TCS Daily


By Joanne Jacobs - December 20, 2002 12:00 AM

On a recent "Leave It to Beaver" rerun, the Beav was excused from school to appear on a TV show called "Teen Age Forum." The principal wheeled a TV set into the classroom so students could watch, but Beaver wasn't on the panel. Everybody assumed he'd lied about being invited on the show; he began to doubt his own memory. (It's not clear how he got to the station. By bus?) Ward saved the day by discovering the show was taped and would air the following week.

In the early 1960s, non-live TV was a new concept. In 2002, I saw the rerun while pedaling on a stationary bike at the Y. The bike's screen has an Internet connection too, but it's so much slower than my DSL at home that I don't bother to surf while I sweat.

So what will technology bring us in the future? I've been reading Visions 2020: Transforming Education and Training Through Advanced Technologies (link is pdf file). Ideas in the Commerce Department report, which is a collection of predictions from various techno-seers, will be used to create a National Educational Technology Plan.

Visions 2020 is even sunnier than the Cleavers' world. By 2020, self-motivated students working in multi-ethnic, differently abled teams will collaborate on projects, share ideas with Chinese and Russian students through translation software, question international experts via video links and explore 3-D virtual environments. Personal avatars, mentors or knowbots will adapt instruction to each student's learning style, while teachers work with small groups as coaches.

And everybody will wear spandex jerseys and commute in personal helicopters.
OK, I'm dubious - especially about the predictions that technology will make future children into educationally eager Beavers. Why should it change human nature?

So far, technology hasn't transformed the structure of schooling, the report says. Distance learning is just beginning to have an impact on higher education and career training. At the K-12 level, kids turn out fancier reports, albeit with more plagiarized content, or they skip the writing in favor of snazzy PowerPoint presentations. Fundamentally, teachers and students are doing the same old thing with a few computers in the room. Yet, most of the 2020 visionaries think that technology will revolutionize education - and create a new breed of students.

The most utopian vision comes from Vint Cerf of WorldCom and Caleb Schutz of the MarcoPolo Education Foundation. It's 2025, and a soon-to-retire mentor listens as a new teacher exults over what's changed in teaching since the turn of the century.

"I've been trained as a facilitator of information and critical thinking. I rarely lecture." The idea that teachers should be a "guide on the side" instead of a "sage on the stage" is more than 10 years old, making it downright old-fashioned by Internet time. By 2020, it could be the equivalent of "spare the rod and spoil the child."

". . . the Internet and online education keep students engaged like nothing in the past." Why do we think children will be more engaged by technology than by teachers?

". . . once equipped and capable to use core math and science principles, students were free to explore their world.'' Making students capable to do their own exploration is a very difficult job.

"The Internet facilitates collaboration by teachers at long distances." Yes, but if teachers in the same school can't seem to collaborate now, what makes us think they'll work with teachers in distant schools?

"Parents can check their child's progress online, and communicate easily with the teacher." Yes, this uses current technology and it's already happening in some schools. But it still requires involved parents who have the education necessary to understand the online progress report and "digital portfolio," and it requires teachers with the time to answer their e-mail. (I'm not worried about low-income parents without Internet access. It'll be like owning a telephone very soon.)

"Students can interact with experts around the world. For example, in 2025, they're getting messages from astronauts 'taking core samples on Mars,' and doing real experimental work with the data." Nope. Forget about interacting with experts, writes Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon, my favorite visionary. The experts don't have the time. As for experimenting with real data, that's already possible - if teachers are capable of designing relevant experiments and students are prepared to do the work.

Virtual classrooms? Again, it's already possible for students to learn from an instructor thousands of miles away. Pausch thinks we'll still feel a need to get up close and personal. "Telepresence won't take over; children will still physically go to schools because there's just so much of us, as primates, that requires physical touch and general proximity."

Online mentoring and tutoring? I think there are real possibilities here with intelligent use of current technology. Mentor teachers sitting at home could view video of a new teacher in the classroom and e-mail or phone in advice. Without having to take a big chunk from the work day, volunteers could eat lunch at their desks a few days a week and review their tutee's essay or proposed science project. I tutored journalism students via e-mail and found it very efficient for both of us.

Techno-tutors? Many of the future visions include a knowbot that offers advice and information to students. Sort of like your car saying, "Your seat belt is not fastened," only more constant and, if I have my bet, a lot more irritating.

The predictions already are dated in one respect: The seers didn't foresee WorldCom's collapse; MarcoPolo is now struggling to survive.

Most of the 2020 visionaries are big on tele-immersive environments. It sounds great. Students could tour classical Athens, not only seeing the buildings, but interacting with the locals, touching and smelling. (I predict the smell function will need a turn-off switch.) They could hear Pericles' oration and talk about it later in the agora. You can't do that reading a book.

Or they could travel through the double helix and chat with avatars of Watson and Crick.

In a Harvard professor's vision, a fifth-grader explores a multi-user virtual environment based on the Narnia books with a Pooh avatar who's really a high school student interested in mythology.

Students at a museum receive information geared to their age, background, native language, reading level and learning style. They can see the tar pits through the dinosaur's point of view, and see changes over eons of time.

One seer warns that children could get addicted to virtual environments and lose the ability to deal with unprogrammed reality.

Then Pausch, a professor of computer science, human-computer interaction and design, pops the bubble. "Virtual Reality will finally arrive and we won't use it much," he writes. Creating complex, multi-sensory virtual environments will be wildly expensive, he predicts. It will be worth the cost for some subjects - Pausch names drivers' education and physics - but not for everything.

Still, there are simpler simulations that could be very effective. One article predicts that combat medics will train on simulated patients, so they can practice reacting quickly and competently to a wide range of medical emergencies - without killing anyone. As long as the simulation looks and feels like a real patient, the trainee doesn't need to chat with the Mayo Brothers.

Several visionaries predict translation software will become very, very good, though not perhaps with the instant capability of Star Trek's universal translator. That will encourage students to travel abroad by making it easy to interact with the locals.

Of course, easy translation may also discourage language learning. But for students who do want to learn a foreign language, technology offers patient coaching and the ability to attend class virtually with native speakers.

Bill Gates introduces Microsoft's vision of the future: Big Brother wants all good children to learn.

It starts with intelligent baby toys that learn the child's preferences and "learning profile" then send messages to Mom or Dad's information appliance recommending additional toys to buy. Toys that nag you to buy more toys. I'm not looking forward to that.

Pre-schoolers are placed in play groups based on their toys' assessment of their learning styles.

A kindergartener displays two acts of kindness. She receives a personalized award at end of day, which is forwarded to her mom at home and her dad on the road.

Each student has a virtual mentor who measures attainment of performance goals and suggests ideas, "dialoguing interactively to understand the student's emotions and competencies." That sounds creepy to me.

A high school student of the future gets a precise update of when the school bus will arrive, thanks to Global Positioning Satellite hook-up. OK, that's useful.
The software reviews students' work and suggests improvements before issuing a final grade. As a result, A is the standard grade for all students. (There are teachers but they don't seem to do much.)

I was creeped out again at basketball practice. FutureBoy's basketball is hooked to sensors that show pressure on the ball, his trajectory and travel speed before he makes the shot; his video glasses show him pros making shots and review his past games. The poor kid never escapes.

When FutureBoy gets to college, it's a lot like working for a high-tech company. Students are matched with employers, so their learning will be connected to the real world. Virtual monitors "map effectiveness of their contributions to published company goals." This is Microsoft's utopia. It ain't mine.

My prediction is that the technoseers are getting it all wrong. The breakthrough education technology will be something nobody's thought up yet. It will not involve know-it-all knowbots or spandex jerseys, and it will not change human nature.



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