Thursday, July 21, 2011

Is Technology an Amplifier or Disruptive Force?

I’ve read a few online conversation threads (The Real Game Changer in Education, Literacy… Just Literacy, Will (Or Can) Computers Replace Teachers? – sorry no link, it’s a private group in LinkedIn) recently about teaching and technology.  I would say the majority view is that iStock_000006855981XSmalltechnology won’t replace teachers and that it is “just a tool”.  I sense a greater acceptance that technology shouldn’t be an optional tool though.  More people feel it is a very important, perhaps bordering on essential tool to support learning, engage students, expose students to possibilities and opportunities not available otherwise.  These views would seem to advocate for technology as an amplifier.  When used in professional and skilled hands, it enriches and expands learning.

I find that most people can’t imagine things to be radically different.  They tend to view the future as a modified or enhanced version of today.  This is certainly a comfortable approach to imagining the future.   Being a budding futurist (purely amateur) I like to push the boundaries on prevailing views of the future.  The possible futures I sometimes envision are not comfortable for me or others.  But, I think it’s important to think about what might be that can disrupt our way of life, so that we might be prepared.  History teaches us that this happened time and time again.

I’m reading a book (pardon the title) “The Bastard” which is volume one of six in the American Bicentennial Series.  It is staged in the 1700’s in France and England and it includes some fascinating details of how life was at that time.  I am so fortunate to be born in this era and this country!  People lived very difficult lives a few hundred years ago…  Dr. Benjamin Franklin a character in the story, remember him, he discovered or rather learned to harness electricity.  I would say that was a game changer and a disruptive force.  It changed (literally) the world!  You wouldn’t be reading this without electricity.  Over time it made the majority of people healthier and wealthier.  I’ve written about the invention of the printing press previously – this technology forever changed the future.  In “The Bastard”, there’s a piece on a small family of printing press operators and booksellers – they also created a lending library for more people to enjoy books even though they could not afford to buy them.  Note that over time, the printing press eventually put 1000’s of people (scribes) out of work while making information and knowledge available to the masses.  People could learn many previously inaccessible things, on their own and billions of jobs were created over time, different jobs from those disrupted.

Fast forward… I’m reading an article in the July 2011 edition of Wired Magazine (yes a paper version – still prefer that for some reason).  It is an intriguing story, with two plots I think: how Microsoft’s Kinect is changing how we can augment the world (10M sold in 1st four months) and how the masses so easily mesh now to amplify, accelerate, and disrupt invention and company.  The Kinect story is really quite amazing.  For the first time ever, a $150 technology is available to anyone and can map it’s surroundings visually in 3D color and in real time.  People can manipulate the digital world that they are immersed in – the “world” knows their every move and sound.  Cost is a key point here, one example in the article is given of a robot designed to navigate post-earthquake rubble and search for victims that cost $280,000 before Kinect and is now available in a $500 kit.  Millions of “hackers” are creating new ways to use and “connect” iStock_000012723220XSmallKinect for previously not thought-of purposes.  Ironically, Microsoft is fully embracing the open source and hacker community by creating development kits for Kinect to make it easier to access its full potential, not just what Microsoft had in mind.  The Internet connects these communities into massive idea creation pools.  This is disruptive in itself.  No company can hire enough talent to invent everything possible but millions of connected minds can and quickly.  Sidebar… How can we keep classroom doors closed and expect one teacher to be able to teach 20-30 young minds what they need and want to know in this era?  I agree with others starting to write that technology is an essential tool for learning – without it, we increasingly short-change our students potential.  You might want to check out Kinect Education, an open source community dedicated to creating and sharing applications for using Kinect for learning.

I’ve written about 3D immersive learning environments and their potential impact on education.  Microsoft is investing millions of dollars to build a Kinect-powered holodeck.  I wrote about this in my last post but it is a system that projects images in 3D into the real world that respond to touch.  Microsoft is also preparing a Kinect software upgrade to enable Kinect to capture facial expressions as well as body movements.  I speculated about 2020 and a learning holodeck last year.  I wonder how long it may take to create a viable learning holodeck?  This would be a game changer!

My answer to the question this post poses is ‘both’.  Technology is definitely an essential amplifier and our society can not function without it.  Soon our cars will drive themselves!  Technology is pervasive everywhere… but not in education it seems.  How can we not make it a necessary component of learning and teaching?  I also believe technology to be disruptive.  100’s of years ago, inventors didn’t live to see the disruptive force of their inventions. Today, inventions fulfill their disruptive powers in a short time frame.  iStock_000015207641XSmallInventions feed upon one another.  In a real sense today, technology begets technology – it creates an accelerated exponential change effect.  What was impossible before due to cost, complexity, disconnected minds, is possible today due to low cost, computers that simplify the complexity, and billions of people who are able to connect and collaborate.  And it loops back creating more amazing inventions, faster.  The odd thing is, we more quickly take for granted what was considered impossible a short time ago…

I do worry about what the disruption of technology will do to education, and those involved in it.  With past disruptions (think farmers, manufacturers, telephone operators, travel agents, etc.) there have been millions of job losses.  I think we have some time to redesign roles in education to fully leverage technology’s promise while fully leveraging our human abilities not (yet) replicable with technology.  If we don’t anticipate the coming disruptions, we could be replaced or displaced (history tells this story many times over).  As the cost decreases and the capability of technology increases, it will be in the hands of every student and in every classroom (assuming we organize that way in the future).  It will also do things we can today barely imagine being possible.  What advice would you give to those who work in education systems today?