Futurism | December 2012 Digital Edition | Feature

How Disruptive Technologies Are Leading the Next Great Education Revolution

Futurist David Thornburg argues that "disruptive technology" is reshaping how students learn. But how can schools prepare for what they can't predict?

This article, which includes a special TEDx interview, originally appeared in T.H.E. Journal's December 2012 digital edition.

David Thornburg FETC speaker
David Thornburg.

These days it may seem like education is changing faster than educators can keep up--Common Core State Standards, the charter school movement, "new normal" shrinking budgets -- but it's not moving nearly as fast as technology. That's par for the course though, according to David Thornburg, a noted futurist and education consultant who teaches graduate courses on emerging technologies at Walden University. After all, education is a deep-rooted part of society, one that can't always keep up with rapid-fire advances in technology.

"It's a common error that people make, which is to overestimate social change and to underestimate technological change," Thornburg says. That makes it especially tough to predict how the two will impact the future.

Thornburg contends that, in the whole of human history, only three major technological revolutions have fundamentally resculpted education. The first two are taken for granted: the construction of a phonetic alphabet, and the propagation of the mass-produced book in the 16th century. These changes seeped into education because they were consumer-driven, and ultimately too big to ignore.

Thornburg argues that mobile device technology has placed us on the cusp of the next great revolution, which is already very much in progress and is certain to affect education. Like its predecessors, this one is consumer-driven, and has the potential to drastically transform an education environment that has become, to his mind, too focused on assessment and evaluation.

Recreating Education
Thornburg is a strong advocate of teaching students creative construction skills. While attending a recent event, he sat down with some community-college educators and asked them how recent shifts in education policy, like No Child Left Behind, have affected creativity in their current crop of students. Their response, he says, was not promising. "They said, 'Honestly, we've lost an entire generation of students. They're just lost since NCLB got implemented. The high-stakes tests, they're useless. All [students learn] how to do is pass a test."

Removing creativity from the curriculum has been a gradual process, and the evolution of educational technology itself has played a pivotal role. "When computers were first introduced into schools, there wasn't any shrink-wrapped software to speak of, so we tended to teach kids how write software using BASIC," Thornburg says. "And that was in some sense good, because it showed kids that this tool was something you could bend to your own whim. Whatever you wanted it to do, it would do it--if you learned how to speak its language." With the proliferation of store-bought software like word processing and computerized spreadsheets in the late 1980s, however, computer science assumed a diminishing role in computer literacy.

As software evolved to follow education's next trajectory (and its dollars) it became increasingly centered on helping students succeed on standardized tests, turning technology away from creative construction.

With the emergence of the Common Core and new science standards, however, Thornburg says educators' focus is shifting away from rote memorization and teaching to a test, and toward creativity and problem solving--a change he says is long overdue. That change is occurring in tandem with the sudden emergence of what Thornburg calls a "disruptive technology," an impossible-to-predict game changer that will fundamentally alter the conventional landscape. This technology, which he predicts will create the third education revolution, is the always-connected mobile device.

Thornburg believes that mobile devices hold significant promise for students, provided they're used appropriately. Disruptive technologies radicalize the field, as opposed to evolutionary ones, which iterate upon (but largely enforce) the status quo. Think of the switch from bulky vacuum tubes to transistors in computer design, Thornburg says. "I've said for decades that the choice is for using new tools to do things differently or doing different things. It's when you're doing different things, things that you couldn't do without the tools, that the power lies."

It is here that Thornburg takes aim at tablets, particularly the iPad, not because the devices hold no promise--just the opposite, actually--but because schools are too often tempted to treat them as an evolutionary technology instead of a disruption. "The downside of tablets today is that they are tools for consumption, not tools for creation," he says.

The fault does not lie entirely with educators. Apple's closed OS limits the extent to which students can explore--and ultimately, disrupt--that world. The good news is that change is likely to come. Thornburg notes that when the original Mac debuted in 1984, it ran on a closed platform, too. Change, when it does come, may not start with Apple, he predicts, but rather its Bay Area rivals at Google. Already, students at a school in Brazil that Thornburg's wife Norma oversees are using Android apps like App Inventor to write their own programs to share with their friends.

"I'm of the opinion right now that we are going to see tablets being used in education, but that that use is going to shift from being a glorified e-book with web access to something that supports more creativity," he says. "As millions, and I do mean millions, of these things continue to get into people's hands, software companies are incentivized to do different things."

An Uncertain Future
So, standing at the intersection of both significant social and technological change in education, what can educators do to prepare for a future that may be dictated as much by outside forces as by internal policy?

For educators looking to disrupt education, rather than change it slowly, Thornburg suggests turning to established sources for innovation. One of his suggestions, keeping up with new TED Talks from forward-thinking luminaries, may seem obvious. Another, looking to science fiction, is not.

"If you read Jules Verne's works, for example, he was predicting technology that was way ahead of his time, but society had not advanced to the point of taking advantage of that technology," Thornburg says. He notes that more recently, technology in the film Minority Report presaged Microsoft's gesture-based device, Kinect.

Thornburg also proposes that schools explore new technologies to see whether they are worth investing in. "I think what schools need to do is to have somebody who has a budget who goes out and gets one of everything that's new that looks potentially interesting and does an evaluation and says, 'Is this something that is truly new, that is going to be helpful, or is this going to going to let us do old things in different ways?'"

The educator in that role should also serve as a bellwether of the fast-moving world of consumer technology . "Go to the Gizmodo website and go to some of those other sites that talk about bleeding-edge technologies," he says. "And get somebody who is a geek, somebody who just loves doing this stuff."

A true passion for technology makes tech "geeks" more likely to network with like-minded peers in other institutions. After all, prognostication, Thornburg says, is a lonely business, and it helps to have others in the same boat. "Hang out with other people who are willing to think outside the box," he says. "Better yet, people who have no idea where the box even is."