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The technology of teaching

3 March 08 13:45 GMT

Learning looks set to undergo a big change as novel technologies make it into the classroom, says Bill Thompson.

"When Conservative Prime Minister Harold MacMillan was asked what was most likely to cause problems for governments he famously replied "events, dear boy, events".

Coping with the completely unexpected, the sort of thing that simply cannot be anticipated, is a skill in itself and one that all politicians have to develop if they are to stay in power.

Often, however, apparently unpredictable events were in fact only unobserved, and the things that threw a government off course managed to do so only through a lack of planning or awareness.

When the changes are brought about by technological innovation rather than the vagaries of the global economy or the apparently random acts of a foreign government there is little real excuse for not having a go at prediction.

This is certainly the case with changes brought about by new technologies.

After all, as the great SF writer William Gibson put it, "the future is already here. It's just not very evenly distributed" because the key technologies we will all be using in five or even ten years time have already been invented, they just take a while to become widespread.

The touchscreen on the iPhone and iPod Touch are a great example of this.

The multitouch screen - and the trackpad on the new MacBooks - builds on the Fingerworks touchpads that came out in 2001, but it has taken seven years for the technology to go mainstream.

Fortunately it seems that at least some areas of the government have realised that it's possible to look at the ways technology is developing with some likelihood that the results will be of value in making policy today.

One of them is the Department for Children, Schools and Families, and so it was that last month I spent two delightful days sitting in a conference room hidden in one of the towers of London's Tower Bridge with a group of educators, technologists, futurologists and policy-makers trying to figure out what impact new technologies will have had on the education system will look like in 2020.

We were there for what organiser Stephen Heppell, founder of the renowned Ultralab and a driving force in the appropriate use of technology in education, calls a "charrette", an intensive collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a problem.

I wouldn't call what we came up with a "solution", but it was great to feel that peculiar energy that comes from being with a group of like-minded people who feel that their task is both important and achievable.

At the moment it's fairly easy to see how today's technologies will develop, because so much work is going into making them smaller, faster and more connected.

So we can anticipate handheld supercomputers and multi-terabyte storage on our phones, along with direct neural input for audio signals, smart spectacles - or perhaps contact lenses - that overlay the world with extra information.

We can also look forward to flexible screens, holographic projection and LED wallpaper that allows any flat surface to function as a display.

This will change many aspects of our day to day life, just as mobile phones, laptops, Google and Wikipedia have affected the way we live today compared to only four or five years ago.

And while we can't rule out the sort of disruptive innovation that comes from an unexpected direction, like the emergence of text messaging or the invention of the motor car, planning around the most likely scenarios is sensible as long as it doesn't pretend to be definitive.

Grasping the likely technological shifts is one thing, but what do they imply for education? This is a much harder question, since once you start looking at the way schools operate then you start to question teaching methods, assessment, exams and even the very existence of "schools" and "classrooms".

If every student has a powerful network device that plugs them into the network, and work on digitising every book and other forms of knowledge has been successful, then what is the point of teaching "facts"?

If Wikipedia has been replaced as the destination of choice by the entire contents of the British Library, suitably tagged and indexed, then can we really tell children not to look things up?

The challenge, I think, is to find a way to justify the sort of rote learning of facts and techniques that takes place in school, of finding a reason why knowing times tables, spelling and even the list of kings and queens of England might be considered a worthwhile investment of time and resources.

And we need reasons that go beyond adults' desire to keep the kids locked up in school so that we get some time to ourselves.

Perhaps the most important is that knowing facts provides a framework for understanding, a source of insight into problems and a way of boundary-checking solutions.

Skills-based learning and rote learning of facts, algorithms and heuristics mean that lots of information is at hand when dealing with a problem or a situation, so that new connections can be created, new solutions developed and new ideas created.

It also helps the user of a computer-based system decide whether the answer makes sense, whether it is within the range of reasonable outcomes or so completely at odds with what was expected that it needs to be checked.

Just as we try to encourage kids today to learn enough mental arithmetic to decide whether to believe the calculator's answer, so we need those using tomorrow's vast supercomputers to have a sense of what is going on that will allow them to judge the validity of the answers they get.

Getting that sort of education in a world which will increasingly rely on computers is the real challenge for any education system, and it's reassuring to see that the issue is at least on the agenda already.


Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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