eLearning: That & More 1: Predicting the Future

Why is it that when we talk about the future we assume we are talking about the same thing?

Looking ahead in time can be such fun, though. Start with your world as it is and then imagine how it could be. Yes! That must be the future. But—what is your world? Is it something you see objectively; items neatly categorized, facts all checked and with foundational ideas have been agreed upon? Is it instead something seen only by you, interpreted through your own biases, experiences and cultural background? Is it the network of relationships, personal and professional, that you have built or is it a construct that you have assembled from numerous sources including experience and research?

Look back on previous attempts to divine the future. Read some science fiction written in earlier times. Look at some of the fanciful pictures drawn by artists who, long ago, turned their pens and brushes to the task of looking far ahead. Read some of the more scholarly works along the same lines.

No matter the source, here’s what you find: While some of the predictions were more-or-less correct (radio and flight are fairly common now, as was predicted) most of the things that define our future were not predicted at all. Not even all that close. After all, 100 years ago who could have predicted the massive wars, the rise of petroleum as fuel and the explosion of communications technology, birth control, the communist-capitalist struggle, the increased focus on women’s rights, human rights and on the person as individual. These unforeseen but world-changing things, among many others which Nassim Nicholas Taleb has termed “Black Swans,” in the end gave us a world that few, if any, even had the slightest hint of.

And yet here we are, well into the 21st century and with hardly a clue at all it seems. I read a lot and, as such, find myself inundated with pieces from those claiming to be experts. They confidently talk about our modern times and then go on to make equally confident predictions about the future. As a group they leave me with just one thought: yes, they do have a superpower, an ability that just plain transcends description…or even belief.

The superpower? The ability to see the future? So, silly, they’re generally wrong but, despite that they always bounce back with an explanation of why they were simply misinterpreted and then go on to make yet another equally stupid prediction that people still seem to buy into.

No, that’s not the superpower. So what is it? Self-promotion, of course!

That said it makes no sense at all to just sit back and wait for the world to unfold; to allow ourselves to be tossed to and fro as if a cork on the waves, bounced about by whatever educational approach, theory or tool seems trendy at the moment. That sort of strategic inaction not only wastes valuable resources on things that are un-proven but also puts the future of our students, and, by extension, society, in the hands of whoever is best able to market educational products at a profit.

What, then should one do? Given that futures are so unpredictable it makes little sense in planning too far ahead. Perhaps the best approach is one that acknowledges two important things:

First, there are some features of education that we can safely assume will remain in relatively steady state. Enrollments tend to remain fairly steady and, at any rate, can be predicted with reasonable accuracy. Legislation, funding sources and core values tend not to be changed much over time.

Second it is important to acknowledges some limitations up front and abide by them. In some areas, particularly electronic technology, it is only possible to foresee changes three to five years in advance with any degree of accuracy. Perhaps more importantly, there is always the possibility that the aforementioned black swan can create unanticipated but profound changes and leaders need to be always on the lookout for them. When encountered, most long term plans need to be extensively revised if not abandoned completely.

With these two items agreed upon it is possible to make some predictions and statements about the future of learning and particularly of learning content.

Next: What’s the good of it?


12 thoughts on “eLearning: That & More 1: Predicting the Future

  1. With this installment you have simply wet the proverbial whistle for what comes next. I appreciated your paragraph concerning the not-so-super-power of predicting the future. The laughable examples of those who, on several occasions over the past few years, have (wrongly) predicted the end of the world. ” … they’re generally wrong but, despite that they always bounce back with an explanation of why they were simply misinterpreted and then go on to make yet another equally stupid prediction that people still seem to buy into.” So true. Why do we put up with these folks? Anyway … back to education. Over the 30 years that I have been part of it I have seen ‘innovations’ come and go. Usually the innovations are billed as adaptations to changes in future student populations. Most of the time the ‘innovations’ burn brightly only to give way to the tried-and-true. Sorry to sound like a dinosaur … but, if it ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it. There’s nothing like the good old techniques that we know work. Mostly the changes I have seen in education are those that remind me that, unfortunately, it is most often the tail that is wags the dog. D

    1. Yup. There’s always a place for innovation but it’s been my experience that it involves adapting something so that it makes small improvements. That takes a lot of work and it can be worth it. Unfortunately what is often sold as innovation is really just unproven nonsense.

  2. This is a very interesting post for me Maurice as a technologist and someone who is fascinated by HCI. I remember back in the late 90’s when I was part of the team that launched the first UK on-line bank we were all a little sceptical as to how well it would take off. Now no-one bats an eyelid at on-line banking. There’s so much hype around technology, people predicting what will come next, but I’ve noticed many of these trends are cyclical so by looking back you sometimes get a glimpse of what lies ahead and there are still plenty of folks selling snake oil too!

    1. Absolutely true. Its been my experience too that many of the more interesting things were somewhat unforeseen. Right now in North America it’s estimated that Netflics accounts for as much as 1/3 of all Internet traffic. Who would have predicted that even a few years back? Youtube and Social Networking…who’d have thought how popular they have become!

    1. You’re hitting on a very important point there. Much of what currently exists was NOT constructed for or by kinesthetic learners. We–I am one of them–like to interact with the world directly; to experiment. It’s nearly always all about feelings too. To date, I have seen very few computer-only applications that work well with kinesthetic learners. Fortunately, though, I have seen and worked with several hybrids. My favourite involves using a digital interface (in my case I prefer the stuff from vernier.com) to interact with the physical world. Examples include:
      – investigating motion, both accelerated and constant-v, using a ultrasound which graphs d-t and v-t in real time.
      – investigating sound using a mike and with the display set to represent the sound wave (which is really a compressional or longitudinal wave) as a transverse wave. The students get to manipulate pitch and volume and see the effects right there.
      There’s more on the list but you get the idea.
      There are also a few good interactive simulations, the best as far as I am concerned, being provided free of charge by the University of Colorado. Google “phet” to find it. It’s amazing!
      Finally I have seen some truly good IWB lessons that appeal to kinesthetic learners.
      So…the future may be sparse but not exactly bleak.
      More to come, of course :>)
      I have the next two posts pretty much ready and hope to have the fourth and fifth early next week.

  3. I am looking forward to your new series of posts!
    In particular, I would be interested in the following:
    – I have read that most innovations had been anticipated in science fiction literature actually – such as cell phone, tablet etc. (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was basically sort of an iPad with an update option). Would you agree?
    – I only really “disruptive” change in education I would see is the availability of lecture notes, text books etc. on the internet (If you know “how to Google” and tell pseudo-science and marketing from the real stuff :-)) The question just is: Are students using it? In his book “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” Nicholas Carr claims that the more (valuable) information is available for free the less it is valued.
    I have, however, come across highly motivated individuals who are basically doing the equivalent of an undergraduate degree by self-studying – so I am really not sure about all that…

    1. The iPad theory has been brought up by a lot of people, not just HHGG but also StarTrek. believe everyone’s off-base on this one. From the moment VonNeuman and company first conceptualized digital computers people foresaw the inevitability of first handheld tablets and then, of course direct implants. They all did happen and will continue to improve.
      I agree very much with Carr and couple with the the simple fact that there’s now so much of it out there that it’s hard to even know where to start!
      On your third point–that leads directly to MOOCs. I’ll touch on that in the next post.
      Oh, and back to item one when I noted that Van Neuman and others set down, decades ago, the ideas of digital computers. I’ll go on to say that we’ve only made modest improvements on the basic idea. Sure we’ve made them smaller and faster and more efficient and such but it still boils down to NAND/NOR etc. gates and basic digital logic. Nobody, including Van Neuman and Turing and the rest, ever said that has to be the only way. Bring on the others–quantum etc. :>) I look forward to that. Yeah!

  4. johnlmalone

    that bloke who wrote ‘Black Swan’ has written anothewr book ‘Antifragile’ which I have before me now. I don’t know how muuch of it I’ll read as it’s fairly thick and he takes a while to get to the point. Maybe you’re the perfect reader for it, Maurice 🙂

    1. Too late–read it a month ago. It’s sort of about resilience. BTW–Me and N N T Have one thing in common–no hurry in reaching the point. Hey, it’s a long lovely life. cheers John!

  5. I suspect I am way out of my depth here! Not techy, (well not any more), not scientific (since leaving school), and not into education (apart from mine – although as a topic it does interest me).

    So as a totally ignorant lay person, I can only say a couple of extremely basic things, that to me are relevant to e-learning. Or any learning.
    One is that all education has to be rounded, by which I mean not just e-learning, and not just whatever is flavour of the month. In terms of predicting the future, Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 are classics and should continue to be taught at schools, because they actually did predict the future. Not exactly how it panned out, but how far off is it?
    Two is about standards and thinking. OK, I’m cheating there as they are two different issues but I’m still going to lump them together. I shudder when I read txtspk and abbreviations on blogs for example. There are places for it and formal written submissions are not the correct ones. Similarly thinking. Living in a soundbite superficial world doesn’t encourage developmental thinking. So this dinosaurus roughseasrex thinks we should take a step back from time to time and make sure we aren’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater in our urge to move ever forward.

    1. As far as I am concerned you are right on the mark, especially with regard to promoting good thinking and writing skills. Short pieces such as blog posts and such simply cannot promote the type of in-depth thinking and engagement that’s required to fully comprehend books. They’ll always have a place–perhaps increasingly so.

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