The Case of the Disappearing School

At a recent meeting of educational technologists, Dr. Mansoor Al Awar, the Chancellor of the fully online university, Hamdan Bin Mohammed Smart University in Dubai, was asked what he saw for the future of education. His answer was pretty definite. "We all shop, but we don't go to the shopping mall. We all bank, but it's doubtful we'll go to the bank. And so, we'll all continue to learn but it's doubtful we'll do it in school." Al Awar represents one end of the continuum on the future of education discussion. In his vision, traditional brick and mortar schools simply stop existing and are replaced by online solutions running on all devices. Others see a hybrid of traditional school and online learning.

Early experiments in online learning have thus far been met with checked success. Courses begun remain incomplete, content mastery is questionable and the best successes come from highly motivated students only. Stanford University's fiercely tech-friendly President John Hennessy recently cited an edX study on student attention spans, which it pegged at 6.5 minutes. If online education is to succeed, "you have to make sure you get students to really pay attention to the material." But as technology improves the engagement level will rise and it's going to be harder and harder to justify the time, expense and utility of brick and mortar schools.

Tablets and laptops, the cloud and the Internet have already equalized access to education. What's lacking is compelling content, student engagement and interaction with a coach/ teacher/ mentor. I'm watching three emerging technologies enter the school market. They promise to strengthen the case for the transformation of education to more tech in the classroom.

Voice

Personal assistants like Microsoft's Cortana, Apple's Siri and Google Now on Tap all rely on voice commands. Today, they're fetching news, controlling devices and turning on music. Tomorrow (it's already started), they'll be providing homework questions with context- aware answers.

New to the market is Echo, Amazon's new voice-activated home controller that relies on spoken commands instead of typing, tapping or pointing. With the Alexa Voice Service, it'll let you ask questions like "how many planets are there?" or command it to read a selection of an audiobook. Teachers are voraciously sharing tips about how to use it in their classrooms on sites like Google+. Voice could be the next great user interface, especially now that natural language processing is mostly (75%) accurate.

Machine Learning

Machine learning is the holy grail that will make it possible to do everything from evaluating a student's college admission portfolio to grading an essay to finding the most relevant information in a search. Systems like IBM's Watson can ingest all human knowledge - textbooks, report cards, applications and begin to learn to systematically evaluate. Ultimately the machine can learn or make inferences based on stored taxonomies. So, for example, if Watson knows what a successful student looks like, it can hone in to find what an unsuccessful, at risk student will look like and then tailor a curriculum for each student based on what it knows.

Virtual Reality

Systems like Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and even their way less expensive cousin Google Cardboard provide unique opportunities to let students literally become surrounded by what they're learning. A 3D- walk through of a molecule, the human body or the solar system is immersive and hopefully unforgettable. When you can walk, reach out, and explore dimensionally the learning can be more robust than the more passive textbook.

Schools aren't going away, but there will be other ways to learn. More efficient and less expensive alternatives will continue to improve. Hurtling towards the digital age there are likely to be brick and mortar casualties. But just as we made the transition from a country of farmers (90%) to country of manufacturers (farmers are now 2% of the US economy) we will make this transition too. In a world with infinite choice in the programs we watch, the music we listen to and who we buy from, it only stands to reason that the choices will multiply as schools disappear.

Ed note: This story was inspired by a recent visit to Ellucian Live, a conference of educational IT and systems clients.

Robin Raskin is founder of Living in Digital Times (LIDT), a team of technophiles who bring together top experts and the latest innovations that intersect lifestyle and technology. LIDT produces conferences and expos at CES and throughout the year focusing on how technology enhances every aspect of our lives through the eyes of today's digital consumer.