Mobile Computing

What Will the Learning Device of the Future Look Like?

We asked a young innovator, a futurist and the CEO of the One-to-One Institute to imagine what students will be using for learning one day. Here are their predictions, from the fantastical to the practical.

Device of the Future

Sahil Doshi is a 14-year-old freshman at Upper St. Clair High School in Pittsburgh. He also won "Top Young Scientist" in the 2014 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, which inspires students to come up with innovations that could earn them scholarships and recognition. Doshi's invention, the PolluCell, converts carbon dioxide into electricity (by way of silver-plated guitar strings) to bring power to places that wouldn’t otherwise have it.

When asked to imagine the learning device of the future, he suggested imagining a baseball cap connected directly to a student's brain. The device would allow the student to access "everything in the world, every possible public file out there." That's important for students, he added, so they'll realize "that nothing is impossible because they have [access to] every bit of information."

The search capacity would go way beyond what Google and Bing index. Doshi imagined, “You'd have a bunch of nodes that connected to certain parts of the brain to calculate brain waves,” and to capture complex thinking. “I feel like when we type search queries into search engines, we limit the ideas we have. Our ideas in our brain are really complex. [So] we simplify them. If we had that sort of information database that has all the information and then you just hook it up to your brain, you could find information in five seconds that would take a day to find in Google.”

To prevent the technology built into the device from putting too much physical pressure on the wearer’s head, the cap would be made of "lightweight material that could take away the weight." The device (which might come in other forms for people who don't like ball caps) would enable its wearer to communicate with others through “brain messaging,” eliminating the problem of not being able to communicate “because we don't know how to formulate our most complex opinions in the best set of words,” Doshi explained. He envisions that search results would be projected right onto the student's hand, serving as the ultimate crib notes.

If a student needed to communicate with a remote person, a screen would fold out from the brim, allowing the wearer to interact through a “Google Glass kind of design.” Students would never have to type, because the device would translate spoken reports and homework into text, said Doshi. Users could check their work through their screen, then use a speech control function to send it off to the teacher.

Instead of today’s classroom polling, he said, “You could fold down that screen from your hat and look at the answers and choose the letter or choice that you want using your eyes.” That's already possible, he added, using a technology such as IrisScribe Eye-Typing Software, which was created by a student at his school who has moved on to MIT.

Written tests could be replaced by continuous review. Doshi imagined that the device would use an artificial intelligence algorithm to randomly generate test questions that inspire critical thinking, but “not flash cards.” The student would give an oral response that the device would process. Forget about end-of-year assessments. This would work year-round.

Doshi’s vision of the future of ed tech didn’t stop there, though. He sees student desks being replaced by a glass interface like the ones used by Tony Stark in the Iron Man movies. “He'll take objects on the screen and make them 3D and he'll throw them into the trash. I envision student desks to be something like that." The advantage of that approach, he noted, is that teachers could show problems and the students could work at their desks “rather than having to go up on the board and write out [the answer].” And immediately, the teacher could assess "every student's understanding of the concept."

Connecting to People and Things

A lot of what Doshi describes isn't so far off the mark, according to Scott McLeod, director of innovation at Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Iowa. McLeod, who also publishes the school leadership and technology blog Dangerously Irrelevant, said voice activation and wearability will be “key functionality” for the learning device of the future. Another key: more interactivity “with other devices and the external environment.”

“Right now, the devices we have for students don’t interact as much with other students’ devices,” McLeod pointed out. In the future, “We’ll see natural peer-to-peer networking occurring, and it will be much easier to move things from device to device or share things across devices, or for kids to collaborate where they each have part of the overall picture on their screen.”

He likened what he's describing to Nintendo's dual screen technology that enables two users to play a game at the same time. “You can imagine a distributed screen over multiple devices,” he said, “where each kid has a piece, [allowing] for sophisticated and more interactive learning environments to be created.”

Students will not only connect to each other: The Internet of Things will connect them “to their room and to the building,” enabling them to interact with the physical space. For example, “ambient devices” in a classroom might pick up on signals from student devices, allowing the teacher to tell at a glance the mood in the class. “Maybe there's an indicator that says 75 percent of the kids are working on this right now, so it’s green and that’s good, or only 25 percent of them are, so it’s glowing red.”

In other words, the teacher won't have to go around the room and “look at every student's device to see if they're on track or not,” McLeod explained. “The ambient indicator will tell that the required threshold has been met. The lamp in the corner might be blue if we’re all on track, and red if some of us are off task. Or maybe the light in the ceiling will turn orange if enough kids press the ‘I’m confused’ button on their device.”

For McLeod, ubiquitous Internet is a foregone conclusion. “Kids in the future will be less dependent on local WiFi. They’ll be able to connect anywhere, at any time. It’ll be a 24/7 device. At some point we'll figure out the finances of that and [how to hand off] the school environment to a home environment to a public environment.”

Students who need accommodations with their devices will get them on the fly through software algorithms. “If you need the screen altered to look a different way or the volume turned up, yours will automatically know that about you and do that for you,” McLeod asserted. If a student needs, for example, a transcription along with a video, “it’ll automatically just happen for you. It will be much smarter in terms of knowing what you need and taking care of it.”

Of course, some things never change. For instance, to manage the Internet of Things, McLeod said, the IT group will still have to grapple with “juggling handoffs and connections between devices and environmental objects.” With each new kind of connectivity, new standards will surface, not just from technology manufacturers, but from “the people who make furniture, the people that make floor tiles, sound speakers, the people who make roads and bricks; everybody is going to be in on this. There's going to be a lot of fighting about standards and protocols and how to make things interconnected in order to work.”

Anywhere, Anytime Learning

Another aspect that won't change is how schools will choose the learning devices their students will use. They won’t be looking for something “sexy-cool-glitzy,” insisted Leslie Wilson, CEO of the One-to-One Institute, a non-profit organization that helps schools, districts and states learn how to integrate technology into learning environments. Where the device decision needs to begin is “with the student learning activities and learning experiences and goals in mind. What device best suits those? That's a really defining decision that school people need to make, that clearly drives what the choice in device is going to be.”

While the next generation of learning device as described by Doshi and McLeod may be a few years off, according to Wilson, the current generation isn't very far off the mark from what students need. Her list of features that a learning device will need to succeed in the classroom includes the following:

  • A screen larger than the typical smartphone and smaller than the typical tablet;
  • the ability to let the student create while consuming — producing videos while simultaneously watching videos or doing other production activities;
  • uninterrupted Internet access;
  • the ability to connect with others, though not necessarily by cellular phone (it could be FaceTime or Skype);
  • a manual keyboard that can be quickly attached and is immediately usable;

Wilson’s ideal device would be portable and lightweight but durable enough to withstand student abuse and secured to prevent quick theft. It would offer a high degree of personalization to be “very congruent with the kinds of things that the student might like to do.”

All in all, the device “is in keeping with the notion of anywhere, anytime learning,” she said, constantly giving students “the capacity of learning something new, creating something, developing something. It's a never-ending process. That's the wave of the future of education."