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The Next Generation of Digitally Enhanced Learning

At the recent Ed Tech Summit, a technology consultant took a distant look at the future of education, based on both widespread speculation and technologies currently on the market and in development

Are we too easily jaded by the progress of technology, always demanding the next big thing even as the last one is barely out of the box? Or will the innovators and entrepreneurs of the global technology arena forever (or at least for the next century or so) keep us on our toes as their vision, and the resulting gadgets and apps, continually expands at a geometric rate?

In his lecture at the Ed Tech Summit at the InfoComm 2010 conference in Las Vegas, Mark S. Valenti, founder and president of Pittsburgh-based technology consulting firm The Sextant Group, delved into the myriad of ways in which advancing technology will continue to enhance, improve, and expand education--both K-12 and post-secondary education--as well as the shifts in priorities and attitudes such advancements will likely cause.

A point Valenti was quick to make was that, with the growth of communication technologies, institutions, especially those of higher learning, are seeing a rapid decline in their power to set the agenda for how, when, and where people learn. "Higher ed," he said, 'is the only industry that believes it can offer its service at a time, in a place, and in a style of its own choosing." But the validity of that belief, he assured his audience, is rapidly coming to an end.

He referred to the book Transforming Higher Education: A Vision for Learning in the 21st Century, by Michael G. Dolence, an analysis of the future of education in the Internet age, in his assessment. "Schools and colleges in teaching knowledge," Dolence wrote in 1995, "will yield to individual learning by millions of knowledge seekers in all walks of life. Worldwide networked learning will replace place-bound teaching."

In Valenti's "big picture" view of the next stage of education, there will be several significant changes, some of which we are already witnessing, that will alter the entire landscape for "providers" of education and related services, e.g., colleges and universities, vocational and trade institutes, public and private K-12 schools, etc., as well as for teachers and students:

  • The process will continue to become more technology-dependent;
  • There will be increased demand for access, in terms of user capacity, frequency, transmission speed, and content capacity, leading to increased demand for bandwidth;
  • Information will become increasingly media rich, which will also impact bandwidth demand; and
  • The individual will increasingly become both a consumer and a producer of information, leading to shifts in the dynamic between educators and the educated.

The Economics of Bandwidth
Valenti proceeded to discuss bandwidth as "the fourth utility," similar to energy in that manufacturers will continue to develop new bandwidth-driven products to drive up demand; consumers will continue to demand more and more bandwidth for an ever-growing litany of products and uses for those products; both manufacturers and consumers will see no limits to what they can do with more and more bandwidth, as long as the supply keeps growing; and providers will continue to devise ways to increase the supply to meet the demand, seeing no limits on the market for their utility.

By way of example, Valenti pointed to the growth in the bandwidth market in the last decade alone, which, if we look at the 1990s as the era of dial-up, was really the first full decade of the market's existence. In 2000, wireless networks, also known as WLANs or WiFi networks, had a total market in the United States of about $400 million. Today, he estimated, the domestic market is at about $12 billion, with more than 30 million WiFi networks currently in operation.

That, of course, covers bandwidth exclusively. The total wireless economy, which includes networks, computer equipment, mobile devices, services and infrastructure, is closer to $500 billion a year and growing exponentially.

Small World After All?
But what does it all mean for education? Like many advances in information and communications technology through the years, the big breakthroughs usually make their way to the education community, and that process has definitely sped up in recent years. Valenti identified tactile (touch screen) displays, 3D video, and virtual worlds with avatar representation as three key areas of technology that will soon be enhancing education.

Virtual worlds, the most popular of which is currently Second Life, with more than 5 million members, bring people together using avatars, digital illustrations of individuals as they'd like to present themselves to others, to represent them in all facets of a virtual life mirroring a real one. To date, such an environment as fostered commerce, social networking, pursuit of shared interests, and exploration of other people and cultures. But virtual classrooms with avatar students seem a natural fit for bringing people together from all parts of the world and educating them as though they were all in one place. And any existing concerns that distance learning eliminates the critical social component of attending school can head for the exits.

"We're seeing the merging of real space and virtual space in places like Second Life," he explained. "There's a lot of investigation into what it's like to learn in that environment. People are asking, can we create a satisfactory student experience, teacher experience, and overall learning experience in a virtual space?" He pointed to the nascent concept of distance team teaching, which presents both a lecturer and a group of students at each end of a video link. All of the attendees can benefit from both instructors' knowledge and expertise, while the instructors themselves can facilitate the process, even with thousands of miles separating the two classrooms.

Tactile displays and 3D high-definition displays are also gradually working their way into the classroom. Valenti explained that few things will engage and envelop a child's attention so completely as being literally immersed in the reality of what they are learning. From historical events, such as a war or the signing of the Declaration of Independence, to a "hands-on" exploration of the human anatomy, the 3D experience will prove a quantum leap in both conceptual and practical education, allowing students to leave behind the pen and paper and even the keyboard and dive head first into the experience itself. Already, Valenti noted, medical students are learning some of the "how-tos" of their profession with the help of virtual operating room theaters.

Finally, such technology will lead to a rethinking of the architecture of learning spaces themselves. "Collaboration across time and space will drive facility design [in the coming years]. We're seeing technologies like Skype become commonplace. We're seeing major investments from companies like Cisco in things like TelePresence, which is a prime example of cross-collaboration." Valenti said he believes that, in the long run, in addition to the changes in teaching and learning methods, the physical space that accommodates learning will also change. Classrooms driven by multimedia, virtual hands-on combinations of laboratories and lecture spaces, and the aforementioned virtual operating rooms are all examples of the digitally enhanced learning spaces on the horizon.

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