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Parkin Space: Learning in Tomorrow’s World


Godfrey ParkinLearning without pain – information fed straight to the brain, digital tutors and mobile learning on tap. These are just some of the predictions for the future of learning made by technology savvy US schoolchildren. Godfrey Parkin investigates what their vision means for training.

The US Departments of Commerce and Education recently commissioned a study of more than 160,000 school-goers from kindergarten to Grade 12 to explore their views on technology for learning. The report has just been released, and it makes compelling reading.

Why do the views of these Newmils matter? They see the world, and interact with it, differently from earlier generations. Today’s US K-12 pupils were born into digital technologies. They intuitively integrate things like computers, the web, instant messaging, cell phones, and e-mail into their daily lives. I’ve not seen more recent data, but way back in 2002 children aged 13-17 were already spending more time accessing digital media than they did watching television. For the US, that was a huge milestone. (Of course, TV is a digital technology these days, so there goes another useful trend line.) By 2002, every classroom in every public school had Internet access, and nine out of 10 5 –17-year-olds used computers. According to their parents, more than a third of children ages 2-5 went on-line, up from only 6% in 2000. By now it is safe to say that the Internet and other digital technologies are ubiquitous for the youth of America.

The study asked this digitally savvy group what they would like to see invented that would help kids learn in the future. Then the authors of the study consolidated the results and came up with a description of the vision that school-goers have for the future. I’ll quote the report verbatim:

“Every student would use a small, handheld wireless computer that is voice activated. The computer would offer high-speed access to a kid-friendly Internet, populated with websites that are safe, designed specifically for use by students, with no pop-up ads. Using this device, students would complete most of their in-school work and homework, as well as take online classes both at school and at home. Students would use the small computer to play mathematics-learning games and read interactive e-textbooks. In completing their schoolwork, students would work closely and routinely with an intelligent digital tutor, and tap a knowledge utility to obtain factual answers to questions they pose. In their history studies, students could participate in 3-D virtual reality-based historic re-enactments.”

Now to me this sounds bland and unimaginative, almost status quo, not at all the kind of creative or exciting thing that kids should be coming up with. It sounds like something a committee of adults would produce one evening over tea and biscuits. And indeed, that is effectively what seems to have happened. All of the spontaneous innovative ideas produced by 160,000 kids were filtered, sanitised, and compromised by a committee of "analysts" who stripped all of the freshness out of them and boiled them down into this pedestrian, adult, government departmental interpretation of a child’s vision.

The authors admit to throwing out all but 8,000 responses, and then only looking at those that met their pre-determined criteria of "meaningfulness". Beyond the summary, they do provide a few actual examples of real responses to illustrate their conclusions and in those carefully selected comments lie some clues to the gold that was not mined.

There were numerous requests for pocket-sized multi-functional computers linked wirelessly to the web, pre-loaded with text books. The next evolution of the iPod Nano perhaps, or an extension of the iTunes-web-enabled mobile phone.

The kids in this study talked about wanting automated learning, straight to the mind, using teaching-hats or smart helmets, cable connections in the head, or wireless chips implanted in the brain. I remember as a child wishing that I could put on headphones before going to sleep, flip a switch on a cassette player, and wake up the next day with all of my schoolwork already remembered. It seems that is an enduring desire in the species, only the technology gets updated. Learning is like losing weight and getting fit: we all want the end result, but the process we have to go through is so unpleasant that many of us will avoid it if we can.

While this report appears to be written by those who only see what they want to see and can only understand that which fits their current frame of reference, I may be wrong. If the responses are really as broadly unimaginative as they are represented to be, maybe that’s just further evidence of the challenge faced by technology developers: even kids can’t visualise what they can’t conceive; they really do not know what they need or want until they see it.

I hope that the original responses to this survey have not been discarded and will be made available for other analysts. You can download a copy at:

* Read more of Godfrey arkin's columns here.


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