Above picture: A man peers into a kinetoscope, an early motion picture device designed for a single user experience.
Before we begin to focus on how to leverage new technologies for education, it will be useful to review how we arrived at this moment. Without getting lost in debates about the Prussian model or the value of the university, I think we can agree that much of education over the past 100 years has been to train people for the workforce. The liberal arts studies have endured, less so in some western countries, with the students often chided that their degree in philosophy will serve them well in their career as an actuary. From the American school system’s emphasis on math in the 60s — to train scientists who will be able to compete with the Soviets — through the broader STEM movement in reaction to the explosion of the Internet, we are have spent the last 100 years fighting the last war.
The Industrial Revolution brought us the division of labor, radically changing the way most of us work. In order to be most efficient, our tasks were highly specialized, and usually rote. This has lead to a general dissatisfaction with work, where people often work for the weekends. Or for holidays. Or just to make to retirement. Even Adam Smith, a father of modern capitalist economics, noted that repetitive, machinelike work dehumanizes man. From The Wealth of Nations:
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects, too, are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention, in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.”
Now we are entering the Fourth Wave of the Industrial Revolution. While the Third Wave merely digitized our economy, the Fourth relies on creatively using a combination of mature technologies. Most repetitive work has already begun leaving the realm of human labor. The skills required to thrive in the new market are those that make us most human. Even the most powerful artificial intelligence is incapable of empathy, curiosity, and creativity.
We live in the age of Exponential Technologies, which means things are going to change drastically, very quickly. In linear growth, change occurs in a predictable manner, and we understand how to cope with it as it comes. With exponential growth, technologies underperform relative to our expectations… for a little while.
You may be familiar with Moore’s Law: “the observation that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles every 18 months.” This concept, dating from the 1960s, is often applied to all technology, not just circuitry.
The growth within the Age of Exponential Technology is composed of sigmoidal curves (S-curves).
This means we have moments of small plateaus before another massive, sudden spike in growth. We have been on one of those plateaus for about ten years now. How many people remember life — truly daily life — before the smartphone? The iPhone was introduced in 2007. Sometime in the following years, most of you replaced your feature phone with a device equipped with GPS, digital camera, video conferencing, music player, gaming system, video player, and more. One that you controlled with a touchscreen and, a little while later, your own voice. A device that gave you quick access to all of the world’s information at any time, anywhere.
It has been said that Thomas Jefferson’s library contained off of the western world’s known information at the time. Jefferson obsessed with collecting books after his family home burned in 1770, destroying his collection at the time… so I hope you have a backup. Actually, you don’t need to, because this information exists in the cloud. Many places at all times.
We’ve grown accustomed to having these devices. This is human nature. When it comes to technology: we resist, we accept, we expect.
If I’m right, and we have been on this plateau for nearly ten years, what’s next? We have been making progress, but it has been out of sight from consumers, mostly. Siri has been getting smarter through improvements in artificial intelligence. Designers use 3D printers to rapidly build functioning prototypes. Recreational drones fill the air and may soon be delivering pizzas. But the revolutionary change comes when technologies are used together.
There are many exponential technologies that will impact our daily lives, but we are here for education technology. At this moment, the biggest potential for professional development is in immersive experiences: augmented reality, virtual reality, and interactive 360° video.
Immersive experiences rely on mixed reality: the merging of real world and virtual worlds to produce a new environment where physical and digital objects can coexist and interact. Mixed reality can be viewed as existing on a spectrum, the virtuality continuum, as Paul Milgram initially defined it in 1994.
On one end of the spectrum, is the physical world with some peripherals through which we can interface with the virtual world, or TUI (Tangible User Interfaces), such as a mouse, keyboard, can touchscreen. Moving along the spectrum, our perception of the physical world decreases as our interaction with the virtual world increases. Spatial augmented reality, such as we often see in museums, projects images into our physical space. This example, from the Museum of Natural History, shows how Superstorm Sandy affected New York City. Visitors could manipulate the data and see a visual representation adjust accordingly on a topographical map.
See-through AR, which we can experience through a handheld device (phone or tablet) or head-mounted device (Google Glass or HoloLens) displays digital images to the individual viewer as if it were existing in the physical world. The most popular example of this has been Pokemon Go. Augmented virtuality incorporates more virtual elements and less of the user’s physical space. This has been a small market. The image used is from the education resource Z-Space. Finally, at the far end of the spectrum, we have fully immersive virtual reality. In true VR, the user is no longer aware of their physical surroundings, which has been replaced by the virtual one.
Our recent work at Pearson has been focussing on the right side of the spectrum. Learning is best achieved through experiences. Thanks to the wonderful invention the Gutenberg Press, for hundreds of years we have been able to engage with information recorded in text and widely distributed. However, interactions are limited, even when presented in a digital format with tangible user interfaces. Through immersion, we enable learners to engage with information. These simulations trick the brain into believing that the experiences are real. This is something that the human brain is very good at and machines are not — even AI: making leaps in logic, connecting dots.
For example, Pearson developed a 360° Video VR tour for the London Underground. The narrated instruction utilizes the immersive experience to orient the students while providing additional, digital information on top of the “real-world” visual information. When the student is in the actual environment, the lesson will have provided valuable information not so apparent when not in the simulation, but hopefully remembered.
Another key component to immersive experiences relates to digital information that “remains” in a physical space. The best term for this is “situated media.” Again, if you played Pokemon Go, think of the fact that those Pokemon existed in the real world, in the same physical space but in the form of virtual information, for everyone who had the app installed on their phone. (For more on situated media, check out The Triad of Technologies for Location-Based Mixed Reality.)
For a practical use of situated media, let’s look at Pearson’s first HoloLens app:Peg & Boards. These pegs and boards are used to mark large sites for excavation. Typically, this work requires days of labor, during which the student physically inserts these objects into the ground, with much effort. This app enables them to do it anywhere and in minutes rather than hours or even days. A crucial feature to HoloLens is that the virtual objects remain situated in the physical space. In other words, upon returning to various different locations in which pegs and boards have been placed using the HoloLens, the representation of them remains as situated media.
I stated earlier that the next great leap in technological progress will occur when multiple technologies are used in unison. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and situated media constitute a relatively small piece of the Exponential Technology pie. For an idea of what could be next, let’s consider adding artificial intelligence and biosyncing.
Biosyncing is communication between the virtual and physical worlds. It is the symbiotic relationship between the biological and the digital, where the human receives and processes information from the machine, and the machine receives and processes information from the human. We get raw data or nudges from our machine counterpart(s); we consciously send commands through our voice or gestures and subconsciously do so through our heart beat, facial reactions, and the tone we use when giving commands. (For more on biosyncing, check out Improved Learning Through Biosyncing.)
Immersed in a virtual world, every interaction is data. Elements of the immersive experience, through AI, can adjust to our behavior, both conscious and subconscious, through biosyncing. Imagine an emergency medical training simulation. You are the doctor, and the patient’s response to your actions is artificially intelligent. Whether your virtual patient lives or dies, and whether or not he is traumatized depends not only on memorized information you learned from a textbook, but how your hands manipulate the tools at your disposal, and the way in which you command your surroundings just as you would have to in the real world. The difference is that this world is simulated, controlled, and safe. Your brain will hardly know the difference in the moment. This is The Convergence.
Flexibility & Adaptability
What does all of this mean for lifelong learners today? 21st century skills are a must for all of us. We are figuring out how to adjust our education system so that our youth learn persistence, critical thinking, problem solving, culture awareness, and collaboration in addition to more traditional hard skills. However, those of us in the workforce need to immediately adopt and maintain two of those 21st century skills: flexibility and adaptability. Adapting to new methods of learning, especially through immersive technology, will unlock the possibility of exploring new pathways as if they were first hand experiences. However, these technologies will change quickly and often, so we need to remain flexible.
Developments in technology will, in some ways, make this easier. Learning is a naturally social act, but many experiences in augmented reality and virtual reality have been developed with a singular, isolated user in mind.
This is quickly changing: HoloPortation enables two people engage in the same physical space in real time. Port, developed by mixed reality development shop Wild, in Portland, enables two people to manipulate the same virtual objects in real time.
I’ll end with two quotes from a fellow American. He will be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in Stockholm in December:
“The times, they are a-changin’”
“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,” which, unfortunately, make me unnecessary. So you can rely on that same 21st skill that brought you to this room: curiosity.