Technology often disrupts established fields, but there’s a common misunderstanding as to how that happens. People often think that the technologies that are transforming our world today were created recently, but the nature of technological development makes that proposition unlikely.
In most cases, new technologies are clunky, expensive, and hard to implement — which is why they start with a small user base and remain in that state for a while until the required leaps are made. Only then does a new technology gain mass appeal and start being adopted on a large scale. In other words, it’s only at this stage that a technology becomes capable of truly disrupting a field.
Take your phone’s screen as an example. It may feel like touch screen technology was invented and made popular by the 2009 iPhone, or maybe you think it was created for and popularized by the PDAs that were around in the 90s and early 2000s. But in truth, touch screen technology was invented in the 1960s. The HP-150 computer had touch-screen support — it was launched in 1983.
The reasons why those early renditions of the touch screen failed to realize the technology’s potential were due in large part to technical problems. The HP-150, for example, relied on a grid of infrared beams to detect touches on its screen. But the infrared sensors would collect dust, and required constant cleaning as a result.
Why bring all of this up? Well, it’s simple. For the past few years, a lot of interesting applications of education technology have been in the “collecting dust in the sensors” stage. They were clunky, expensive, and hard to implement; they looked bad and frustrated users. However, many of those new educational tools and ideas are now ready to be mass implemented and disrupt the educational field.
The Jill Watson case
Let’s consider a simple example: chatbots. You have likely already dealt with one of those. A lot of companies have started implementing chatbots as part of their customer experience efforts, and chatbots can now do everything from helping customers browse catalogs to setting appointments and even holding conversations.
Colleges have also started making use of chatbots. Back in 2016, Georgia Tech professor Ashok Goel used IBM’s Watson AI to build Jill Watson — a chatbot teacher assistant. The bot was trained using data from the course’s forum, and for one semester, Jill helped students with their routine questions and requests on the course forum. The best part was that the students didn’t even realize Jill was a bot, and she was helping computer science majors.
Jill is still active today. According to the Georgia Tech website, “Soon Jill will be able to answer about 40 percent of the 10,000 questions students ask each semester. And she doesn’t even need coffee breaks.”
Georgia Tech calls Jill an “artificially intelligent teacher assistant.” Other sources call her a chatbot. The truth is the line between the two is blurry in cases like this, especially when you throw machine learning into the mix. Regardless of what you call it, the result is that we are ever closer to creating an automated general learning assistance solution—one that can be customized and adapts to individual students’ needs.
This will result in software like Jill being present in every student’s phone and forum, helping people learn faster, more effectively, and in a more self-sufficient manner. It will be a personal digital tutor serving students content, grading essays—yes, bots can already do that—and overall, making students’ and teachers’ lives easier.
The rise of massive education
Before the printing press, each book had to be copied by hand. The cost in time and materials, combined with the technical knowledge needed to copy books, meant that books were expensive luxury goods for most of human history. But then came the printing press, and we went from awkwardly copying books page by page to mass-producing books by the truckload in a matter of weeks. Technology made the written word more accessible than it had ever been before.
College lectures are already undergoing the same type of revolution. Earlier, the only way to see a lecture was to be physically present in the room and witness the lecture being executed in front of you.
As cameras became cheaper and video storage tools more reliable, the rise of long-distance and correspondence courses gave us an inkling of what a future with mass-produced education could look like. However, mail was clunky, slow, and often unreliable. Those were still the early days of massive long-distance education.
In the present, those initial problems have been solved thanks to cloud storage, cloud computing, and streaming technologies. This is what made EdX possible.
EdX is a massive open online course (MOOC) provider launched in 2012. The platform is the result of a partnership between Harvard and MIT. Their approach is simple: every single course is open and free, and the curriculums are organized around weekly video lessons that are followed up with activities to help students review and deepen their understanding of the lecture. If you complete a free course, you can pay a fee to get a certified EdX accreditation.
As of 2018, EdX has served 18 million students through two thousand university-level online courses. In the same year, an estimated 20 million students were attending university in the US.
Right now, this form of education is an alternative to traditional learning. But when will it become a partial replacement? With the rise of video technology, making professors deliver the same lectures every semester is no longer necessary. It makes a lot more sense to simply record the semester’s lectures, edit them together, and then let students watch those lectures on their own time, at their own pace — which is what EdX allows.
Professors will then be responsible for updating the videos when needed. They will be able to dedicate the rest of their time to answering questions and helping students.
The personal benefits
The rise of mass video tools and AI teacher assistants will mean a surge in students’ ability to learn independently. This freedom will benefit college students while at university and post-graduation. After all, careers today require almost constant learning of new technologies, and the independent study skills students learn at EdX will help them as they continue their real-world studying. In addition to career benefits, constant study has also been linked to longevity and increased mental health.
Right now, we have to search and find information. The next step is having information come to us when we need it and at a manageable pace. While we wait for such tools to gain mass appeal, you can get young students’ attention using more traditional methods, such as math worksheets.