Tag Archives: education technology

Imagining the Future of Education through Science Fiction

by Hap Aziz

Readers of Science Fiction are quite often drawn to the predictive capacity of the genre. From rockets to robots to nanotechnology to cyborg implants to virtual reality… these things and more have been the domain of Science Fiction literature since early in the 20th century, and concepts like these are the foundation of the genre moving forward. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of our current technology in the story lines from past works by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But Science Fiction has never been only about the technology. Indeed, Science Fiction has always asked the big “What If?” questions on topics such as social customs and norms, political systems, cultural conflicts, and the concept of identity that transcends gender, race, and even species. Consider novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Fahrenheit 451; television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; movies such as Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes–Science Fiction has always captured our collective imagination with the Big Idea.

Given the breadth of Big Ideas in the body of Science Fiction literature, it’s rather surprising that the topic of education has not received a more robust treatment, other than mention as supporting plot elements, for the most part. And it the majority of those mentions, the format of education isn’t that much different than the model in place today: the interaction between a student and teacher, often within a cohort of students, usually in a face-to-face technology mediated environment. In episodes of Star Trek, set hundreds of years into the future, there are scenes of young children in what appears to be fairly standard-looking classrooms (with more tech hardware). Consider Yoda teaching the Jedi younglings like an elementary school teacher from the 19th century. Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is basically a military boarding academy with video games and zero gravity gymnasiums. Even in Flowers for Algernon, a story in which the main character’s IQ is dramatically improved through a surgical procedure performed on his brain, Charlie still learns primarily by reading books. In the majority of these stories, while the human capacity to learn or the actual learning process is enhanced by technology, the act of learning is fundamentally unchanged from the way in which people have learned since the beginning of time.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions. In John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, soldiers’ learning is significantly enhanced through the use of the BrainPal, a neural implant that can download information directly into the human brain at a tremendous rate. Similarly, in the movie The Matrix, people can acquire new skills simply by downloading the appropriate data file. This is also quite like the technology used in Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse, in which the brain is literally a blank slate ready for a completely different mind (with it’s own set of memories and skills) to be imprinted. In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Inner Light,” an entire lifetime of events is loaded into Captain Picard’s brain in 20 minutes–with an artifact of that experience being the ability to play an instrument he never saw before he “lived” his alternate life.

What all those exceptions have in common is that they fundamentally alter the method by which information is loaded into the human brain, and they do so in a digital rather than analog fashion. The result is that the time required to load the desired information is much reduced from the traditional input methods of using our own analog senses to acquire knowledge, then disciplining the mind to retain that knowledge and training the body to function appropriately (memorization and practice). All other methods of instruction, no matter how we reinvent them or try to integrate assistive technology, still encounter the analog gateway (and in some cases, barrier) of our senses. The “data transfer rate” effectively comes down to the learner’s ability to effectively absorb what’s coming through that gateway. I remember when I was in high school and I wanted to record songs from my record albums onto cassette tape so that I could take them with me to play on my Walkman. I had a cassette recording deck connected to my record turntable, but I could only record in real time–I could only record at the actual speed that the records played across that analog gateway.

If I’m imagining the future of education as a storyline in Science Fiction, I see the need for a digital-to-analog converter that serves as a high-speed interface to the brain. That’s what would enable the story examples I cited above, facilitating the speedy transfer of knowledge and possibly eliminating (or minimizing) the need to practice for skills mastery. Right now it takes a lifetime to acquire a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and even then there is no guarantee that we can successfully access more than a fraction of what we have acquired. Now when I want to digitize my CD collection so I can store it on my portable MP3 player, the ripping process takes a fraction of the time as playing all the songs.

Perhaps I’ve planted the seeds for a Science Fiction story I should write: What would it be like if several lifetimes flashed before our eyes at the moment of death? Somehow we’d have to experience all those lifetimes… and that’s just another way of saying we’d need to figure out how to become life-long learners several times over.

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Filed under education, education technology, future technology, Hap Aziz, life-long learning, Science Fiction

Tablets Now Targeting Students

by Hap Aziz

It’s a significant shift in the education market space when manufacturers focus their efforts specifically on students. We have heard quite a bit about students bringing tablets into the classroom, faculty integrating tablets into curriculum, publishers producing educational titles for courses, and so on. Here’s a step from the consumer electronics perspective: Samsung has created a “Student Edition” of their Galaxy Tab 2, and it is hitting the shelves at Best Buy, in time for a lot of back-to-school shoppers.

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Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

Entrepreneurship and Instructional Content: Using Kickstarter to Fund Games for Education

by Hap Aziz

The development of course content, especially at higher levels where students are more sophisticated and discerning regarding their academic materials, has always been a challenge. It is important to be able to strike a balance between cost of development (both in resources and labor), instructor expertise, and turn-around time (or development time in response to current or recent events that might have an impact on the course learning objectives). Basically, it has been a question of what can the instructor build by him or herself, in time for the upcoming lessons, that isn’t going to involve a budget request from the department. Because of this dynamic, the “promise” of computer games transforming the education landscape has never really been realized, it if the prevailing thinking around this doesn’t change, neither will the landscape. What likely needs to occur is a shift in the expectation of games in education; designing a learning activity that plays like Modern Warfare–or even Angry Birds–is well out of reach of faculty skills and department budgets.

A possible pathway out of this impossible maze of twisty passages involves two strategies to be executed simultaneously:

  1. Utilize game formats and development tools that individual instructors can use effectively
  2. Be creative in finding methods of funding (and the funding should only need to cover relatively small amounts)

It is with both of these points in mind that I developed the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative Kickstarter project. To the first point, I selected an “old school” type of computer game that can be developed quite effectively by a single person; an instructor who wishes to build something small scale in time for the upcoming semester, for example. To the second point, I decided to fund my project through Kickstarter, a crowd sourced funding model in which backers make donations rather than investments (meaning that if the developer is able to raise the funding, there is no pressure that the project become profitable enough for repayment).

My idea is simple: if instructors can use a form of computer games such as Interactive Fiction (a form that the literature shows is effective even with reluctant readers), they would be able to develop smaller game exercises that can be integrated into their curriculum, and expanded upon over time. With Kickstarter funding covering some relatively minor miscellaneous costs, there would be no significant budgetary impact to take into consideration.

(In fact, we could go even further and consider the creation of an education-specific form of Kickstarter. Imagine institutions tapping into their alumni base for course material development or even program funding on a smaller scale.)

I invite you to review the Kickstarter project by clicking here. The funding window is open until early June on that project. You can find additional material on the project at the official project blog by clicking here. Please feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll be sure to report back throughout the development process.

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Filed under colleges and universities, computer games, cost of education, crowdsourcing, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Interactive Fiction, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.com, technology, vintage technology

From eBooks to iBooks: Apple Repositions Itself in the Education Space

Dr. Suzanne Kissel provides thought leadership to a number of higher education institutions in the Teaching & Learning areas. She has been in instrumental in developing Academic Technology Strategies for colleges and universities throughout the United States, and she provides valued leadership in program development, academic assessment, and strategic planning. Suzanne joins the Learning Through Play & Technology blog with her first post here on Apple’s announcements of the day regarding the education market.

Upon hearing the word eBook, most students and faculty members imagine lines of text with an intermittent picture or two.  Purchase models for these books vary, with some available for lease.  Despite a decent amount of hype in 2011, eBooks had what can best be described as a very uneven reception in pilot programs across the United States.

In a much anticipated announcement, Apple positioned itself to make the eBook story a very different one in 2012.

Speaking from the Guggenheim Museum, Apple representatives announced two new applications.  The updated version of Apple’s popular iBook application, iBooks2 is free and available from the app store beginning today.  The other of the two applications, iBooks Author, allows any interested party to easily create interesting, interactive iPad lessons.  Rather than simply putting a book on the screen, iBooks Author allows authors and publishers to harness the multimedia advantages of the tablet to transform text into experience.  For instance, learners can electronically “mark up” their iPad books and keep those annotations, along with the books, after the conclusion of the course.

In addition to the two applications, Apple announced that it was expanding iTunesU beyond the realm of higher education to reach into elementary and high schools.

Apple iPad with iTunesU – Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

To support this initiative, Apple has formed partnerships with Pearson, McGraw-Hill and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.  These three publishers are responsible for 90 percent of the textbooks used with courses taught in the U.S.  In addition, DK. Publishing, which offers vividly colored books for younger readers is also joining the team.

The promise of this announcement is that it could pave the way for the release of highly customized, interactive, and inexpensive textbooks.  According to Phil Schiller, Apple’s marketing chief, the new, interactive iPad books would cost $14.99.  Whether the low cost of the textbooks could outweigh the comparatively high cost of the iPad itself (beginning at $499) remains to be seen.  Regardless, the announcement certainly pulls the eBook to the foremost of the new advances promising to change the face of education.

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Filed under eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, iBooks, technology

Effectively Using Technology to Educate: Customizing the Learning Experience

by Hap Aziz

In an essay titled, “Death Knell for the Lecture: Technology as a Passport to Personalized Education,” Daphne Koller writes for the New York Times that by using technology, we should be able to improve student performance while simultaneously reducing the cost of a high-quality education. She introduces this idea by describing the 19th century agricultural industry and the associated level of food production (insufficient to meet all the needs of the population) as compared to the agricultural industry of today (producing surpluses of food). Her illustration focuses on how technology transformed the food production process, and how the education process has not likewise changed or advanced in the same time frame:

“The key to this transition was the use of technology—from crop rotation strategies to GPS-guided farm machinery — which greatly increased productivity. By contrast, our approach to education has remained largely unchanged since the Renaissance: From middle school through college, most teaching is done by an instructor lecturing to a room full of students, only some of them paying attention.”

Interestingly, I make a very similar point in my blog entry, “Practicing 18th Century Education in the 21st Century Classroom.” However, while I discussed the lack of any real ability to examine actual brain functioning during the teaching and learning process, Koller focuses on the idea that new technologies are providing methods by which educators are able to create more, as well as more specialized, instructional content, and that the thoughtful combinations and groupings of this content is better able to meet particular learning needs.

Koller’s essay is definitely worth the read, and I find the points she makes (especially regarding blended learning) to be compelling. Whether or not we will be able to “change the world in our lifetime” through the use of education technology, however, critically depends on our ability to change the culture of and long-standing practices of course and content development.

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Considering the Top 5 Education Technology Predictions for 2012

by Hap Aziz

Predicting any type of technology advancement is a potentially reputation-damaging activity, yet most people involved in tech verticals find it difficult to resist putting on the prognosticator’s cap. Add education considerations to the mix, and we find ourselves playing a very shaky game of “What If?” involving too many unknown variables for us to have great confidence in our predictions. It is with this in mind that I congratulation ZDNet Education Columnist , for having the bravery to take a stand by making his Top 5 Ed Tech predictions for 2012. While I won’t rule out the possibility that I’ll come up with my own view into the future, for the moment I’ll be satisfied in considering what Mr. Dawson has identified. So let’s take a look at his list:

  • Analytics and BI will go mainstream – Dawson states that “2012 will see an explosion in the real use of analytics to assist schools and districts in improving quality and outcomes,” and he thinks that we should be able to leverage both formative and summative assessments along with other currently mined data in order to accomplish tasks like identifying at-risk students before they would even need to see a guidance counselor. I’m a bit skeptical on this prediction, not from the technology standpoint, but rather from the institutional cultural standpoint. There is still much resistance within institutions around protecting data instead of transparently sharing it, and faculty as well as academic leadership have concerns regarding the validity of data interpretation. Add to that the fact that there aren’t any widely accepted models to factor the variables of student preparedness and motivation into outcomes, and we find ourselves still at the same crossroads of resistance here.
  • Google’s tablet will NOT be the holy grail of 1:1 – Both this item and the next (on Bring Your Own Device) presuppose the value in 1:1 initiatives, and the reasoning (at least in these predictions) is that the value of each student possessing and interacting with a computational device such as a tablet is a foregone conclusion. In this segment, Dawson speaks exclusively around the cost issue of a 1:1 tablet initiative, and he states that coming in under the price point of $300 would make the ideal of a “tablet in every backpack” a reality. But he doesn’t tie his reasoning here to any data (analytics and BI are supposed to go mainstream, after all!) that would demonstrate any connection to learning outcomes.
  • BYOD will make 1:1 possible in a big way – See my commentary for the previous segment regarding the value of 1:1 initiatives. However, I do believe the Bring Your Own Device prediction has some potential, considering the increasing acquisition of smart devices among students of all economic and cultural demographics. The question is whether or not curriculum will be designed in such a way as to maximize the utility of having smart devices readily available. If smart devices are used only (or primarily) as portable web browsers to access an LMS when a computer is not available, we’re not likely going to see any great improvements in outcomes.
  • Khan Academy, et al, will give publishers and mainstream educators a run for their money – Dawson makes no additional commentary on this point (and I’m not sure if this is the result of a misprint, Internet glitch, or his feeling that the point is self evident). In any case, I will split legalistic hairs here and say that this depends on the definition of “run for their money.” The Khan Academy (and similar) content provides a source for quality video accessible for supplementation of existing course materials, and if course designers choose to implement such content more widely, this might make publishers take notice. However, 2012 might be a bit soon, yet, for there to be a significant shift away from the traditional publishers–and many publishers are taking their own actions to stave off the slide into irrelevancy. But giving mainstream educators a run for their money? No, not until Khan Academy content becomes completely interactive and can actually address specific student learning issues–just like a mainstream educator.
  • We will say goodbye to a lot more libraries and hello to a lot more information – Again, this is a point dependent on definitions. Already we are seeing libraries at various institutions scaling back on their traditional media purchases (books, periodicals, etc.) and devote more resources toward the acquisition of digital and online content. I don’t think that portends the disappearance of libraries so much as it indicates a transformation of the kinds of libraries we build. Even as information becomes less centralized and more cloud-based at the source, the library as a place for academic community and gathering will still have a role. I might predict instead that libraries will have even a greater role as the place to go when trying to sift through and interpret all the terabytes of information ready to be called up by a few keystrokes of activity. Librarians themselves will have an invaluable role in helping our younger learners transition into savvy users of digital data.

At the end of 2012, it will be interesting to review these predictions, from both Dawson’s perspective as well as my own. I’d be willing to bet that we’ll see some events occur and technologies come to the fore by the end of the year that we currently don’t even suspect. By the way, earlier in the week Dawson wrote on his predictions for 2011 that he made a year ago regarding technologies “that should have had real impacts in education this year, but which never amounted to much” (see here).

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