So where are the flying cars, the silver jumpsuits and video phones which were going to be part of everyday life in the 21st Century?
Making predictions about the future of technology is easy. However accurately predicting the future is not easy and to put it bluntly everyone gets it wrong. Either they try and push an existing process and technology and extrapolate and “miss” out on any future potential inventions that make the existing processes redundant. The other mistake that people make is assume that the process of adoption of new technologies will happen faster than it actually does. So whilst fashion is still quite conservative and cars clog the roads and don’t fly, we through technologies such as Skype and Facetime are able to not just video phone, but we can instant message, present and share our computer desktops at the same time, using the same tool!
The one constant in life is change, we have social change, technological change, political change. This makes predicting change and the impact of change a real challenge.
Predicting how life will change for the university student of the future is fraught with difficulties and challenges and no doubt it is easy to get it wrong… However it’s an interesting thought experiment to try, which is why I think that people do it.
There are many people out there predicting the end of formal education and the radical change to university life for students. This, here I go predicting the future, however in my opinion, is a nice idea, but isn’t going to happen. The culture within education and academics is so embedded and rigid that changes in technology are only flexing and tweaking education, not breaking it or resulting in a radical metamorphosis.
The university students who will start their studies in September 2016 would have been born in 1998 On September 4th 1998 was the day that Google was founded.
A year later in 1999, the term Web 2.0 was first used in an article. These students do not know a world without the internet, within their primary and secondary schools they probably had ICT suites and depending on which FE College they went to they have used tablets, netbooks, mobile devices and wifi enabled laptops to support their learning. These students have mobile phones that in the main are more likely to be used for things other than phone calls. The students of 2016 are very different to the students of 2006 and 1996, or are they?
How different are the educational institutions of 2016 to those ten or twenty years ago? Yes of course they are different, libraries have changed, classroom technologies have changed, but has education changed that much? If not why? There are many factors to take into account the inertia that you find in education. The main one appears to be is culture and a preference for what has been done before. The introduction of technology either falls into the depths of the pilot pit or is used sparingly at the edges of what has been done before and always.
So with all this technology savviness and awareness, you will hear phrases such as the Google Generation and Digital Natives been banded about in the media and in education. The assumption is that as these learners have grown up in a world with technology immersed into their world, grown up with the internet, Web 2.0, social media, tablets, smartphones and other new technologies; that these learners are able to skilfully use these technologies to support, enhance and enrich their learning. A pretty poor assumption in many respects, as learners have also grown up with books and magazines, but often lack study skills to utilise academic books and journals to enhance and enrich their learning. Learners may be using technology and the internet on a regular basis, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have the study skills to use these same technologies for learning. Study and information skills need to take into account the changes in technology and access to information that the internet allows.
The dependence on written assessment in education is a result of the high cost and time required for oral assessment. As a result there was a shift from oral to written testing and the end result is no longer do we have a questioning and probing assessment, no we have the challenge of writing four essays in three hours. So assessment has changed in the past, but can it make such a radical change in the future? Students can now carry thousands of books in a single device, can access journals when and wherever they have an internet connection, communicate with the world. This quick and easy access to content in likelihood probably changes how learners learn. However when it comes to much assessment, we turn off this access, restrict what learners can use, apart from that, which can be remembered. Often other forms of assessment are seen as having less value. If we are to take advantage of the access that new technologies bring to learners, we need to rethink the ways and medium of assessment.
Part of the problem for planning for the future using the same processes and protocols we have used for change in the past, is that the pace of technological change can be faster than the pace of change. For example just as we get round to the idea of students using their laptops in lectures and thinking we should therefore equip lecture theatres with power sockets and overcome the challenges put in place by over zealous health and safety officers with learners using their own devices within an institution. We find that the devices our learners are now using and will be using have batteries that allow the device to be used all day without needing to be charged up. The new power sockets are now redundant before they have been used.
The same can be said with connectivity, a single wireless router was probably more than ample where there were a small number of devices using small amounts of bandwidth. Now with students having multiple devices and accessing a range of high bandwidth content, wireless networks need to be robust, scalable and capable of handling large numbers of devices and provide sufficient bandwidth. Look in your own pockets and bags, how many wireless devices do you have?
The question that we do need to ask is are we using technology to extend and improve an existing process, or can we use technology to radically change processes? Expectations are that we can use technology to lever radical change in education. This has never happened before, it would be surprising if it happened now. A simple example, when the internet had limited bandwidth, it wasn’t possible to use video or even audio across the web, so people resorted to textual communication. Bulletin boards, usenet and discussions forums allowed asynchronous conversations. The depth of discussion and learning that can take place with such tools certainly outweighed the disadvantages of textual conversations. However these were challenging tools for learning as it required a change in thinking and culture. Many academics and learners found them difficult to use and challenging to change the way in which they delivered learning. As bandwidth improved and new synchronous tools arrived, we have seen how virtual classroom and webinar tools allow for live teaching. These tools have proved popular with academics and learners alike. We have to question why is this, part of the reason has to be that webinar tools are digitising a traditional lesson or lecture format. Academics and learners are comfortable with this format, so a virtual version is easy to grasp and understand. This affinity with traditional approaches, means when given a choice, they will choose a virtual version of something they understand rather than try a different possibly better process. It is this aversion to the new and preference for the comfortable means that radical change is highly unlikely.
Cynicism and resistance to technological change in education has been part of education as long as people have tried to introduce new technologies. Paper was seen as wasteful and extravagant when it replaced slates. Pen and ink was an expensive luxury and shouldn’t be used by education. Likewise there was widespread resistance to the introduction of calculators. Some of today’s academics are cynical and resistant to the use of the web and mobile devices, just as their predecessors were to the new technologies of their time. Some academics are not, just as some of their predecessors, they embrace and see the opportunities that new technologies bring to learning.
Changing technologies is only one factor that impacts and affects education, a look at the newspapers and news websites, as well as glancing at Twitter will show how changes in policy and funding can have a much greater impact than a change in technology.
Change is happening, and the one constant in life is change, but it is happening very slowly. One thing is certain though, things change and academics and institutions that see change as an opportunity and a challenge will probably thrive better than those that ignore or encounter resistance to change.