A Look at Ray Kurzweil’s Education Predictions for 2009

I’m reading Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines now, which was written in 1999. In the book, Kurzweil makes predictions for the future in 2009, 2019, 2029 and beyond. In the predictions chapter for 2009, there is a section on education. I’d like to try a little experiment and present the section from the chapter, edited to where we really were in 2009. The excerpt is from p. 791-792. My edits of the original text are either in strike-through or bold face.

In the twentieth century, computers in schools were mostly on the trailing edge, with most effective learning from computers taking place in the home. Now in 2009, while schools are still not on the cutting edge, the profound importance of the computer as a knowledge tool is widely recognized. Computers play a central role in all facets of education except the classroom, as they do in other spheres of life.

The majority of reading is done on displays paper, although the “installed base” of paper documents displays is still formidable beginning to appear. The generation of paper documents is beginning to dwindling dwindle, however, as the books and other papers of largely twentieth-century vintage are being rapidly scanned and stored passed over in favor of digital versions. Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds continue to be delivered on paper.

Students of all ages typically do not have a computer of their own, which is a thin tablet-like device weighing under a pound with a very high resolution display suitable for reading. Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil keyboard. Keyboards still exist, but most textual language is created by speaking. Keyboarding classes continue to be offered to help students input more efficiently. Learning materials are accessed through print, wired, and wireless communication.

Intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning. Virtual schools have appeared, replacing traditional schools. Recent controversial studies have shown that students can learn basic skills such as reading and math just as readily with interactive learning software as with human teachers, particularly when the ratio of students to human teachers is more than one to one. Although the studies have come under attack, most students and their parents have accepted this notion for years. There is controversy as to the effectiveness of virtual learning, but financial need is driving the growth of such offerings. The traditional mode of a human teacher instructing a group of children is still prevalent,  but schools are increasingly relying on investigating software approaches, leaving human teachers to attend primarily to issues of motivation, psychological well-being, and socialization. Many A few children learn to read on their own using their personal computers before entering grade school.

Preschool and elementary school A select small group of children identified as low-level readers routinely read at their intellectual level using print-to-speech reading software until their reading level catches up. These print-to-speech reading systems display the full image of documents and can read the print aloud while highlighting what is being read. Synthetic voices sound fully somewhat human. Although some educators expressed concern in the early ’00 years that students would rely unduly on reading software, such systems have been readily accepted by children and their parents. The expense and logistics of reading systems have prevented their adoption for all students. Studies have shown that students improve their reading skills by being exposed to synchronized visual and auditory presentations of text.

Learning at a distance (for example, lectures and seminars in which the participants are geographically scattered) is growing in use, but is by no means commonplace.

Learning is becoming a significant portion of most jobs. Training and developing new skills is emerging as an ongoing responsibility in most careers, not just an occasional supplement, as the level of skill needed for meaningful employment soars even higher.

In 2009, we were not anywhere near where Kurzweil predicted, although we are beginning to move in the directions he indicated. It feels like it takes forever to make progress that we need to make, but I do believe the change agents that will eventually spur the change are the ones indicated in his text. In two different examples, Kurzweil mentions that acceptance of a new technology is by students and parents, essentially forcing the school to change. I think that is exactly the type of force that is going to provide true change in the education system.

The only paragraph that I did not make any edits to is the last one. That particular idea is timeless and apparent to most – adaptability in the workforce is the key to making it in the 21st century.

If you would like to see the original excerpt without my edits – look up the book at Google Books – those pages (791-792) are available to view there.

Maybe by 2019, we will realize some of the 2009 predictions. 🙂

Touch This – Tactile Learning and Technology

A few weeks back when the iPad became available for pre-order, I investigated and decided not to order since my current OS does not support it. Getting the iPad would send me into that unforgiving and expensive upgrade loop where I would have to get a new OS, and hence a new computer, etc. just to support the device. Not that I did not want an iPad – having an iPod Touch, I know how different a device it is, and the thought of the new form factor in the iPad hits home with me.

Fast forward to this weekend – watching the early reviews and wondering, I took an innocent trip to the local Apple Store “just to check it out,” and yes, I came home with an iPad. A brief conversation and help from an Apple Store employee allowed me to activate the iPad in the store, so I can use it to do whatever I want wirelessly with no immediate need to upgrade my home computer. The only thing I cannot do is sync to my computer to download pics, videos, etc. but I can access all important data via the web, and can download all the apps I need via my iTunes account.

So, what is the game changer in this device compared to any other? Simple – just as with the iPhone and iPod Touch – it’s the tactile interface. You use a third sense – touch – to interact with information, knowledge, and learning. We all know that media helps learning – audio and visual stimulus are key components. However, when you add the kinesthetic mode as well, that opens up a whole new layer of input to the mind. When I can spin the world with my finger in Google Earth, zoom into a video about the Haiti earthquake, and physically drag layers of seismic images, it is a very different learning experience.

My initial reaction to the iPad and the tactile input has made me reflect on why I have always felt the Smart Board brand interactive whiteboard is a key technology tool. You can argue until you are blue in the face about which brand of interactive whiteboard provides the best bang for the buck. There are also very valid arguments about how an interactive whiteboard used poorly is an expensive overhead in the front of the room. Despite this, at the end of the day, the Smart Board allows you to take your finger and literally interact with the world. That being said, the Smart brand suddenly has a huge challenge ahead as there are millions of people who now expect multi-touch surfaces, something the Smart Board has not been able to provide.

So what is it about the iPad that makes such a difference? The size and form factor. This may be just my personal preference, but it just feels right. It can be tucked in a sleeve and hidden, taken out for research, used to watch media, and a host of other uses that support learning and productivity. The iPad is certainly not the first tablet on the market. I’ve thought for many years that the tablet could really help the classroom, but nothing so far in this category has made any difference. I think that the iPad will, at the very least, push this category of learning tool very far ahead.

Whether or not it is the iPad, the Smart Board, or some other device, what I think is fundamental is tactile interaction with technology so learning is literally an extension of your hand. The more senses involved in learning, the better. It will be a while before the iPad will give off smell or taste, but we’re moving in the right direction :-).

If you’ll excuse me, I have to go buy a new computer…

Creative Commons image courtesy of Maddy Lou on Flickr.