Business Times

tomorrow EDUCATION: Personalised and immediate

By Jagdish Hathiramani

In the continuation of the Business Times’ tomorrowSERIES about life in the future, we wanted to approach a topic which would undoubtedly have some sort of impact in everybody's day-to-day life. And hopefully in a way similar to our previous tommorrowHOME and tomorrowOFFICE features. Such was the inspiration of tomorrowEDUCATION - our take on the future of the education system, teaching and even classroom design. Because, before we even set foot into an office for work, the real world for many of us is that all of us have to experience primary or secondary education institutions.

The future of education is a huge point of contention for many primary or secondary school educators worldwide. This is because there is a very limited amount of money allocated to a segment which can be accurately considered as the most vital in everyday life. A segment that also gives us our start in life. It is also perhaps telling that many industrialised countries face teacher shortages and declining attendance rates in their government schools while, in less developed countries, there is high demand for education by potential students with extremely limited access due to low teacher turnout capacity, etc.
While governments have attempted to address these shortfalls in a variety of somewhat innovative ways, especially in the west, it seems the standard fall-back scenario for many has been the inevitable call for future proofing of schools through technology so that existing students don't get left behind further than necessary in what is proving to be a quickly advancing technological age.

This often takes the form of bringing more computers into classrooms, no matter if there are few teachers present to support this or even consistent electricity supplies. In other words, while we are balancing on the edge of an abyss in this area, there remains, as always, some faint gleam of hope for the future.

At this stage, it is important to note that this feature, unlike the several we have published previously, is drawn from two distinct schools of thought. First, the existing community of educators who constantly struggle under the heavy burden of decreased education budgets, higher drop-out rates than ever before, less caring parents and increased pressure for their students to succeed in terms of standardised tests. It must be kept in mind that the future of education for this commendable group is the immediate improving of quality of their students' learning. As such, their priority is the short term and many do not go beyond 2020 in their vision for the future. And second, the futurists and technologists whose visions of the future of education are influenced by technological forecasts. Further, it is important to note that many of their ideas were not conceived specifically with the education field in mind.

The year 2020 is the target year for many of the long-reaching institutional educational strategies which have been put forward to date. These include the sweeping Building Schools of the Future (BSF) programme outlined by the UK which it is hoped will modernise about 4,000 schools in that country. In fact, it can accurately be said that many of these plans for 2020 are geared solely to address education trends such as the alarming decline in enrollment in schools; any place, any time learning; multipurpose buildings; global focus; green buildings and sustainability; safety and security; renovations and future proofing.

Interestingly, some groups of educators have also been keen to point out the limits of technology as a cure-all. This is especially stressed in the more innovative design concepts submitted for education in 2020. Instead, the future of education, as envisioned by educators, is all about the potential of human beings and their psychology as it pertains to ideas like socialising, group dynamics, nature, nurture, etc. This being one of few fields where personalisation is expected to take centre stage, compared to most others where technology's hive mind (network) attributes overshadow the individual's capability.

In fact, novel innovations in this field may include incorporating community or village participation and instruction in schools as well as longer school days and terms. While another area being widely discussed today is the concept of trans-literacy or he merging of multiple mediums into the learning environment. This takes into account new media such as social networking, blogging, gaming, role player platforms, etc. Ironically, while comics, handheld video games and mobile smart devices are considered disruptions in today's classrooms, they may prove essential tools for tomorrowEDUCATION.
Additionally, individualised learning programmes are also being advocated as a departure from standardised subjects and testing, so students can reach their maximum potential by employing personalised lesson plans, a kind of self study courses available in some universities.

There are also further suggestions that very young children, whose brains develop faster than the older child, may benefit from earlier teacher attention, especially since children at a very early age can learn even faster and should benefit from more structured learning. There are also recommendations that, as lesson plans change, so too should school-going ages, and not only skewed towards the earlier. The schools of the near future may actually become intergenerational with classes including both children and senior citizens, thus both enriching the learning experience for the young and keeping seniors mentally healthier and more active.

Other suggestions include classrooms sans chairs to keep students active while they learn and the applying of Feng Shui, such as minimal clutter, an abundance of plants, soothing background sounds and even movement in classrooms, or even using eastern philosophies like yoga and meditation to enhance learning. Meanwhile, there has also been a lot of emphasis on the implications of environmental factors on the quality of student learning, these include the benefits of certain colours, the ideal time period one should stay in school, air quality, etc.

Finally, some educators are even of the impression that schools are actually an outmoded concept and should disappear altogether. Instead, home and distance learning may take up their mantle and, incidentally, at a significantly lower cost to the state.

Beyond 2020
For a view of tomorrowEDUCATION in 20, 50 or even 100 years; one must necessarily look to futurists for any real direction. Where educators by their circumstance are bound by earthly limits, technology forecasters are not and hence are able to bridge many different fields to suggest possible future outcomes for the education field. Many of which, as you will witness, advocate humanity's shift towards a more machine-oriented learning style.

One far-off scenario is the use of neural implants, such as those currently being tested as a mitigating therapy for diseases such as Parkinson's. These may ultimately lead to the ability to download skills, languages, books, subjects, etc. or even the experiences of others, which encompass the use of all the body's senses. So you will be able to learn how to fly a plane by actually experiencing someone else taking flying lessons.

There is also the idea that advances in pharmacology, biotechnology and nanotechnology will enable human beings to boost their intelligence levels so that they may learn faster and retain more content. For example, pills for better memory and cognition and nanobots that simulate neural pathways.
Additionally, there is the thought that, as human longevity is extended and the effects of age eventually becomes reversible, more and more of the brain will be used by humans. These additional neural pathways will allow for greater storage as well as, in combination with previously mentioned nanobots, provide stronger recall of subject matter. Ultimately, this will lead to humans becoming more computer-like in how they access data, including learning. However, this nightmare scenario to some is still a long way off.

A more timely development is the advent of immersion technology. This could in all probability benefit students by enabling them to have real-time meetings using tele-presence or other means. This will enable students to learn as groups in a more interactive way at any time and even when they are not physically together. Further, they would also ideally learn better if immersed in a multi-dimensional virtual reality world where study aids will be appear as 3D models, especially useful in studying anatomy in biology.

While tomorrowEDUCATION over the next 10 years may play to an individual's strengths, the true long game of the field will most necessarily align itself with the future of concepts in most other fields. In fact, those of you who have been consistently reading tomorrowSERIES may have noticed a pattern emerging with a few key future technologies being brought up over and over again, with only their application being changed depending on the field. A situation advocated by many, but not all, forecasts that focus on, for lack of better indicators, what noted futurist Ray Kurzweil has termed GNR (Genes, Nanotechnology and Robotics). As such, it is no surprise that these three seemingly omniscient fields are repeatedly referenced as the focal point of future research and all its subsequent advancements.

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