What will online education look like in 10 years?
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson, IBM Chairman, 1943
“Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” — Popular Mechanics, 1949
“There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share.” — Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, 2007
Now you can see why prediction articles like these are dangerous to write. But it’s fun to speculate, so let’s do it anyway!
To begin, let’s look at the obvious.
The future will bring more devices and cheaper bandwidth. This one is a no-brainer because it’s an extrapolation of one of the clearest trends in the technological revolution—consistent and accelerating growth. This means the internet and the devices that access it will continue to become faster, cheaper, and available in more places.
And this is where the speculation begins. Some of these predictions are positive, and some are more ominous, so strap on your seat belts.
Dawn of the Tastemakers
The barrier for creating and publishing educational content will get extremely low—lower than it has ever been. This means an incredible amount of content will be created and published, and most of it will be mediocre. This will give rise to “expert tastemakers” who will curate that user-generated content, selecting the best videos, articles and blog posts.
This explosion in content creation will also mean that a lot of incredible content will fly under the radar and never be discovered. A YouTube search for “How to multiply,” for example, yields 300,000 results. Most content will never be discovered, regardless of its quality.
Take Skepticism Tablets (Twice a Day)
Education technology news will continue to cover exciting new inventions that will claim to revolutionize the way we learn, followed by reports that document the failure of many of these technologies. Consider, for example, the recent downfall of interactive whiteboards or the hype around the possibilities of educational television since the days of the flying classroom in the 1960s.
Be skeptical of people that are either trying to sell you something or capture your data. While we’re at it, let’s apply that same recommendation of skepticism to this article (although we’re not trying to sell you anything today).
Human Interaction…For a Price
Online learners will be able to more easily connect with actual coaches or tutors in real time. Companies like InstaEdu and Udacity* are already betting their future on such a connection. For a peek into this future, consider the work of a language school in Brazil that is connecting Brazilian youngsters who want to learn to speak English with retired American seniors. A version of the now defunct Google Helpouts, which brought experts and students together online, will eventually be successful.
Other companies are betting their futures on building educational experiences away from real coaches or tutors and towards automated solutions. This is a more scalable approach, but this certainly isn’t the option people will choose if they can afford to hire real life tutors.
As online education becomes more universal, learners will increasingly seek personalized instruction. In-person tutoring is already expensive and will become even pricier as demand for it goes up. Human interaction will become an even stronger symbol of status, affordable only to a subset of the population. It is telling that many Silicon Valley leaders prefer to send their children to schools that have no screens.
Exhibit A, B, C, or D
Standardized tests have begun to dominate a K-12 student’s calendar year. The use of these tests has ballooned since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which mandated annual testing in all 50 states. The liberal and often-unnecessary use of these tests has led to parents and students boycotting them.
These tests will lose their importance over time. US companies will begin to follow tech leaders like Google and stop asking for transcripts, GPAs and test scores in their job applications. There are already at least 180 well-ranked schools in the US that do not require SAT scores for admissions, and that number will continue to grow.
Testing is, therefore, headed towards a more project-based, open-ended task evaluation system that will support the learning needs of students and be in better sync with the demands of today’s job market. One of the current limitations we face today is grading open-ended submissions, but as machine learning takes off, this limitation will fade.
I Wouldn’t Learn That, Dave
Machine learning enables systems that, among other things, learn over time and appear to “understand” human input. Some examples of this include Facebook auto-tagging your friends in photos, your phone identifying the song that’s playing on the radio, and everything Siri (mis)understands when you talk to her.
Right now, most machine learning systems are not trying to emulate human interaction. But we’ve started dipping our toes into those waters (chats on websites are often started by machines), and in 10 years, we’ll be using machine learning to emulate human interaction. But what does this have to do with education?
Automated systems have already begun evaluating open-ended submissions and are offering customized feedback for each student. The systems will get even better as time goes on, and will be available to all students, irrespective of social status.
Taking this a step further, human interaction will be quietly replaced in many products with very convincing bots. These bots will not become sentient anytime soon (as they do in mostsci-fi movies), but they’ll do a great job providing emotionally satisfying interactions for users.
Now, we’re not sure if this prediction will happen — but we can hope, can’t we?
We would love to see an expansion of services that promote social-emotional learning. These services would teach students to develop compassion and empathy for others and resolve conflicts in a non-violent fashion.
And while we’re at it, we’d also love to imagine a world where teacher pay is at par with the compensation received by doctors and engineers.
There’s More, But We’re Out of Time
Care to venture a guess? Share your predictions in the comments section below.
And if you do come up with a ridiculous prediction to share, we can all look back at this article in 10 years and shake our heads together, laughing at our naiveté.
* Full disclosure: both authors currently work at Udacity