In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore predicted that computer processing power would double every two years. Almost fifty years later, his prediction, known as Moore’s Law, has proven to be incredibly accurate.
Here are two examples of the startling rate of change. Today’s iPad is as fast as the Cray supercomputer of 25 years ago. In another 25 years, one expert predicts that our hand-held devices will “be able to store the entire human knowledge base.”
It’s obvious to everyone that these advances have reshaped many parts of our world. But different sectors have moved at different speeds. Some, like communications and media, are virtually unrecognizable when compared to their recent pasts. But other sectors have been much slower to take advantage of these changes. A few have almost completely ignored the new technologies.
One of the greatest digital laggards is education: visit today’s average classroom and it still resembles its decades old precursors. This is problematic. The snail’s pace at which education has moved stunts not only the learning process but also handicaps students who leave school to be part of professional, civic and social worlds based, to a large degree, on technology.
There are countless ways in which technology can radically improve teaching and learning. Here are three examples. Welcome to the worlds of MOOCs, “Big Data,” and connectivity/portability.
MOOCs, massive open on-line courses, are the most recent version of distance learning. But the emergence of new technologies has reshaped and expanded what is being offered in this domain. These courses no longer rely exclusively on lectures. They incorporate features such as peer review, group collaboration, and automated feedback through on-line assessments. They can be delivered to students who do not have geographic access to in-person courses. They can be offered cheaply and accommodate student schedules.
“Big data” in education refer to capturing information on individual student performance throughout their academic careers. This information can be aggregated and used to personalize courses for students, courses that build on their individual strengths and correct their individual weaknesses, tailored to their individual learning styles. As stated in a recent article in US News & World Report, teachers and schools “can customize modules, assignments, feedback, and learning trees in the curriculum that will promote better and richer learning.”
Connectivity/portability is the concept of every student having a device to link them not only to their teachers and classmates but also to books, documents, pictures, videos, other students, mentors, and multiple learning experiences around the world, twenty-four hours a day. Teachers will also have these devices, giving them unlimited access to teaching materials and professional development.
If you think these kinds of learning are a utopian dream, look at the world around us: the way we socialize, the way we shop, the way we get our news. These worlds have been transformed. There is no reason to demand less from our schools and universities.
None of these possibilities, or other technological changes, will come easily. But the primary barriers are not technical ones. The barriers are ones of will and politics. Are we willing to dedicate the resources and put aside our differences of opinion on what works best to focus on what really matters: how best to prepare our students?
Given the rate of change, predicting what the digital age holds in store is not for the faint of heart. Over time, even a few of the digital sector’s most brilliant people have given us some really wayward prognoses. In 1977, Ken Olsen, president of Digital Equipment Corporation said “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” In 2003, Steve Jobs said “the subscription model of buying music is bankrupt.” In 2007, Steve Ballmer, current Microsoft CEO, said “there’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.”
However, some predictions are worth making. One prediction is that unless education takes advantage of the extraordinary opportunities presented by the digital age, we will continue to have a population ill prepared for the challenges and rewards of today’s world.
Gene A. Budig, an Isle of Palms resident, is past president of three major state universities and of Major League Baseball’s American League. Alan Heaps is a former vice president at the College Board in New York City.