How tech can revolutionise learning – but not how we expect

Alex Beard, Author of Natural Born Learners, discusses international approaches to education, and why ‘easy’ tech may not be the future after all

Tech was going to revolutionise learning, opening up access to the world’s greatest teachers via online courses, personalising lessons with adaptive software and democratising knowledge. But it isn’t living up to its early promise, with 95% of participants dropping out of MOOCsgovernments spending billions on tablets for no increase in learning and social media making us stupid. So what is the future?

I’ve spent three years travelling from Silicon Valley to Seoul, Helsinki to Hounslow to answer that question, speaking to Californian utopians who want to harness the attention-grabbing power of apps to make learning as addictive as Angry Birds, and humanists in Finland at the opposite end of the spectrum who feel that teaching is too complex, too human an art form to ever be improved by the brute processing power of machines.

The journey taught me that a revolution is possible, but first we must overcome these shaky understandings of human learning. Yes, attention is an important part of the learning equation, but only when it leads to thought, which grows our intelligence. ‘What we think about is what we remember,’ explains cognitive scientist Dan Willingham. What we remember is what we learn.

Yet our brains seem designed specifically to avoid thought, making user-friendly tech the enemy of learning. In Belgium, psychologist Christof van Nimwegen explained to me that in computer-assisted complex problem-solving tasks, people are better able to tackle problems of increasing complexity if they don’t receive any help at all from the artificial assistant. Given the chance, our brains will short-cut hard work. And that’s where the teachers come in.

Rocketship Schools in California are taking these lessons on board. From age five the Rocketeers spend an hour a day drilling problems on online programmes like ST Math or Lexile. Intelligent software games kids’ attention by varying the exercises they’re required to complete and rewarding them intermittently with brief bursts on a video game. It also ensures that the difficulty of each problem always marginally exceeds their current ability-level, creating the friction that leads to learning.

A revolution is possible, but first we must overcome these shaky understandings of human learning.

In this light, automation can be turned to our advantage. In recent human-computer chess matches, the winning entrants are no longer the solitary grandmaster or single supercomputer, but rather teams of humans coaching multiple machines. These cyborg teams benefit from the vast processing power of their laptops to crunch multiple moves, which frees players’ minds to shape strategy. Outsourcing complex cognitive procedures to smart tech can make space for our human minds to come up with novel ideas.

42, a new coding university in Paris, is designed to scaffold student learning so they develop the ability to do just that. Founded by billionaire Xavier Niel, it currently takes 3,000 18–30-year-olds through a three-year web development degree. The self-guided curriculum enables learners to move themselves incrementally from novice to expert. Though 42 ignores its students’ prior academic grades, all of its graduates have gone on to highly paid jobs in the tech sector.

Visiting these global outliers convinced me that we can bring about a learning revolution. If our next generation masters content like learners in Shanghai primary schools, develops critical thinking skills to match the smartest kids at Eton, practices creativity like they do at High Tech High in San Diego and works together to build the better, happier world I experienced in the classrooms of Finland, then we can transform human learning.

Our ultimate test for digital technologies is whether they augment our most human capabilities of ingenuity, creativity, cooperation and self-expression – whether they give teachers the tools they need to do the most important work of the future. The revolution couldbe cyborg.

Alex will be keynoting at The European Technology-Enhanced Learning Conference; CanvasCon Europe, along with speakers from institutions such as Oxford Said Business School, the University of Sussex, Fontys University of Applied Sciences and Middlesborough College. Click here to secure your ticket today. 

Free live webinar & QA

The digital difference - Build a culture of reading with ebooks & audiobooks

Free Education Webinar with OverDrive

Friday, June 24, 2PM London BST

In this webinar, hear from Havant Academy Librarian Joanna Parsons to learn how she uses ebooks and audiobooks to help boost reading among her secondary students.