterm forecast of three to five years, which is likely to be accurate, but remember that funny things can happen on the way to the future (think biomedical innovations, global economic crisis, climate change chaos and pandemics). The last horizon is the long-term horizon, which pushes 10 years into the future—a much hazier view that allows for a far-reaching prediction of a world where people and things are always digitally connected (think Marshall McLuhan’s Global Village). In discussing these predictions, I hope not to overestimate what will emerge in two years while underestimating the state of affairs in a decade’s time. I am certain; however, that we live in a time of exponential change, and what we imagine might take 50 years will likely happen within the decade. The path ahead will be riddled with dynamic changes to educational practice defined by speed, complexity, risk and unanticipated events (funny things happening on the way to the future). What follows may be just a glimpse of Albertans’ multidimensional future.

Short-Term Horizon (One to two Years)

In the short term, there is going to be an increased appetite to digitally connect and network teachers, educational administrators, students and parents in online collaborative spaces (portals). If you have been asked to be part of a school jurisdiction portal or have created a space for your own students to have conversations (think Moodle) or have participated in an online professional learning community, then you are immersed in this trend already. The demand for more online networking is a result of the global explosion of social networking (think Facebook), which is the second most popular activity on the Web after searches (see Alexa.com). Education will follow this trend by creating digital portals as spaces to seed or stimulate educational conversations and to network individuals.

Many online collaborative spaces that emerge in the short term will migrate into cloud computing platforms. Cloud computing pulls together an individual’s or groups’ digital activities, such as document (co)creation, e-mail, video, spreadsheets, instant messaging and discussion forums—all remotely stored and accessed through the Internet. If you have ever used Google documents, Gmail or Google spreadsheets, then you have participated in cloud computing, a trend that will explode in the next two years, essentially because of the proliferation of mobile devices connected to the Internet, the potential cost savings for educational organizations, and the desire for individuals and groups to access (at point of need) information and resources through the World Wide Web. This new scenario is one of computing “everyware,” and it is enhanced by increased digital mobility, which is connecting information and people in real time (think iPhone and iPad).

There are three considerations (among many) with this trend. The first is the fragmentation of the already stretched time available in the full lives of students, teachers, educational administrators and parents. There are only so many hours in a day, and the question will be which of these online collaborative spaces are important to an individual. Which portals will flourish and which will turn into dry lake beds of inactivity? Time is among the most precious commodities in our increasingly distracted lives, and finding time to participate and to create and maintain a digital presence will be an ongoing challenge. 

The second is to consider the growing paradox of socially connected isolation. To what extent may we inadvertently be displacing some important face-to-face connections and increasing feelings of alienation within a profession often defined by isolation?

The third consideration is privacy—pervasive monitoring and the deliberate deleting/removing content from the cloud or online collaborative spaces. If student work is co-created in a digital space for educational purposes, at what point will it be deleted? Will the digital footprints of teachers and students be forgotten in the cloud, only to be recalled in 10 years as historical artifacts? Going forward, we must be vigilant and thoughtful about the role of privacy in a public (digital) space.

Midterm Horizon (three to five Years)

In the medium term, we’ll see the emergence of the “Internet of Things.” This is a trend by which everyday objects are always connected to the Internet. An associated term is smart objects, where objects appear to hold intelligence as they draw information continuously from the World Wide Web. Think about how cars today are enabled with GPS (Global Positioning System) tracking, and how that has changed the way a vehicle moves about geography in conjunction with live satellite feeds. Now take that same concept and imagine it in your classroom, where objects will continuously draw information from the Internet in real time. For example, the globe in a social studies classroom visually shows earthquakes, storms or international events as they occur by pulling information directly from the World Wide Web. Or the cafeteria’s Internet-connected refrigerator monitors food quality via sensors, notifies the school when the milk is about to expire, or suggests foods that should be purchased to provide a healthy diet for students. The Internet of Things and live connection to the Web will begin to have a profound influence on the nature of our connection with objects, information, people and knowledge. It will begin to turn innocuous objects into sensors and, on a micro-scale, will begin to change the process by which we collect and access information and people in real time “everyware.” From an environmental perspective, it will also mean a proliferation of digital refuse as we dispose of these everyday objects and their digital sensors.

Again, a consideration in this medium term will be increased surveillance, and as we become accustomed to objects as sensors connected to the global Internet, questions will arise about how the machines are influencing personal choices and perceptions of the world.

Long-Term Horizon (five to ten Years)

In the longer term, with the explosion of digital connectivity “everyware,” students, teachers, educational administrators and parents will be able to access the information they want—how they want it, when they want it and where they want it (think personalized learning at any time, place or pace). This may sound idyllic (or horrifying) to you, but wait for my discussion of how it will challenge the role of diversity and critical thinking in our society.

In a decade’s time, we’ll be immersed in a world where online/offline boundaries will have blurred to non-existence and where we will be supported by machines talking to machines. This is the space to which I dedicated a great deal of my doctoral studies, identifying the challenge of the echo-chamber effect online to the role of critical thinking in our educational environments. The echo-chamber effect is a condition arising in an online community where participants find their own opinions constantly echoed back to them, thus reinforcing a certain sense of truth that resonates with their individual belief systems. Participants within online collaborative spaces will always act in human ways: that is, people will gravitate toward and will be more comfortable communicating with those who share their ideas, conceptions of the truth, cultures and communication styles.

The contemporary World Wide Web is rapidly moving toward what Sir Tim Berners-Lee has called the “Semantic Web” (Berners-Lee 1999; Berners-Lee, Hendler and Lassila 2001). Berners-Lee, the chief architect and creator of the World Wide Web, has been working on the next generation of the Internet at MIT for over a decade. He has articulated his vision for the Semantic Web as follows:

I have a dream for the Web. … [Computers] become capable of analyzing all the data on the Web—the content, links, and transactions between people and computers. A “Semantic Web,” which should make this possible, has yet to emerge, but when it does, the day-to-day mechanisms of trade, bureaucracy, and our daily lives will be handled by machines talking to machines. … The intelligent “agents” people have touted for ages will finally materialize. (Berners-Lee 1999, 157–58)

The future of the Internet will then appear to be a technological perfection, where we have information and people creating knowledge tailored to our specific interests and ideological orientations. This will have a profound effect on critical thinking as people are increasingly fed only the exact type of information (specific political views, topical book themes, local environmental conditions) and sources (individual blogs, mainstream media online, ethnically oriented Web spaces) to which they digitally subscribe. In many ways, this personalized (customized) digital state is already in its infancy; consider the highly accurate book recommendations (based on purchasing habits) from Amazon.ca, and RSS (Really Simple Syndication), which delivers (feeds) information updates from select websites to a highly personalized Web portal. This active screening (out) of content, facilitated by the emergent nature of the Semantic Web, is a state that Nicholas Negroponte (1995), director of the MIT Media Lab and chairman of the global One Laptop per Child Initiative, has dubbed the “Daily Me.” As people engage in a blurred online/offline reality, with only the content that they want to see, hear and read about, then notions of diversity will be increasingly challenged, while free will and personal choice will take on new (and obscured) meanings in these echo chambers. In considering this long-term trend, we need to be thoughtful about the role of critical thinking, diversity and chance (serendipity), and their importance to learning and society, and to the long-term implications of driving digital personalization (customization) within our educational discourse.

Conclusion

A funny thing always seems to happen on the way to the future: an ancient perspective rises up and demands that the education of our next generations should not be about machines (videoconferencing, laptops and handheld devices and learning objects) but, rather focus on a community of learners whose physical, intellectual and social well-being is held sacred. This point of view is driven by the human desire to connect, maintain friendships, tell stories, share thoughts and inquire into the nature of the world. It is a perspective that naturally flows together with the research on learning that suggests that education is about not just content or physical place but also a collective and highly relational set of experiences within a community of learners. In the research on education, learning is successful when it is socially constructed, and occurs in an active and inquiry-oriented process that engages people in social, emotional, cultural and deeply intrapersonal experiences. This research will likely hold true whether our future learning environments are enacted face to face, online or in blended learning online/offline contexts as this carbon and silicon line begins to blur. It also holds true regardless of whether one is considered digitally literate or whether one is a member of the New Millennial Generation (Gen M).

As we chart our way across these horizons, I humbly offer two considerations. The first is that we recognize that technology use in education is not monolithic. Age, gender and education level all determine how students might use digital media. Just as the socioeconomic status of students and teachers, along with the diverse attitudes and values of students and their parents and peers, will all have significant influence on the way emerging technologies enter into their lives. As teachers, we need to be especially thoughtful to the appropriateness of technology use with young children. A wake-up call for Canadians came in October 2009 in the form of a recommendation from the Canadian Paediatric Society that children under the age of two should not be exposed to any screen time whatsoever. The American Academy of Pediatrics adopted this same recommendation back in 1999 and reaffirmed its position in 2001. Let’s not be monolithic in our consideration of educational technology for learning, instead we should question the appropriateness of technologies at different stages of human development. What do you think should be the range of guidelines for screen time within a 24-hour period specific to the different ages and developmental stages of children?

The second consideration is recognizing that 21st-century skills are much more than technological competencies for a skilled and globally competitive workforce. The next generation will face enormous challenges posed by global climate change, water consumption, overpopulation, economic destabilization, urbanization and pollution, and in Alberta we will all be confronting the deeply ethical and moral implications associated with the transnational flow of people, ideas, technology and culture (globalization).

As we co-create the future and strive for a more innovative, creative and dynamic education system in Alberta, let us consider the courageous uses of educational technologies that will help to build compassion, (global) citizenship, service and perseverance in our students’ lives. The future will require a curiosity and consciousness of different perspectives, along with a resilient and engaged population that understands that long-term commitments to complex challenges will be necessary if we are to flourish as Albertans.

REFERENCES

Berners-Lee, T. 1999. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Its Inventor. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Berners-Lee, T., J. Hendler and O. Lassila. 2001. “The Semantic Web.” Scientific American 284 (May): 34–43.

Negroponte, N. 1995. Being Digital. New York: Knopf.

Oppenheimer, T. 1997. “The Computer Delusion.” Atlantic Monthly 280, no 1 (July): 45–62.

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Dr. Phil McRae is an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers’ Association.