Ed2020 Technology Foundations

What are the technologies that will feature in school education in 2010 or 2020, and that will take us there? (c.2000)

Introduction & background | Convenient portable PCs/devices | Voice input | Wireless data communications | Artificial intelligence agents | Effective indexing and access to global information | Annotated index to electronic educational materials | Top of page

Introduction & background

Given the decade plus vision time-frame for this project (this was first written in 1999/2000) and for the successful adoption of new technology into mainstream school life, a technological survey/projection is both easy and impossible.

The pace of technological change has accelerated to the point that almost any personal technology currently being explored is likely to be not only commercially available within ten years but also available cheaply enough for mass publicly-funded use by students. The rule of thumb over the last decades of the 20th century that the power of a PC/computer chip doubles every 18 months without any increase in real cost (or the same power is available at half the cost) is starting to break down - it is proving too conservative. Computing power is increasing faster and real prices are falling. Whether this guideline can be readily extended to other technologies such as wireless data communications is of course yet unproven, as is the dependence of this technology power/cost relationship on a continuation of solid global economic growth. Of course there are also non-power/cost issues - such as the development of open and accepted standards in hardware, software, communication and information indexing and storage. Nonetheless it provides a useful starting point.

Projecting the "18 month/price halving rule of thumb" forward gives a cost reduction/power increase factor of 10 over five years, 97 over ten years and 9410 over twenty years. This suggests a $1500 device now would be $150 in five years, and a touch over $15 in ten (postage and handling not included!) Not at all precise but sufficient to give confidence that production costs of a popular device are not going to be a barrier to widespread use.

At the impossible end of the spectrum would be having any certainty as to what might be on the drawing boards in 2010/2020 as new technologies, or what might be the pressing technological issues of the day. Despite the pace of technological change currently being experienced, it is probably dangerous to see this change as a single hurdle or a cusp, such as equivalent to the invention of the printing press or the steam engine. It is more likely the beginning of a continuing exponential curve.

This suggests that current concerns with the "digital divide" between the technological haves and have-nots (both within a country and between countries) will most likely continue. Whatever the capacity of public funding to support equal access, it is likely that private capacity will be greater - both in terms of money and leading edge knowledge.

A technological projection should not just consider the technologies that might be available or soon available for school education. Equally importantly it would explore the changing community and work environment that these students need to be equipped for, both in skills and in affective readiness. A community in which 25% of the workforce telecommutes, for example, would be a rather different target to the one we have today.

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The following technologies are projected to be well in place for a decade-hence vision:

Conveniently portable PCs/devices

In 2000 the current state of the art moved from purpose-built computer labs and PCs scattered lightly amongst classrooms to mobile carts of notebook PCs with a networked printer, a wireless LAN hub and battery recharging unit. This allowed the students to use the notebooks freely within a learning environment built for other purposes. It also allowed these still valuable resources to be shared amongst different classes in sufficient numbers to allow some intensive and interactive use.

Of course there were still both foundational and transitional difficulties. Battery life was still too short. Bandwidth was still too narrow. Two years later in 2002 these difficulties are fading at least at the leading edge. Standard batteries have longer lives, and effective broadband access is becoming more common at technologically advanced schools.The lower costs of notebooks and related equipment are reducing the significance of theft and accidental damage.

There are still problems of course. Lumbering the quite heavy carts around some school campuses and organising timetables for their use is hardly spontaneous learning at its best. Technophobic teachers and students still have too many opportunities to feel ostracised from and critical of the educational technologies. But increasingly attention is shifting from these technological tools themselves to how they can be harnassed for better learning.

Over the next five years palm-top PCs will become sufficiently economical to allow all students to have their own individual learning tool. Individual ownership means that even technophobic teachers and students can have the time and privacy required to master functionality.

Consider the Compaq IPAQ hand held device, with its voice recording, text book display, and wireless communication functions. A cost projection using the 18 month "rule of thumb" and a cost of US$700 in mid 2000 suggests a cost of about US$70 in 2005 or perhaps a small muliple of that amount for additional power/functionality. After 18 months in Feb 2002 it is selling for US$365.

Two hardware constraints have been the cost and quality of LCD screens and the weight and endurance of batteries. In neither field has there been a dramatic breakthrough, but commercial pressures have ensured ongoing improvements sufficient to support the industry's dramatic growth and lower unit prices. There is no reason to think this will not continue.

Of course there will still be a multitude of teething problems, but most of these will be concerned with the provision of suitable learning content and of teachers and learners adapting to the opportunities provided by the new technologies rather than simply logistical problems with the technologies themselves. The issues will be as much how the organisation of schools and the learning environment will change to suit the opportunities of new learning technologies, rather than just how will new technologies meet the needs of exisiting schools.

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Voice input

The use of voice as a standard form of data input has been much anticipated, and the development of this technology provides a useful case study of how a sought after long term technology attracts research and benefits from directed hardware developments. Perhaps the key issue has been the development of voice recognition of high enough quality to be effective as a standard input device, and the computing power and microphone standard to support this quality, particularly in portable devices (where adequate keyboards are not possible).

It appears that the current status is that adequate quality has been achieved on current high-end PCs/specially purchased microphones to support individual use, where the individuals are prepared to invest a small period of time for the program to "learn the voice". The wide-spread commercial use of the technology has however lagged initial expectations, and some of the major developers have suffered commercial failure.

It is possible that this technology will reach commercial success within the next year or two. Critical to this will be the proliferation of portable (but still high power) computing devices, including for what might be considered non-traditional computing uses. Additionally the publicised adoption of some voice recognition into the latest version of Microsoft Office may introduce a wide range of possible users to voice input technologies without them needing to make a purchase decision. However it is not a simple adoption of a new technology. There are teething issues for each user in their mastery of the technology and dependence on a quality microphone and a quiet environment.

Consequently educational use is far from straight-forward. Use by students as a recording technology in the current often noisy classroom context would be distinctly problematic! Nonetheless as it is embodied in work and community environments it is inevitable to have an impact on the need for keyboard and writing skills. In turn this will have an impact on the goals and tools of school education. It may be part of a change in learning practices towards more guided individual learning away from group interaction.

On balance I see this as unlikely to impact schools within a five year period, but it may be more important in the longer term.

Introduction & background | Convenient portable PCs/devices | Voice input | Wireless data communications | Artificial intelligence agents | Effective indexing and access to global information | Annotated index to electronic educational materials | Top of page

Wireless data communications

In early 2001 this was a leading edge technology being implementated, driven by the vision of empowering portable handheld PCs and mobile phones to be internet devices (web browsing and email). Whilst this was initially aimed at the business and "yuppie" markets, it is also being gradually extended to educational markets as costs fall (at least in North America).

Communications appears to be inherently a capital investment/ scale industry, and so likely to support an extended cost reduction trend. Security of data transmitted in this way is a concern to the business community but is likely to be of less concern to schools.

Some schools are already using carts to portably house 15 plus notebooks, a wireless network hub, a networked printer and battery recharging unit. The key advantages are being able to use the notebooks in a flexible manner (rather than in a purpose-built computer lab).

It seems reasonable to expect that wireless networking and communication of educational data in Australian schools, perhaps in addition to cabled networking, will be common by 2010.

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Artificial intelligence agents

Artificial intelligence agents are programs that perform intelligent filtering and calculation type tasks for users, a critical requirement to assist with coping with huge amounts of information that is increasingly available through electronic access. Development of quality agents is skill intensive and this suggests initial use may be expensive. However the minimal costs of duplication/repeat usage and electronic distribution and the potential scales of using the same agent suggests that costs will be minimal at other than the leading edge.

Simple examples of these agents that would be relevant to education include:

  • Searching files and indexes for matches against user-entered keywords
  • Checking documents for plagiarism
  • Keeping tally of an individual's progress through the self-assessment components of learning material and guiding the learner appropriately.

These types of agents would appear to be critical in an educational setting. Not only will education services evolve using agent technology, but most likely the goals of education will be revised as agents undertake services previously completed by humans and leave human training more focused on evaluative tasks.

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Effective indexing and access to global information

By the beginning of 2002 school students regard the internet as the reference source. Print books, even encyclopedias, have been relegated to distant second place. Much of the power of the internet relies fundamentally on the ability to index and then access elements based on search engines. Undoubtedly this foundation will also continue to evolve. Improvements in searching technology and metadata use, and more importantly in user skill and training in search engine use, will increase the accessibility of the internet's huge information resource.

What is more interesting and less certain is whether this decentralised and individualised access capacity will impact school structures and physical learning environments. The pace of any such change will inevitably be slower than the change in internet accessibility.

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Annotated index to electronic educational materials

Early examples of a dynamic index of educational software are already available (eg http://www.edna.edu.au/ then Browse | School Education | Online Materials). There is significant room for further value adding. As electronic material is increasingly used in classrooms and other learning environments, it will become important for standards to be established for such material. These standards would need to address quality of content and delivery, and guide both teachers and learners in their choice of appropriate materials, including questions of learning styles and pace. This would seem to be an evolution of the current practice of educational textbooks following curriculum documents authorised by educational authorities, to a potential three part process:

  • scoping of core and subsidiary curriculum area/outcomes (subsidiary ones being less specific and more open)
  • electronic course responses from commercial and/or educational enterprises
  • reviews and classification of the electronic courses to allow easy and appropriate use by teachers and students

Introduction & background | Convenient portable PCs/devices | Voice input | Wireless data communications | Artificial intelligence agents | Effective indexing and access to global information | Annotated index to electronic educational materials | Top of page