Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Robot Age

I’ve started reading another book.  Yah, I know, what a surprise :-)  In How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human Thought Revealed, Ray Kurzweil claims “this is why we invent tools – to compensate for our shortcomings” (Kindle 458).  That is an interesting statement given the checkered past the advancement of society has.  Although our technology is agnostic, it always seems to have a good and an iStock_000017723170XSmallevil use or purpose.  In Race Against the Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation et al, the authors quote “’In the years ahead,’ Rifkin wrote, more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world’” (Kindle 118) and claim that the “the role of humans as the most important factor of production is bound to diminish in the same way that the role of horses in agricultural production was first diminished and then eliminated by the introduction of tractors” (Kindle 125).  In light of this future, education systems need to wake up and reinvent themselves in an increasingly intelligent machine driven world as “other skills have become worthless, and people who hold the wrong ones now find that they have little to offer employers. They’re losing the race against the machine” (Kindle 158).  Can we continue to hang onto and value investing precious learning time in obsolete skills such as cursive writing?

I was in a secondary school earlier this week and some teachers spoke up with concerns that as students increasingly use technology they lose the ability to write “properly”.  Other teachers stated they would never trust online resources like Wikipedia.  This should concern us I think.  The world has changed but education systems continue to lag in thinking and learning / skill priorities.  As to writing “properly”, how is it that printing or cursive writing is “proper” while digital writing is not?  In the new world, it is all about the ability to think, research, create, plan, organize, present, iStock_000015207641XSmalletc. which involves writing digitally, creating digital media, communicating digitally and face to face, etc.  In my work, I never cursive write – I don’t know how to.  I print when I have to, and I sign paperwork.  All other writing, note taking, creating, is done digitally.  Paper based writing gets stuck to the paper, isn’t easily shared, isn’t easily edited / changed or added to, isn’t easily moved into other media forms, etc.  In an age of exponential technological change, we aught to think different, as Steve Jobs would often say.  Those that “get” technology and can leverage it’s ever increasing abilities, will succeed in our rapidly changing world.  Those that don’t will unfortunately be left behind.  It is our reality.  Let’s not confuse the past with the future.

It’s hard to believe you’d have an economy at all if you gave pink slips to more than half the labor force. But that—in slow motion—is what the industrial revolution did to the workforce of the early 19th century. Two hundred years ago, 70 percent of American workers lived on the farm. Today automation has eliminated all but 1 percent of their jobs, replacing them (and their work animals) with machines” (Jan 19, 2013 -

The article referenced above continues with “the rote tasks of any information-intensive job can be automated. It doesn’t matter if you are a doctor, lawyer, architect, reporter, or even programmer: The robot takeover will be epic. -- And it has already begun”.  This is not something society is speculating about, it’s not a debate topic for downlaod the e-bookstudents, it is happening.  Shouldn’t our education systems embrace the new reality and establish new priorities for learning so that students are prepared for their future, not our past?  Howard Gardner writes in Five Minds for the Future that “just as the book made a photographic memory a luxury, current computers render forced memorization even less important” (Kindle 585).  Memorizing facts and figures will not get a person far in the new world.  Knowing how to know, to learn, to solve, to share, these abilities matter.

Education does play a very pivotal role in the Robot Age since “what we want, what we need, what we must have are indispensable human beings. We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care”, Linchpin (Kindle 159).  What a fabulous time to be alive and what a strategic opportunity those in the education system have to make a difference in our future.  The worry I have though is how glacially slow the pace of change can be in the education space.  We need to get better at rallying people to embrace essential changes faster.  Gardner claims that “those at the workplace are charged with selecting individuals who appear to possess the right kinds of knowledge, skills, minds—in my terms, they should be searching for individuals who possess disciplined, synthesizing, creating, iStock_000015553717XSmallrespectful, and ethical minds” (Kindle 186).  He continues with “in the future, individuals must learn how to synthesize knowledge and how to extend it in new and unfamiliar ways” (Kindle 685).

I’ve written previously about how machines will disrupt our world and displace most workers.  I do worry about that future which is why I am passionate about doing my part to reinvent how our systems work to prepare young people for the future.  The coming robot age (actually it’s already here in many ways) motivates me – I hope it motivates you – to embrace more of what makes us humans different from our machines.  As the Internet article linked above says, “robots create jobs that we did not even know we wanted done”.  Jobs will come and go so let’s work to leverage our robots to eliminate what we don’t want to do or be while we emphasize our human nature, that which machines will never replace!

Sunday, January 13, 2013


Do you remember the days of film projectors in schools when the teacher would roll this complicated device in, fumble around with the reels of movie tape trying to load it up.  There was only one such device in the school and it was shared amongst all the teachers, well imageat least the ones that could figure out how to use it.  Or, how about calculator labs?  Calculators used to be “sophisticated” computers that cost hundreds if not a thousand dollars.  Kids couldn’t afford to buy and bring these to school.  Even if they could, they might lose or damage their calculator, or someone might steal it.  So, schools provided it.  Today, for $20 kids can buy a really good one or install a full scientific app on their smart phone.  For years now, schools have provided computer labs as places to learn about computing, digital information use, etc.  Some schools also moved to providing laptops to some, or all their students.  But now this is changing.  Increasingly we read about schools implementing BYOT (bring-your-own-technology) initiatives.

Digital devices have become smaller, cheaper, wireless, and very powerful.image  The age at which kids are getting their own smart phone keeps dropping.  Even kids that live is poorer neighborhoods seem to have a cell or smart phone.  More kids are also getting a tablet or laptop for their own use.  Way back in 2004 I started saying publicly that “within 5 years all students will bring their own digital learning device to school”.  I’ve been wrong for the past 9 years but am getting closer to being right.  I believe there are three roadblocks to the scenario where every student comes to school with their own powerful digital learning device: cost, District/school policy, and teacher readiness. 

I liken BYOT to BYOP (bring your own pencil).  Imagine if students had to share pencils provided by their school or only had a couple of 40 minute periods per week where they were allowed to use pencils.  Maybe if they’re lucky, there’d be pods of pencils in their classroom.  Or worse, using pencils became a project, an experiment where the school provides every student with a pencil through a 1:1 pencil initiative and special learning was undertaken to use the pencil as much as possible.  The analogy eerily fits what we often do with technology.  Somehow it’s still a special tool meant for certain special uses.  Hasn’t the time arrived yet where a digital device is an essential tool to support students and adults in diverse and prevalent ways in their learning and work?  Having fulltime, anywhere access to a personal device enables learning and work to reach whole new levels.  If every student is able to look up any piece of information any time, memorization of facts and figures lose a lot their purpose.  Learning would inevitably need to move to a higher and more critical order. 

For example, with tools like WolfRam Alpha in every students hand, assigning essay questions like “Find and document on a map all the earthquakes in the past year near Japan that are greater than 5.0 on the Richter scale, and write a definition of earthquake, Richter, and draw a graph ranging 1.0 to 10.0 showing how the scale works” would have little value.  Try a question like “Find a few earthquake events in the past 2 months near Japan that are greater than 5.0.  Research and document the impacts of the earthquakes on the Japan landmass and the people.  Consider how the impacts on the land mass and the people would change for an increase of 0.5, 1.0, 2.0 on the Richter scale. Consider the impacts if the quake occurred 10km closer to Japan.  What villages or cities would be impacted most, how, and why?”.  With WolfRam Alpha and other Internet tools, getting the core data is easy.  This moves the question to a higher order critical thinking iStock_000011825660XSmalllevel.  Students would use their technology to research, gather facts, data, and then creating new scenarios, “what-ifs”, and making predictions.  They could do this now without the technology but there wouldn’t be enough time available – it would be too much work.  Teachers could redesign their lessons with technology in mind if they could expect most of their students to BYOT.  Students could collaborate and share technology, which is perhaps a better practice than working alone.  In the “real world”, collaboration is a powerful work practice.  It’s time to think outside the box.

Note that I put out a request to the Twitterverse asking for information on BYOT initiatives and received a few good resources that you might find helpful:

Implementing BYOT in schools involves a change in how classrooms function and teaching occurs.  If students bring devices and teachers don’t change how they teach, it will be an exercise in frustration and a classroom management nightmare.  It is important to set the right policies as “technology leaders at BYOT schools say, a fear of problems such as access to inappropriate online content, digitally enhanced cheating, and rampant classroom distractions can lead districts to overthink, and worse, overwrite corresponding policy adjustments to stifle creative implementation of the devices” (, Jan 13, 2013).  I think Districts need to signal that BYOT is to become a natural extension of school supplies, and create supportive and helpful guiding policies.  Schools need to create opportunities for teachers to work together on how to effectively change how they teach, and how they would manage their classrooms, in the context of students bringing technology.  It needs to be purposeful, not adhoc, and not left to chance.

Another benefit often touted for BYOT is cost savings for schools and Districts.  Although this would be an outcome – more BYOT, less provided student technology – I don’t think it should be the main reason.  Rather, it’s a helpful byproduct where Districts then can invest more in teacher technology and professional learning, software, online services, and infrastructure to support it all.  I think that BYOT is an inevitable trajectory and we need to leverage it for it’s learning worth.  A sample list of uses might include writing, calculating, graphing, reading, researching, sharing, field trip data gathering, simulations, mathematics, mapping, planning, tracking, note taking, drawing, photography, video production, pre/post Time for changetesting of understanding, knowledge, and so on.  The use of technology should become an integrated extension of social learning, not a replacement for it.

I leave you with this example from my previous District where young students are blogging their journals and essays.  In this example, they do this with a couple of trips to the lab per week.  Unfortunately since they don’t have fulltime access, they have to write out their work by hand first then they type it in to their blogs.  Imagine if they BYOT!  They could skip the “make work” step of hand writing (I suspect this hits a sore point for some people).  I do believe hand writing should simply be relegated to the role of a basic tool, one of many, and an alternative choice some might make over digital writing.  My point is, our tools change over time, and it’s time that technology takes center stage in the transformation of how many learning activities take place.  I believe that a purposeful orientation toward BYOT will serve well to make this happen and it needs to be undertaken thoughtfully.