Is Technology Revolutionizing Education Yet?

Last Saturday my clock rang at about 2:45 in the morning. I got up, got ready, and headed off WP_000395to pick up a colleague for our trip to ISTE 2012 held in San Diego California. What a blessing to be able to enjoy real sunshine and warm weather. The Vancouver area in British Columbia has experienced consistently cool and wet weather unfortunately. We went to a Padre's game that evening and then crashed reasonably early so that our brains were ready for the ISTE experience. Approximately 15,000 educators attend this premiere educational technology event each year.

On Sunday I attended a workshop in the morning where we learned to program in Scratch and Alice. Scratch, a fabulous visual object imageoriented programming environment is used by many middle school students in our schools, was created by MIT and gifted to the world. We created a simple program with several sprites that interacted with the user on simple math problems. imageAlice is a 3D programming language. Things got more complicated with Alice as you have to envision a 3D landscape, camera angles, 3D characters and their position in the world. I programmed a fridge door to open when clicked and a banana and drink to move to the shelf when clicked and then the door closed. I can see how tools like this would engage students in math, geometry, visual arts, music, logic, computing science, etc. you could also incorporate writing, history, or any other subject area. Definitely worth considering for your students.

Sunday afternoon was all about learning iPad apps and learning activities. We started with a scavenger hunt activity. In teams of 5, each team scanned a QR code that revealed a "secret" word. Our assignment was to go out and take five pictures that represented our word, create a slide show, and present it to the "class" for them to guess our word. Here's the first and last pictures we took.  Can you guess our word... time is up, it's electricity (our team had lots of it).

We did photo editing, stop motion (iStopMotion) claymation and used iMovie to add text and voice overs.

Photo apps we saw included DMD Panorama, Pro HDR, and Frame Magic. We played with Aurasma for augmented reality to create a video to overlay on a picture. For example, a student could overlay a video essay on a picture of a play, person, a historical figure, or place. Or perhaps it's overlaid on a picture of the wall of their classroom. When the iPad running Aurasma "sees" the picture, the video overlay fires up and plays as if it was happening right then.

An app called Sekai works with air tags where you take a picture and tag it with GPS coordinates. When you come back to the location and open the app, it will show the picture or video.

We went on a virtual trip to the Eiffel tower using the Maps app, went to street view, took a screen shot of the tower, and created a book which can be opened in the iBook library using Book Creator.  Page two is shown here.  I threw in the picture of my QR code team for fun.

For me, that experience opened my eyes to the power of apps on a tablet. In particular the ease in how one apps work flows seamlessly to other apps for further editing. These tools are very powerful creation tools for learners. People who say or write that iPads are great consumption devices but poor for creating, are misinformed (I was one)... The workflow is engaging, the apps creative, the products powerfully representative of ones learning.  Although, you might want to read Dave Truss’ recent post “Still sold on Laptops over iPads” for another opinion.

I think iPads and other slates will disrupt the way we think of using educational technology. This model will also disrupt how we think of managing information technology. I have questions about how student created works will be stored, shared, assessed, etc. I know, "the Cloud", but I worry about how freely and trustingly educators are flocking to the cloud. Can we really trust corporations to have ours and our students best interests at heart? Rarely is that the case, they are profit driven entities and will find ways to leverage our information for their gain. It's a historic pattern that keeps repeating itself.

In one presentation, we "met" Super Awesome Sylvia. This 8 year old girl creates maker videos, check them out here.

Sylvia basically does what Bill Nye the Science Guy did but from a kids perspective. You've got to watch some of her videos. Digital technologies allow all students to have a voice where only adults could previously. We also saw a clip about MIT students emailing a design file for a bicycle to someone in Australia who then printed the bike parts and assembled it using a 3D printer. At that time, a A 3D printer made thiscouple years ago, the printer was $100,000 but I saw 3D printers (example) here at the conference that were 1,000's of dollars putting them in reach of families and certainly schools. Someone at ISTE tweeted that the picture shown here was made on a 3D printer, amazing.  I also saw a 3D scanner in the vendor hall that scanned objects into 3D editable model files that could then be “printed”, kind-of like the Star Trek replicator. I wonder how the copyright laws anticipate this development...

I participated in a workshop called Robotics: Making Computer Science, Engineering, and Math come alive. We used the Lego MindStorm NXT-G programming language to create programs to drive a robot in a square, to follow a black line (see picture here), to follow WP_000400a maze, and to avoid objects. We learned to use sensors to detect the presence or absence of light (black line), use ultrasonic to detect objects, to say hello when it did and to back up and turn to carry on around it, etc. Consider incorporating these tools into math and science learning for your students. I tweeted out during the session "this isn't learning, it's fun, no it's the same thing". When students are enjoying themselves, the learning isn't work for them. Check out for resources and click on Robotics to get the Prezi or PDF.

During the session The Steep Unlearning Curve by Will Richardson we heard and talked about rethinking schools, classrooms, and learning. Will said that we need to feel uncomfortable with what's happening in education and that we are living in very interesting times. Clay Shirky says that the change we are in the middle of isn't minor or optional. We've moved from a world of scarcity in terms of options, information, and tools to one of abundance but education mainly still operates as if we still lived in a world of scarcity. Learning needs to be both engaging and empowering for the learners. Students need to be given the ability to create their own learning. Education needs to foster a DIY (do it yourself) approach to learning facilitated by teachers.

I had many conversations about how education is being changed by technology. Teachers are flipping classrooms so that content is acquired by students as homework and interaction with the content is undertaken in class cooperatively and collaboratively. Technology makes it efficient to do things differently and in personal ways that better match students needs.

I think the answer to the question I pose in the title for this post is yes, to some degree. But I don't think education has fundamentally changed in a critical mass of classrooms for most students. I think my answer will be very different in three or four years. I used to use five year windows for thinking about the future but the exponential change we are seeing with mobile devices, apps, and online services, suggests that education will not survive long in it's default or traditional configuration.  I hope we are able to make the shift to a student owned learning model in thoughtful and caring ways. We need to consider the implications carefully since education systems are meant to "create" the next generation.


  1. Any news from ISTE about techno-pedagogic developments from virtual schools? (of which I know there are several in BC and 500+ in US). These still seem to exist largely in isolation from the classroom-bound sector. Also some of us worry about the question: is technology revolutionising learning *gains?

    1. Hi Paul, I didn't attend any sessions on virtual schools but there was a strong presence in the vendor exhibit hall with In our district we interpret virtual or online learning to be a blended model with face 2 face time required. A pure distance ed online model just isn't good for kids - it's good for economics though. Some day in the future, I would expect virtual reality environments to nearly replicate a face 2 face experience and then purely at a distance learning could make sense for kids.

      Can you explain your last question about revolutionizing learing gains?

      thanks for commenting.

    2. Revolutionizing the worlds education founder Tony Mc Mahon.There is a growing movement of parents world wide who no longer accept that all students cant develop school study skills on their own Educators historically has failed to provide the basic learning skills to concentrate and pay attention .The good news is that a lay man has developed the first ever self-help visual teaching aid that explains the focus techniques that stand between students and their goals .More information on youtube at

  2. Some day is already here Brian (as you know). I've been meeting on a regular basis with my DL students in virtual 3D environments for years now. We're not talking Blackboard or Adobe Connect, we're talking about taking classes on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise or in Barkerville. We tour the interior of the legislature in Ottawa where the speaker tells us about the mace. And a tour of the senate in Rome ends with a senator having us take a quiz. 2D environments need not apply for the attention of these students. Whiteboards, shared docs, cam video, desktop sharing, videos, PowerPoints, spreadsheets, VoIP, is all available, much of it in what the students themselves have built.... ISTE was great, but the isolation continues. Only Americans at my presentation. C'est la vie.

    1. I think the 3D virtual environments are still too complicated for the many. As they mature, and become more intuitive, natural, etc. both as a user and a builder, they will grow in importance. As the machine-human interaction becomes more seamless, it will likely become the premiere method of providing an authentic online learning experience that "feels" like a face 2 face experience. Patience :-)

  3. Having used 3D virtual environments for 5 years for face 2 face experiences I do not find them lacking. In fact, there is ample research that shows that these virtual interactions tend to be "more" authentic that the more traditional "real-life" ones. I could go on to list examples, but suffice it to say that the virtual landscape lacks much of the baggage that can actually inhibits conversation and the goals associated with it. I think replacing the prop shotgun with one that is more "real" might in fact do more than kill the actor in the play, it may well also kill the experience that the director was seeking to convey through the suspension of disbelief.

    Many, if not most students have of course been inhabiting these immersive virtual environments for over half their lives. In them, they have been making friends, collaborating, and learning with great zeal. If it's not good for this, then why do they use it for these purposes. If we're going to suggest that these environments are "complicated for the many" let's be clear about who these many are. It's not the students.

    When I speak to PDP classes at universities, my first question is "How many of you have been in a virtual world?" Seldom do I get more than 4 or 5 hands out of 80-100. Sad, considering that some 95% of the students they are going to be teaching will be in a virtual world that same day. Brian, if by patience you mean that we must wait for a cohort of young teachers to appear on the scene, well, I fear we will have waited too long for our current generation of students. PowerPoints and new ways of presenting text is not going to engage them for long.

    In San Diego, I ran across a very frustrated blonde 12 year old boy. He had to use a washroom, but couldn't tell which one because the labels were written in cursive. He had never needed to know it before, and may never need to again. Putting him in a remedial "cursive writing" class so he could read that door reminds me of how we push aside the cultural reality of our students in order to continue doing what is within OUR comfort zone.

    For me, waiting is not an option. The students have been patient long enough. If we don't make the effort now to keep in step with the way that they are wired, we will lose them. Either they'll not attend 20th century schools, or even worse they will, present in body but disengaged intellectually.

    Apologies if I seem overly passionate about this, but it does not come from me. This conviction comes from the students who followed me from one school to another, and those who have become so engaged in learning for the first time that they now want to become teachers. I've never learned so much before as I am learning from them. No amount of shushing or indifference will diminish the sounds of this enthusiasm for learning.

    Did a tree fall in the forest? Well, for anyone who needed to dodge it, there's little doubt. For those who would ignore or scoff at the idea, well, it might be just as well for them to stay out of the forest. :) JMHO.

    1. Love the passion! :-) I'm wondering though if you are suggesting that most students would learn best this way? I believe technology opens a multitude of doors to learning that meet individual learning needs. Some of those (no idea on percentage) would gravitate to a 3D virtual world, some to blogging, video, pictures, cartoons, creating presentations, etc. I believe strongly in a human face 2 face interaction for all students, at least some of the time. My earlier comment was meant to suggest that even the face 2 face interaction could be replicated authentically one day with machines in the middle. The current slate of technology doesn't even come close (slow, poor graphics, not realistic, etc. - compared to the Star Trek holodeck experience). I also don't believe (but don't know) that most students are jazzed by gaming or 3D worlds. Sure, there are many, but statistically, how many would thrive (for learning) in that environment? Are there studies?

      I'm with you but maybe more balanced? I'm looking at it perhaps more broadly as a vast toolkit of options. Hopefully I'm understanding your perspective...

  4. Agree strongly with you Brian that no one model works best for everyone. We've been through that kind of thinking for far too long with disastrous results. I would guestimate from my experience that it's only approaching 50% of Middle School students that are really keen on 3D Immersive Worlds. However, if these 3D worlds are not offered, that's a missed opportunity of close to 50%.

    As for slow poor graphics, watch this machinima and tell me that Immersive Worlds are not ready for children.

    Having said that, one needs to keep in mind methinks that despite its horrible graphics South Park was/is extremely popular as a cartoon. And what is the HOTTEST immersive world out there right now? Minecraft, with its blocky characters and horrific graphics.

    Quest Atlantis is moving to the Unity platform, which is likely to become ubiquitous over the next few years. Here's a sample of what this looks like.

    Last year, I had a grade 7 girl come to me, having completed the "Ingolstadt" unit in QA. She told me how meeting the creature that she had been ready to sacrifice for the good of the village had cause her to want to think more deeply about who she was, and who she wanted to be. She shared how she had climbed a mountain and sat for close to an hour, just meditating on what it meant to be human, and what responsibilities that implied. When she was ready, she came back down, a changed girl.

    Brian, that was a virtual mountain she climbed after a virtual mission few have experienced in real life. It occurred to me that had the mountain been real, she would not have been permitted to go, or would have been unsafe, harried by mosquitoes, or distracted by the beauty. The fact that this mountain top was virtual made it possible to have a mountain top experience. Sometimes, as in the example of a fired shotgun in a play, reality can get in the way of the real work at hand.

    When my students are studying the lives of wolves, and become wolves to do so, they find the graphics to be stunning, but not so real as to make them nauseous when they need to eat a carcass. If we are going to dismiss current virtual worlds for their poor graphics, we would have to dismiss all the novels too. Good novel of course are not dependent upon the graphics, that's what students' imaginations are for. Like the written word, virtual worlds are only as good as the one who wields them too. I've seen this before as well. If a virtual world is not effective, one certainly needs to question the author and how the teacher is using it.

    Personalized learning? This is going to demand that we move now. Waiting for holodecks would be tragic, and maybe even counter-productive. I hope I've clarified my perspective. :)

    1. Your comparison to novels is interesting and a point well taken. Imagination would fill the gaps that the technology may not, yet.

      I'm not suggesting we wait for the ultimate holodeck experience. Rather, I'm just advocating for multiple pathways for learning. 3D immersive would be one of these pathways. As the technology improves and becomes near realistic, I think its role will increase in supporting true virtual reality learning experiences.

      I always enjoy the debate!


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