Modern Schools Are Not Designed in Cupertino

In a recent, thought-provoking blog post, entrepreneur, Zack Kanter predicted that Uber’s autonomous cars will destroy millions of jobs and reshape the global economy by 2025. Kanter offers some ambitious forecasts. He tells us, for instance, that, “PriceWaterhouseCoopers predicts that the number of vehicles on the road will be reduced by 99%, estimating that the fleet will fall from 245 million to just 2.4 million vehicles,” and that, “a Columbia University study suggested that with a fleet of just 9,000 autonomous cars, Uber could replace every taxi cab in New York City – passengers would wait an average of 36 seconds for a ride that costs about $0.50 per mile.” Because driverless cars do not need to park, Kanter also anticipates that traffic problems will ultimately vanish and parking lots will become extinct. The most dramatic impact, however, he warns, will be on jobs.

Some commentators were quick to dismiss Kanter’s bold assertions as outlandish and exaggerated. The “problem” with people like Kanter is that they are frequently dismissed as “futurists”. It’s easy to dismiss predictions of dramatic change, especially if you fear it, or if it’s simply too difficult to grasp the vision. Suggestions that companies such as Kodak, Blockbuster, Palm, Tower Records and Barnes & Noble were vulnerable to the impact of evolving, disruptive technologies were met with similar repudiation. The truth about driverless cars, of course, is that they are not a thing of the future, but already with us.

The 2014 short film by CGP Grey, Humans Need Not Apply, explores the implications of automation made possible by the advent of general purpose robots. Machines now out-compete humans for jobs like never before. The technologies involved are not necessarily new – they are simply cheaper. The bot revolution is akin to the technological shift from mainframe computers to the personal computer. This revolution is only beginning. Grey’s film draws an analogy between two horses dismissively discussing the advent of mechanical horsepower in the 19th century and sceptical perceptions around the significance of disruptive technologies today. The implications are profound.

Whether it’s ultimately a disruptive technology like Uber that transforms the global economy next or autonomous bots, there will be implications for schools. If the society and workplace for which we are preparing young people are destined to alter radically, what does this mean for our education systems? Is our Kodak moment? Educators are essentially futurists without a road map. Will it be enough to patch the existing systems, or does education need a makeover of its own? What will it take before disruptive technology truly disrupts schools, one wonders, or before schools themselves begin to lead the disruption?

Thornton May, reminds us, “that disruptive technologies don’t just happen. They evolve. There is a window of opportunity to do something before the technology becomes truly disruptive. The digital photography window that Kodak failed to act within lasted more than a decade. How long is your window?” How much time, one wonders, do schools have left until they discover, like Kodak, that all that talk about the digital landscape was not mere scaremongering? As a recent article in The Guardian points out, it isn’t just manual labour that disruptive technologies are encroaching upon: “Data analysis work in areas such as advertising and finance is being outsourced to computers and even the authority of medical experts is being challenged: IBM’s Watson computer, which won the American TV quiz Jeopardy in 2011, is being used to diagnose cancer patients in the US.” Education technology advocate, Scott McLeod also articulates a compelling version of these changes.

Schools have attempted to address this discourse about disruption with attempts to embrace the tech integration agenda. But these have not always produced the desired outcomes. This is mainly because the desired outcomes were not defined or understood. Districts, states, even national systems, have, for example, rushed to place iPads in the hands of students as an attempted panacea for the imminent changes forecast. Without a coherent plan, however – bereft of an understanding of the urgent need for implicit change and a meaningful, educational rationale for transformative thinking – the tokenism of the iPad movement, like much “tech integration”, is just that. Jordan Shapiro recently suggested that the“iPad panacea” is nothing more than a safety net of traditional habit at the end of the day: “Digital tablets let educators … pat themselves on the back for embracing ‘new innovative technologies’ without actually having to turn toward anything too unfamiliar. … the tablet form-factor has already been one of education’s longest-standing traditions. It’s hardly new at all. Remember that the 18th Century’s schoolhouse writing slates remained the primary classroom technology until the 1930s. And even students in 1900 BCE were already practicing writing on tablets.”

The truth is that school leaders, in the main, are determined to do what is best for students, but the complexity of the metamorphosis required is daunting and requires changes that are deeper than technology investment alone. Kodak did not choose to sit idly by with an intentional desire to fail while digital photography destroyed their market. When Chris Lehmann suggests that, “the factory model of education that persists in most … schools is designed to limit meaningful human interaction, not create it,” It is difficult to believe that this is intentional either. Schools, one hopes, are increasingly moving in the right direction. They may move slowly, as the task carries with it great responsibility and policy makers are, in too many instances, restricting the freedom of teachers to innovate because the unfamiliar is a notoriously, nervous territory.

So, where are schools headed? The one thing that disruptive technology seems to transform most clearly, is an increasingly personalised experience for the end user. The iPhone gave consumers the internet in their pocket. The Kindle allowed readers to carry around their own personal library. Twitter and Facebook provides individuals with the capacity to tell their own stories to a potential, global audience. Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Wikipedia are taking the power of technology one step further to create peer-to-peer, personalised services that are transforming those realms of human interaction. One hopes that the ethical dimensions of new technologies are constructive and transparent, but we know that change is inevitable. Shift happens when the user experience becomes more personal. The corollary of this in educational terms is the issue of student agency, of providing students with greater opportunities to personalize and truly own their learning experiences, to couple what it is they really want and care about with an educational establishment that has historically lacked the agility to meet such needs. This movement may well be the light on the horizon that schools need. More than anything, teachers need to be liberated from the constraints of prescribed content coverage and undue testing requirements so that they feel empowered to take risks in this evolution. The internet has already personalised learning for learners. Educators have embraced technology but must do so not to replicate traditional practices, but to transcend them.

The implication of what is often termed disruption – in other words, transformative change – is that it will have an impact on society, good or bad. The need for schools to prepare learners for an uncertain, but rapidly changing future is not a tacit criticism of the best efforts of teachers and schools today. The narrative about societal change and the need for schools to meet new challenges are centuries old. Perhaps not all the predictions down the years have come true, but we do know that the internet is accountable for exponential change like we have never seen before. Learners need to be able to adapt to this exponential change and technology provides us with the tools to allow them to do so. Schools should not have to respond to the external forces of societal change. Educators need to be given the training, tools, and support to navigate the complex task of educating today’s young people in equitable, empowering ways.

Modern schools are not designed in Cupertino, but by innovative educators co-constructing learning opportunities alongside fellow learners (students), based on learner passions and interests. Schools can – and will have to – still cover the essential skills that are critical for external exams and college entrance. Giving both students and teachers a greater say in their learning programs is, I believe, the disruption that we’ve been waiting for. The establishment may not be thrilled with this development anymore than they are with Uber, but the end user will be and that should be the ultimate objective of the futures business we call learning.

Personalized Learning Resources
World Class Learners: How to Make Personalization and Student Autonomy Happen
Personalize Learning: Transform Learning For All Learners
10 Ways to Personalize Learning
Ten Tips for Personalized Learning via Technology
Humans Need Not Apply
Building School 2.0: How to Create the Schools We Need
Dangerously Irrelevant: Technology, Leadership and the Future of Schools