The Rabbit Hole

I wonder how much we really think about where we’re going on this technology amplified journey we are all on.  We are so enthralled with each new invention or improvement that we clamor to do everything we can to get the new.  We’re kind-of like Alice…

“she ran across the field after it [the rabbit], and fortunately was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit-hole under the hedge.  In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again”. (referenced Oct. 28, 2012)

We need now to be more thoughtful than ever in our adoption and pursuit of technological solutions.  We need to think beyond the “rabbit hole” about what may lay down the path.  We need to ask “why” before determining our journey with technology.  Too often we simply follow the crowd.  In a world where funds are scarce and technology is abundant, we need to “choose wisely, for while the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you” (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).  Technology has the potential to do good or to simply consume our money…  In education systems, our money has many competitors and we need to be very purposeful and clear when advocating for new technology to improve or transform learning and our work.

I read an article about in the November FastCompany Magazine about ways IBM’s Watson computer is being used since its famous Jeopardy win.  “A few years ago, IBM’s new computer was a game-playing curiosity. Now Watson is poised to change the way human beings make decisions about medicine, finance, and work” (FastCompany).  Watson will one day soon be a qualified Doctor iStock_000014726231XSmallbecause “for well over a year, the Watson computers have been "trained" in science and medicine. Technicians feed Watson medical textbooks and journals, patient histories, and treatment guidelines”.  Are you ready for this… “doctors have begun using a Watson app on a tablet to access the computer through the cloud. The doctor logs in to Watson and begins to input data and ask questions”. 

Watson can ingest more data in a day than any human could in a lifetime. It can read all of the world's medical journals in less time than it takes a physician to drink a cup of coffee. All at once, it can peruse patient histories; keep an eye on the latest drug trials; stay apprised of the potency of new therapies; and hew closely to state-of-the-art guidelines that help doctors choose the best treatments (FastCompany)

Essentially Watson combs through every journal and medical case known, analyzes it and produces likely diagnoses and recommended treatments.  A human doctor (so far) will make the final call but at some point, their opinion and decision may be irrelevant as Watson can access and process more information and data than any human could possibly hope to do and more accurately and consistently diagnose.  Since “medicine embodies so much unstructured information that its proliferation has, by the account of many medical professionals, far outstripped the ability of doctors to keep up. Neither better training nor continuing education could ever wholly remedy this problem”.  IBM’s Saxena says that “ninety percent of the world's information was created in the last two years”, and it’s mostly unstructured.  How can humans keep up with this?  They can’t.  In the not too distant future, computers like Watson will be available to anyone anywhere anytime as an app on their phones and tablets.

I suspect that most of us would agree that becoming a qualified medical doctor is a journey filled with rigor, is knowledge intensive, involves complex pattern recognition, and quick accurate responses to problem solving.  It looks like Watson may be able to replace the thinking side of medicine and perhaps one day with agile robots, much of the surgery element.  So imagine for a moment that IBM and iStock_000010314279Smallothers turn their attention to education.  How might Watson be a disruptive force in the education space?  I suggest that if teaching continues to be primarily one of imparting content and learning one of absorbing, memorizing, and reciting back, we’re in big trouble.  Our machines will take care of the knowledge, diagnostic, and through game based learning, much of else what occurs in many classrooms today.  The process of learning and teaching must shift to one that fully leverages everything that is human and social from one that is about knowledge.  The time to change, is now…

I think we need to thoughtfully shape the destination the rabbit hole we are heading down leads to.  Every decision to spend precious education funds on technology needs to connect to the big picture.  As we purchase iPads and other tablets and tools for teachers or students, there aught to be a clear purpose.  For sure, some sandboxing and experimentation is essential to figure that out.  But, before we pour money into something, we need to be clear about “why”.  I’m heading into a new opportunity with a large school board as their CIO.  I’m expecting to face a lot of pressure to provide updated and innovative technology, infrastructure, and new digital experiences for students and staff along with updated and new business systems.  I look forward to writing about this journey and how we’ve connected our investments clearly to improved work and to enhanced or transformed learning and teaching practices.  We will need to future proof learning, teaching, and our work in a rabbit hole world of technology where it’s becoming increasingly difficult to predict the destination.

Let’s not be like Alice who said “’would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’  ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.  ‘I don’t much care where—‘ said Alice.  ’Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat” (chapter 6).


  1. And yet who would call Watson intelligent? I presume the medical diagnostic tasks it can perform come from a fixed algorithm enhanced by probabilities based on historical data, but can it tell when an elderly patient complaining of back pain is actually suffering from depression?

    So, as long as we understand education as something other than information delivery and learning as something more than information gathering, I think we are a long way from teaching machines. As they say, any teacher who thinks they might be replaced by a computer, should be.

    One way to focus our attention correctly might be to make every assessment open book - and perhaps open computer. Then we would would really have to think about what is worth learning and how we would know when it had been learned.

    BTW, love your blog - and you'll be great for that "large school district" :) Congratulations.

  2. Hi Bruce. "intellegent", that's an interesting word. I think how we describe that has evolved. What doctors and teachers and other information workers do is process lots of information, data, and know-how to deliver a diagnosis, a potential remedy, and to test the results. Is that intellegence? Or can it be replicated by brute force and creative algorithms worming through masses of data and information? I think your example of the elderly patient is just more data or "experience" that can be recorded and used as input.

    Teaching needs to be more than delivering information. It needs to be human to the core. Imagine the time teachers would have to facilitate social learning, direct supports to individuals, and to understand their students as people if machines did the delivery and testing?

    Take a look at Wolfram Alpha as an example of a machine that can answer questions. Think about how essay questions, class work, and exams might change when tools are like that and better. Interesting times ahead I think...

    Thanks for the contrats!

  3. Thanks for the post - another good reminder to pursue the future and our use of technology thoughtfully. I've learned the hard way about the importance of having vision and direction before implementing technology in the classroom. There were a couple times where I loved the idea of a particular form of technology and implemented it without thinking about how I was going to sustain it's use - and it failed miserably!

    I hope that you continue to have a clarity of vision, direction, and purpose - especially as you enter your new role with the VSB. From your posts I think you're well suited for the job!

    I also love your Alice in Wonderland quotes - the final quote is one I have prominently displayed in my classroom!

    1. Hi - sometimes technology is like candy, it looks really good, but after we consume/use it, not so good. We have to prepare well for it don't we.

      Thanks for your well wishes, appreciate that.


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