Envisioning the Future of Educational Technology

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

As an educational technology scholar I seldom find something related to the field that completely blows me away. The Envisioning Technology website which features the predictive visualizations of emerging technology strategist Michell Zappa and his team of researchers is one of the few Internet sites that contains information that is so insightful, forward-thinking, fascinating, and intellectually stimulating that it can be hard to comprehend. Of particular interest is the Envisioning the Future of Educational Technology infographic that predicts the co-evolution of education and technology up to the year 2040. For those who may be overwhelmed by the vast amount of information presented in this visualization, here is a look at how the team at Envisioning Technology reaches their conclusions and an examination of some of the most interesting predictions that they make in the document.

How To Predict the Future of Ed Tech
Fortunately for the skeptics out there, the Envisioning Technology site contains a detailed description of the methodology used for arriving at their projections. For starters, they employ a combination of both qualitative and quantitative methods which begin by examining a variety of science and technology publications, gadget blogs, and techno-cultural publications to determine what is on the horizon. They categorize the innovations into groups and determine their projected impact (which equates to the size of the circles in the graphic) by looking at the number of companies working on them, the size of the market, number of publications about each, projections of other related and supporting technologies, and societal factors. After the initial research is complete, they draft their graphics by hand because of the flexibility needed to create their elaborate visualizations.

The Big Picture
The visualization begins by looking at some familiar technologies: tablet computers, interactive whiteboards, digital projectors, educational games, video-based lessons, e-learning, and open courseware. These tools and innovations are then linked to larger trends in the field such as "Digitized Classrooms," "Gamification," and the "Opening of Information."

Via some intermediate steps, these three areas merge into two new categories between 2020 and 2030 forming the areas of "Disintermediation" and "Tangible Computing."

  • Disintermediation: This concept relies on the extensive use of mobile technology, resulting in a system that focuses on, "Undoing the traditional student-teacher model, these technologies offer a scenario where AI handles personalization while teachers focus on teaching"  (Envisioning Technology).
  • Tangible Computing: This development relies on new technologies that allow much more detailed understanding of the ways in which students learn, such as eye and attention tracking, combined with advances in the digital nature of the classroom. "Embedding computation to the physical via intelligent objects, the Internet of things, and connectivity with a profound impact on learning mechanics" (Envisioning Technology). In short, learning becomes more individualized and connected through technologies that allow students to manipulate the variables of reality and that adapt to their learning needs.

Moving beyond these technologies, the document predicts that by the mid-2030s physical schools as we know them will have been replaced by studios and virtual teaching. These "Virtual/Physical Studios" rely on technology to provide a hybrid version of education that optimizes the process by, "Bridging the online-offline gap, these technologies offer a potential future where embodiment is secondary to information access" (Envisioning Technology).

Finally, by 2040, through a reliance on these hybrid models and a focus on project-based learning and portfolio-based assessment, "education becomes a continuous, interconnected effort, allowing students to cope with a perpetually changing world (Envisioning Technology). This notion falls in line with what is needed for students to compete in an ever-changing global economy where technology drives innovation, which spawns new technologies, products, services, and further innovation. This is an endless cycle that students need to be prepared for in order to keep up with the rapid pace of innovation.

Details, Details, Details
While the big picture view of education that the Envisioning Technology graphic proposes is interesting, it is not anything dramatically new. In fact, I have proposed that education needs to move in exactly this direction in numerous previous posts such as, Technology is the Answer to Educational Reform. Where the Envisioning Technology graphic is more insightful is in the details of the individual technological innovations that it anticipates and the way that it weaves these smaller components together to arrive at conclusions about the larger landscape of educational technology. The following section from the graphic illustrates the ways in which previous innovations are predicted to influence future developments.

The image shows the ways in which "Disintermediation" is a product of advances coming from gamification (self-paced learning), digitized classrooms (cascading knowledge maps), and the opening of information (flipped classrooms). These contributing factors also carry with them the innovations that spawned them, such as the ability of students in the digitized classroom to collaborate globally.

What is ultimately most fascinating about this model for the future of educational technology is the plethora of very specific tools and developments that it includes. While there are no specific details given for any of the technologies mentioned, here are five of the most intriguing with some speculation about what they may actually look like and how they would impact learning:

  • S2S teaching platforms (2020): Student to student teaching is a model that is gaining some limited notoriety through initiatives such as Peer to Peer University (P2PU). The concept aligns nicely with learning models which propose that students learn better and retain more when they actively teach one another. It plays on the concept of mixed age and ability classrooms and makes use of the individualization of learning to connect students with peers who they can mentor or teach. In the graphic, the idea is that technology will mediate the logistics of the process, freeing the students and teacher to focus on learning.
  • Algo-generated lessons (2030) – Many of the advances under the "Disintermediation" category refer to algorithms as a vehicle for streamlining the tasks associated with teaching and learning. The idea of "Algo-generated lessons" is a natural outcome of the push for big data and data mining []. Through these tools, and some new ones such as eye and attention tracking, all student input can be monitored and quantified and lessons can be generated that exactly match students’ targeted learning levels, prior knowledge, and preferred methods of learning. Early efforts in this field are underway with Knewton and Pearson.
  • Neuro-informatics (2040) – Though the current state of the field is far removed from the 2040 applications projected, neuro-informatics will allow us to understand the functioning of the human brain to such a significant degree that learning can be optimized for an individual’s specific brain structure. It is possible that Matrix-like technology will be developed that allows knowledge or information to be uploaded directly to the human brain without the need for any system of education. In this clip from The Matrix, Neo learns Kung Fu.
  • Immersive virtual reality (2040) – Virtual reality has been around as a concept for quite some time, and immersive virtual reality would be the next logical stage of development. While virtual reality allows you to have an avatar enter a somewhat realistic virtual world, immersive virtual reality would allow the individual to enter a completely realistic virtual space. The premise is that the space would, in fact be so authentic as to be indistinguishable from the real world. If this becomes a standard for education in the future, students would be able to experience actual events, work with actual tools, or solve hyper-realistic problems in a safe manner. They could develop knowledge without endangering themselves, others, or equipment as this video about the future of on the job training explains.

These are just a few of the technological advancements that the Envisioning Technology group anticipates for the next 30 years of education. Download the visualization to see more and join the conversation on Google+ or on Twitter @drjwmarquis to engage in some speculation of your own.