I knew social media had hit mainstream the moment that my mom sent me a friend request. Suddenly Facebook had become a place where “mom” and “friend” were synonymous. I knew that Facebook had lost its cool, edgy, college vibe. Since then, Facebook has become such a normal, habitual part of life that we rarely think twice about it. I check it in the morning after spending time writing. I check it when I’m bored in the afternoon. It’s how I interact with people and it’s where I find funny videos.
It’s easy to forget, then, just how seismic a shift social media has been. Each social media platform is a fusion of space and tool. When we use a phrase like, “I was on Facebook for an hour,” we treat it like a space. When we say, “even my grandma knows how to use Facebook,” we treat it like a tool. That wasn’t the case in the past. We had places. We had tools. Now, our places and tools are one in the same.
As a classroom teacher, I watched how social media changed student relationships. Some of these felt positive and powerful, like the shift from a social hierarchy to a web of relationships where people could shift between cliques easily. I also like the how social media helps kids fight adolescent loneliness by connecting with friends. Other trends felt more dangerous, like the use of metrics in relationships (counting likes, friend counts, etc.) or the death of boredom and solitude. For all the talk of people “not being present,” I see the opposite problem. We are too present, too connected, and too relational. We need to daydream and get lost in our thoughts a little more often.
I watched students move from idolizing athletes to venerating YouTube stars and in the process, kids who had never been interested in science were suddenly relating to Neil deGrasse Tyson or replicating experiments from Steve Spangler. They were teaching themselves how to make things by watching YouTube videos. I watched students talk about building brands and starting businesses through social media. On one level, this was really cool. But another part of me thought, “just be a kid and worry about money when you’re older.”
It has been both exciting and terrifying to watch the coming of age of the first generation raised around social media. So, it has me wondering what technology trends will reshape education in the next five to ten years.
A word of caution here: many of these trends aren’t new. In some cases, these are technologies that are just now hitting mainstream. In other cases, these are technologies that have been around for years but we are just now dealing with a generation who will use these tools without seeing them as new or groundbreaking. They will simply be normal.
#1: The Rise of the Curators (aka “Geeks Who Love Sharing Stuff”)
This is a trend that has already begun. You see it in the rise of blogs like Farnam Street and Brain Pickings. In a world of information overload, curation has become a critical skill. Curation goes beyond simply collecting items online. The best curators know how to find what is best by immersing themselves in a niche area while also making surprising connections between ideas in seemingly unrelated worlds. Great curators find specific excerpts that are relevant in the moment but also timeless. They can explain the purpose, the context, and the necessity of what they are citing.
Often, a great curator adds a perspective and a lens without quite reaching the place of commentary. Maria Popova has certain points that she illustrates often but they never feel like talking points. They seem to arise from material instead of feeling like she is cherry-picking source material to back up her ideas.
This has me thinking about schools. I wonder what it would look like for students to learn the art of curation. In a world of constant information, where kids are fooled by ClickHole and Onion articles, curation teaches students how to be media literate by analyzing sources with a critical eye. However, true curation takes it a step further by learning how to categorize, identify what’s best, and share it in a meaningful way. Here, they can find trends and share patterns in what they are seeing and then share it through a unique lens.
#2: The Distortion of Time
It’s become so common you almost don’t notice it. However, on most platforms, news feeds are based upon interest rather than chronology. So, as you scroll down, you aren’t looking at older posts. You’re looking at posts that might be a day or two old but feel recent. This might not seem like a big deal, but it’s actually a shift away from a linear view of time and toward a more connective, relevance-based concept of time.
Another shift involves the blend of synchronous and asynchronous communication. In the past, you had things like phone conversations or video chat that were synchronous and then texting or email that required asynchronous exchanges back and forth. Now, you’re seeing apps that blend both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Take Voxer. You can talk synchronously in a walkie-talkie mode but you can listen to it later and send pictures and text back and forth.
Students are now growing up in an age where the definition of time is changing. It’s an era where time is compressed and extended, where it is synchronous and asynchronous, and where it is both linear and connective. I’m curious what this will mean for things like deadlines, project management, and collaboration.
#3: Virtual Reality
You’re already seeing the initial sparks of virtual reality with the popularity of Google Cardboard and Google Expeditions. However, Google Cardboard is still in the Oregon Trail stage of virtual reality. It’s fun and it’s novel but it’s still pretty limited in what it can accomplish. Students have few choices in what to do and where they go. Someday, we’ll get nostalgic about it.
However, virtual reality is becoming cheaper and more sophisticated. Within the next few years, we will see virtual reality gaming systems becoming more mainstream. It will be interesting to see what this means as far as our concept of space, time, and reality. How will schools utilize this beyond the occasional virtual field trip? And will students have a chance to be makers and creators in virtual reality spaces? Or will it reinforce the consumer culture?
#4: Worldview by Algorithm
This is a shift we are already seeing. As we move toward data mining and targeted content marketing, social media streams create even tighter echo chambers. You can see this in the Blue Feed, Red Feed experience from The Wall Street Journal. Social media filters mean we move further and further toward what we already believe, because companies have an incentive to provide content that we will like, share, and comment on. If you are annoyed or offended by content you don’t like, you might just leave the space — which is awful for advertisers.
This coincides with the trend toward narrowcasting (the opposite of broadcasting), where people find content in specific, highly specialized niche markets. However, it takes it to another level, where your entire worldview is specifically designed to be narrow.
In the past, students held on to worldviews based upon physical geography and social relationships. While those still hold true, there is an added layer of algorithms sorting, categorizing, and shaping how they view the world — a worldview that is often narrowly focused. People are quick to point to data mining and the death of privacy online. But I think the stronger force here is actually the way the algorithms shape our beliefs about the world.
This isn’t entirely bad. Physical geography and social institutions can create a worldview that is just as myopic as the narrowcasting worldview of the algorithm. However, it’s important to realize that a student’s definition of reality and normalcy has been shaped, in large part, by algorithms designed to increase ad revenue (which can also lead to an obsession with novelty and amusement). This is all the more reason to have open conversations and to push critical thinking in schools. It’s also why empathy, a key idea in design thinking, is more valuable than ever. We need broad ideas. We need a deeper understanding of one another.
#5: Augmented Reality
Augmented reality isn’t new. The idea is simple. The phone adds a layer of reality above the physical reality that you see in front of you. A few years back, Google Glass allowed people to add a constant layer of new reality right before their eyes. And yet, it didn’t take off. People mocked Google Glass, calling people “glass holes.” People questioned ethical issues of privacy. Fear set it and suddenly restaurants began banning the devices. Eventually, Google let the whole project go.
However, it didn’t hit mainstream until this last summer. Suddenly, I saw kids running around our neighborhood in 113 degree weather chasing after the Rapidash just around the corner. Pokemon Go was everywhere.
You’re already seeing augmented reality affect learning with apps that allow people to scan a math problem and look at potential solutions or tutorials. Museums and historical locations have created AR apps that allow people to see a layer of information on top of what they see in front of them. It will be interesting to see what all of this means for schools. How will we leverage AR? And how will we think critically about the way AR continues to reshape our concept of reality?
#6: Artificial Intelligence
Growing up, I believed artificial intelligence would lead to robots and androids. I imagined a world where we would order food from a droid like Data (from Star Trek: The Next Generation) and it would be hard to tell who was human and who was a robot. That hasn’t been the case.
Instead, artificial intelligence has been more like a system or service. We use artificial intelligence when we talk to Siri or when we do a simple Google Search. We use AI when we use a smart refrigerator or a self-driving car. In many respects, AI has been more like an integrative thinking tool rather than a replacement for thinking or even an external product.
However, the advent of AI presents some interesting challenges in education. For example, in an era with self-driving cars, who decides the value of a life and what does it mean for schools? Suddenly, philosophy becomes critical. What does it mean to have an original thought? What does this mean for plagiarism and copyright? We already have companies using AI to write news articles. We’ll see an increase in AI products around budgeting and other analytical jobs. It would seem, then, that the humanities will become more and more relevant and that divergent thinking and creativity will become that much more critical.
#7: Rapid Prototyping
A few months back, Amos Dudley, a college student, printed his own braces with a 3D printer. It raised an interesting question around patent law and 3D printing. It was a reminder that 3D printers have done to physical objects what Napster did to CDs and the music industry. In the past, it was nearly impossible to copy something that had been manufactured. You now have people 3D printing customized equipment like machine parts.
The 3D printer opens up tons of opportunities to create realistic prototypes. However, it also creates challenges for intellectual property and manufacturing. These are things to think about as schools embrace maker spaces and STEM class. What does it mean to be a creative thinker and a digital citizen when a 3D printer can transform ideas and plans into actual objects? What does this mean for students who want to be entrepreneurs? How do we help students navigate issues around patent law while also fostering creativity and innovation in engineering?
So, what do we do?
On some level, we are still trying to adapt to these changes in schools. Some districts have responded with fear, by banning devices and creating scare tactics around cyberbullying. Other districts have blindly embraced technology by implementing personalized learning systems and ignoring the need for technology criticism. But I can’t help but wonder if maybe the best response is humility. Maybe we should admit that these changes are huge and hard to understand — and that’s okay. Maybe we could embrace the power of technology but also think critically about the dangers of power.
It has me thinking that maybe what students of the future truly need are the same things they have always needed. These are things that are timeless. But they’ve become more vital than ever. Things like empathy, wisdom, creativity, and critical thinking. If we get that right, they’ll be able to make sense out of a world that is constantly changing and maybe even thrive within it.
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