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A glimpse on how digital tech may impact education by 2050

A workshop that offered glimpses the impact of digital technologies such as virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and big data on education over the next 30 years was recently held.

As reported, education and computing experts said that digital technologies offer many intriguing possibilities but cannot replace all-important human relationships during the ‘Education for 2050’ workshop at the Victoria University of Wellington.

Imagine a scenario with a class of 30 students. Each of them will receive the benefit of personalised tuition thanks to a computer tutor.

This computer tutor can understand a child’s emotional state from their facial expression, body posture and tone of voice.

Another scenario described a VR system that takes a child to places they could not visit. Ancient Rome, for instance, simulated using the same technology used to make video games or movie visual effects.

Or even the possibility of being able to take all the data about a child and using a machine-learning system to predict behaviour, determine which module might be best for the child to tackle next and assess their most appropriate career options, and therefore subject choices.

Such scenarios sound far-fetched for a New Zealand classroom today, but so did the internet and pocket computers when scientists predicted them from a pre-moon-landing world in 1968.

Digital technology has developed dramatically in the past 30 years and it is expected to develop considerably further in the next 30.

In the 1980s, the first computers were brought into schools, but were limited to a few machines in each school.

Email and internet access became more common throughout the 1990s, while Google was launched in 1998 and Wikipedia in 2001.

Schools have increased the use of computers for administration, teaching and learning throughout the 1990s and 2000s.

However, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) only became possible in the mid-2010s when the prices of portable devices dropped significantly.

The computer has gone from being a specialist piece of equipment to something omnipresent and is taking over the role of the pen and exercise book.

Using reference texts has been replaced by googling, which gave the students access to far more information than used to be possible.

Over the next 30 years, it will be the developing technologies that are most likely to cause substantial changes.

This includes machine learning and big data applied to students to inform teaching methods, to virtual and mixed reality providing uniquely interactive educational experiences.

AI will provide a computer with the ability to recognise emotional states; will understand speech in context; and will be able to answer the questions of children appropriately using intelligent searches of the whole Internet.

Although there is excitement and anticipation about the potential of these new technologies for educating people, the assembled experts grounded it in a firm shared belief in the relational nature of education and the view that technology cannot replace human relationships.

Much of education revolves around how people interact with other people. Getting the values right is important before talking about technology starts.

Technology is just a tool and too much reliance on it could mean children fail to develop proper abilities to cope with inter-personal relationships.

A big concern for the workshop participants was people who have a blind faith that technology solves everything.

A prime example of how this issue might play out in a classroom of the future is a child who spends six hours a day with a computer tutor.

Such a teacher is infinitely patient, never tires or gets angry and is never unpredictable. With this scenario, how can a child learn to cope with a normal human being who is none of those things?

Workshop co-organiser Professor Neil Dodgson, from the University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, wants to see digital technology being used to augment what human teachers can do.

There is much to be said for having personally tailored tutoring. However, people should not believe computers can replace humans, because so much of education is about learning what it means to be human.

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