Living in the future, educated in the past close

Luke Hubbard
Luke Hubbard
In Musings
17th March 2011
Living in the future, educated in the past
<p>
	<b>What the pioneers of computing can teach us about the future of education</b></p>
<p>We live in a world full of technology, a world constantly changing, where information travels at the speed of light and knowledge is but a click away. I don&#39;t know about you, but I can&#39;t shake the feeling we are living in the future.</p>
<p>Today your phone has more computing power than global super powers had access to less than half a century ago. In the developed world and much of the developing world we have passed the tipping point, computers are now ubiquitous and there is no turning back.</p>
<p>And yet despite the amazing advances in technology that each decade has brought we are yet to realise the full vision of the pioneers who started all this. The area which has the biggest potential is education, but things are only just starting to change.</p>
<p>Before getting into the topic of education I want to tell the brief story of a few people who were crazy enough to think different, who imagined and in many cases invented the world in which we are living in today. By understanding their vision for the future we can see how far we have come and draw inspiration for what lies ahead.</p>
<p><b>Augmenting Human Intellect</b></p>
<p>Lets start with <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Douglas_Engelbart">Douglas Engelbart</a>, best known as the father of the mouse. Whilst impressive, this claim to fame does not do his research team justice. Way back in 1968 at the dawn of computing he worked at the Stanford Research Center for augmenting human Intellect (SRI). In the <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfIgzSoTMOs&amp;t=1m30s">mother of all demos</a> Douglas presented oN-Line System <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_(computer_system)">NLS</a> using many of the features your computer has today. Multiple windows, networking, collaborative file editing, hypermedia, video conferencing, and yes even a mouse. While the system was crude the vision that drove the innovation was clear. Here is a quote from the 1962 <a href="http://www.liquidinformation.org/engelbart/62_paper_full.pdf">paper</a> on his research.</p>
<p><i>By &quot;augmenting human intellect&quot; we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems</i></p>
<p>We are where we are today not because a bunch of geeks were obsessed with technology for technologies sake, but because visionaries dreamed of a future in which computers would change how we learn, think, and interact with the world.</p>
<p><b>Xerox PARC</b></p>
<p>You can trace the lineage of your PC and even the iPad back to the research done at SRI. In the early 70&#39;s around about the time HP (the calculator company) was turning down one inspired employees&#39;s plans to build personal computers, Xerox (the photocopy company) was setting up a new research center called PARC and hiring many of the SRI researchers who worked on NLS.</p>
<p>PARC was a melting pot of ideas and that lead to many innovative technologies such as the Alto computer, advances in operating systems, ethernet, laser printers, and the first production mouse. While most of these were not a commercial success for Xerox, they did serve to inspire the next generation. A young Steve Jobs (business partner of now former HP employee Steve Wozniak) toured the facility in 1979 and then borrowed many of the ideas leading to the development of the Lisa Computer in 1983 and the Macintosh in 1984. In turn these were borrowed by Bill Gates at Microsoft and the rest, as they say, is PC history.</p>
<p><b>Dynabook</b></p>
<p>Where does the iPad fit in this story? Well take a look at this sketch.</p>

<p>
	<img alt="" src="http://dropbox.codegent.net/blog/images/dynabook.jpeg" /></p>
	
<p>This is a sketch of two children using their Dynabooks taken from the 1972 paper <a href="http://www.mprove.de/diplom/gui/Kay72a.pdf">A personal computer for children of all ages</a>&nbsp;by Alan Kay. Alan worked at PARC and together with Nicholas Negroponte (the One Laptop per Child guy) saw a future far beyond the Alto. As part of this research they looked at how children could learn to use a computer and imagined how this would change education. Key to making this happen would be transforming computers from big grey boxes into devices small and smart enough for children to interact naturally with. It&#39;s well worth reading the paper in full to understand quite how far ahead of the curve they were.</p>
<p><img alt="" src="http://dropbox.codegent.net/blog/images/dynabookmockup1968.jpeg" /></p>
<p>Four decades after Alan Kay&#39;s published his paper long time friend Steve Jobs steps out on stage and introduces the iPad changing the world for a second time. Within a couple of months my three year old son is at home with his first computer, a post PC device.</p>
<p>Seeing Taan pick up and interact with the iPad like a pro I can&#39;t help but marvel at Kay&#39;s vision. He believed that given the right technology, children can do a much better job teaching themselves. He was right.</p>
<p>A few weeks ago my son asked me how to spell &quot;Pink Panther&quot;, slightly taken aback I asked him why? He had the YouTube app open, had gone to search, and now needed to learn how to spell in order to reach his goal of watching a fun cartoon. Typing was not going to be a problem. You don&#39;t need to force children to learn, they are naturally inquisitive and if given the means will teach themselves.</p>
<p>I think I was eight before I ever touched a computer and eleven before owning one; imagine how access to technology from infancy will shape our children&#39;s lives. Today we are lucky enough to have the tools; what is needed are the modern day pioneers willing to think different and put the technology to best effect to transform education.</p>
<p><b>Future of education</b></p>
<p>Ken Robinson makes a strong argument for this in his talks <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG9CE55wbtY">Do schools kill creativity?</a>&nbsp;and <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U">Changing education paradigms</a>. He points out our education system is broken, designed during the industrial revolution to produce standard workers for factories. That time has passed, we are now in the midst of an information revolution, creativity and self-learning are in high demand. It&#39;s about time our education system evolved to meet the demands of the future.</p>
<p>An unlikely hero who more than embodies Kay&#39;s vision is Salman Khan. A financial analyst who through his YouTube <a href="http://www.youtube.com/user/khanacademy">videos</a> went from tutoring his two nephews to challenging the existing methods of education. He has now recorded over 2000 videos and runs the <a href="http://www.khanacademy.org">Khan Academy</a>, helping kids and teachers find a more effective way of learning. He suggests that we let children learn at their own pace using online resources and that teachers monitor and step in to help where needed. Rather than sit though a one size fits all lecture in class and do homework on your own, it&#39;s better to watch a video in your bedroom and do the practical work with your peers in school. You can watch his inspiring TED video embedded below.&nbsp;It&#39;s worth mentioning that Bill Gates, through his foundation, is helping to fund his work.</p>
<iframe allowfullscreen="" frameborder="0" height="349" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/nTFEUsudhfs?rel=0" title="YouTube video player" width="560"></iframe>
<p>I&#39;m trying to do my bit, I recently joined <a href="http://education.ted.com/">TED-Ed</a> a group of 10,000 of people keen on transforming education. It&#39;s too early to say where this initiative will take us but I want to help in any way I can. Last month I had the opportunity to attend Barcamp unconference in Yangon Burma where I talked about Khan Academy and distributed the videos to students, who in turn shared with their peers. It was an amazing experience. Technology and access to new ways of learning have a big potential to bring about change even in the most isolated parts of the world.</p>
<p>My son will be four soon, it won&#39;t be long before he is watching Khan Academy videos on his modern day Dynabook. Kids grow up fast, it is time to think differently about education and learn from the crazy ones who started all this. If we don&#39;t, our kids will grow up living in the future, being educated in the past.</p>