On ‘Contemporary’ Educational Technology

Snow Crash cover

In Neal Stephenson’s seminal cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash (1992) the author describes the technology of the near future in terms of imagined extrapolations from the surrounding contemporary technology. The World Wide Web was still producing birth-pangs in the internet at the time – not quite out there yet, and still the province of uber-geeks, special-interest groups and other “technorati.” His take on the Metaverse is, all in all, not a bad guess on how things have turned out so far.

The book’s main protagonist, Hiro, makes a partial living uploading snippets of information to the CIC, a commercial amalgam of the Library of Congress and the CIA, who have merged into a corporation, having realized their interests lay in roughly the same area.  The medium of choice that Hiro uses for this is digital videotape.  Reading the text from the perspective of 2006, this seems a little twee, almost quaint. It’s still a little surprising to me that we’ve moved so rapidly from tapes to disks to solid state flash memory in the intervening years.  All of these storage solutions had been thought of as long ago as the 40s, 50s and 60s of the last century, they just seemed to come to (final) fruition in rapid succession in the last decade.

For educators imagining the educational systems of the future, the continuing struggle, in my mind at least, is  to anticipate future technologies that can’t be easily dated, i.e. quickly losing their attraction to learners because they aren’t cool enough, and apply them in ways that assists the attainment of a recognisable educational objective without becoming the raisons d’etre themselves.  Achievement in this area depends on two things: firstly, setting learning objectives that don’t rely on the surrounding contemporary technology for success, and secondly, keeping an open mind on what might be possible given what we know now.

Here are some thoughts, in no particular order, on the direction that edtech might take in the next 10 years:

Ubiquitous access to information.  The Google steamroller (or something very like it) will become a many-headed Hydra of info modules, able to instantly locate texts, images, sounds and videos through customised search routines that learn an individual user’s desires, interests and modus operandi and deliver information “intelligently” and seamlessly – rather like a long-employed butler who knows the first thing you want to do when you get home is slip off your shoes, sip on a gin-and-tonic with a splash of bitters and relax while the bath is drawn.  Google already has a head start in this area with products such as Googles Scholar, Earth and Maps. In Snow Crash, Hiro is given a software module called Earth which is strikingly similar to what will become increasingly available in Google Earth, i.e. geographically anchored information. (A prototype GAI system with the working title GLOOO is discussed here).

Customised conversion of information.  It’s one thing to get your hands on some precious information, but quite another to realise it’s in a form or format that you can’t use.  A customised conversion service would match information retrieved with what it knows about your previous preferences regarding this type of material, and convert it accordingly.  This could apply to language translations, format, layout and printing conversions, and the application of learning templates that would present the material as a series of paced learning modules.

It’s easy to think of reasons why this approach to the presentation of information may not always be a good idea, however. Given that many inspired thoughts result from seeing the same information in a new way (at least, this is what many innovative thinkers say is happening), having the presentation format fixed as a perceived preference might just reduce the incidence of original thought or reflection.

On the positive side; making information accessible to everyone on a equal footing has got to be a good idea. Currently, learners with a disability have to undertake the conversion of learning materials to suit their individual needs on their own, or with assistance from a kind hearted colleague or dedicated service (such as Macquarie’s MQAS). This necessity for conversion adds to the overall time required to engage with the learning materials, so anything that can shortcut the process is going to save everyone time and money in the long run.

Convergence of teaching within or across disciplines through the use of learning objects. The increasing use of learning objects in the design of learning materials has an interesting side-effect in that it highlights common concepts across disciplines. One example of this might be the use of a common calculus module where equivalent differential equations are used to derive first principles in both physics and chemistry laws. Another could be the use of simulated pH testing in both soil science and medical training, where the only difference is the makeup of the sample being tested.

Putting together learning materials in such a lego-block fashion has both its supporters and detractors, of course. Those on the positive side point to the cost savings achieved in not needing to re-invent wheels and in re-purposing resources, while the critics decry such a mechanistic approach to developing materials, claiming that it crushes individual teaching styles. Personally, I fall somewhere near the middle. If the instructional methodology used is provably sound, common principles should translate easily across disciplines. Instructors are still free to pick and choose elements that complement their teaching approach.  They would need to choose each learning object component carefully, of course, to ensure that what they intend to teach is actually being taught.

Nonetheless, it seems likely that learning object development will continue to grow, especially with increased access to web-based repositories designed for this purpose.

Increased use of communicative activities in teaching and learning.  Publishing educational materials gets easier every day.  Just about anyone who fancies him/herself as an expert in some field or other can now structure a course and teach it to the world through a website, complete with diagrams, links and tutorials available as podcasts or streamed audio. As already evidenced by the astounding volume of DIY podcasts available on a huge range of topics, the quality of the education offered can vary from stultifyingly dull (or worse, erroneous) to blindingly brilliant and original.  Once the dust settles a little, it’s fairly obvious that educators will begin to make use of this publishing freedom to structure learning around activities involving group-based approaches, constructivist ideas and problem-based learning, all of which can benefit from communicative tools.

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