The EdTech Revolution: Taking the Long-Term View

Without question, education technology (EdTech) will revolutionize how learners at all levels – K-12, post-secondary, and even corporate learning – achieve skill mastery. But given where we are today, with assumptions to correct and fears to dispel, identifying and adopting the best EdTech solutions will be neither automatic nor smooth. The EdTech revolution requires a long-term view by educators and adopters alike, with incremental gains in experience and understanding.

Some lessons are already being learned. For one, there has been an explosion of new content online, increasing access to learning. But it’s become clear that putting static content online or merely making a PDF of a lesson available to students does not accelerate learning. Too often, such approaches do the opposite: They undermine engagement with the learning process; students zone out or try to click through material as quickly as possible.

Newer lessons to be learned will focus on the role of advanced technology in the classroom, such as robotic tutors, graders, and advisors — even using artificial intelligence to predict which students are at greatest risk of dropping out. Such advancements are triggering multiple reactions—on one hand, there are fears that teachers could be replaced by robots; on the other, technology is viewed as the cure-all solution in education. The reality will most likely be found somewhere in between.

In the short to medium term, I predict, technology’s most significant impact will be to augment, not replace, human teachers. How that is best pursued and the outcomes to be achieved are not yet clear. Thus, adoption of EdTech will follow a learning curve extending over the next one to two decades to discover what works and what doesn’t.


The Short-Term View: Making Slow Inroads

A particularly promising technology is adaptive learning: a personalized, software-enabled teaching approach, which can help learners at all levels and in various settings to learn faster and become more proficient on a continuous basis. It is already being used in one-third of U.S. school districts and most universities, and will likely see greater usage in K-12 and post-secondary classrooms over the next five years. I also foresee adaptive learning making greater inroads into corporate learning.

As this transition occurs, the education community, including technology critics, will mature in their understanding of what technology can and cannot do. Fears of teacher replacement should give way to embracing the benefits of teacher augmentation. For example, using intelligent tools to provide one-on-one instruction will free up teachers to do what they do much better than any technology on the horizon: engage with and motivate students.

Slowly but surely, the traditional education approach will become a thing of the past. No longer will instructors deliver the same lesson simultaneously to an entire classroom composed of learners at all levels: some who are lost and others who are bored because they already know the material. As the existing teaching modes fade, computer-based adaptive learning will gain more ground, giving students a personalized learning path. Content will be adapted to the learner, with progress gauged continuously – both quantitively and qualitatively – so that learning occurs as effectively and efficiently as possible.

For education advocates such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, this is the future, in which “potentially breakthrough solutions are being developed and tested by educators, institutions, technologists, and entrepreneurs.” But instead of operating as “islands of innovation,” the foundation warns, these players will need more access to each other, to interact with like-minded innovators and, most important of all, to rigorously test their solutions. This will be the next frontier for adaptive learning.


Medium-Term: Becoming Evidence-Based

Over the medium-term of the next five to ten years, there will be greater demand for education companies to take an evidence-based approach. Following the example of health care (and, in particular, the pharmaceutical industry), education companies will be compelled to invest the necessary time and money to demonstrate the efficacy of education tools and to compare the impact and success rates of different technologies and interventions. The education industry will need standards and agreed-upon research methods to establish a common ground for how to gauge effectiveness and outcomes. This is analogous to what has occurred in the pharmaceutical industry, in which drug companies must undertake rigorous, scientific research (including randomized clinical trials) to demonstrate the efficacy of drugs and other therapies.

Adopting an evidence-based approach in education will likely provide support for further advances in technology to pursue what I refer to as “precision learning.” Precision learning will gain ground in tandem with increasing acceptance that learning needs are as diverse as the students themselves. It’s not just what they know or don’t know, but also how their brains process information and how they learn best.

Another education breakthrough we’ll likely see in the medium-term is greater acceptance of “micro-certification” to attest that learners have mastered certain skill sets. No longer will it be necessary for students to wait until the end of a four-year education to be considered ready for the job market. In addition, individuals who want to gain new skills in a different area of expertise will not have to take several years out of their lives for advanced study. Instead, learning and certification will happen in smaller increments, with a mindset of continuous learning, monitoring, and certification of skills acquired.


The Long-Term: Building 21st Century Skills

Over the longer term, going out one to two decades, the emphasis increasingly will be on building 21st century skills. The need for rote memorization is already giving way as technology (e.g., a smartphone) puts a wealth of knowledge literally at people’s fingertips. While there will always be concepts to memorize and cognitive operations to practice, learning will concentrate more on those critical areas where humans retain an edge over computers, such as: taking risks, making decisions, solving problems, managing conflicts among people, thinking creatively, leading others, and understanding ethical implications.

Developing 21st century skills will require teachers and technology to come together to bring out the best of both. This is the future toward which we are already heading. Getting there, however, will not be a straight line. The tech-enabled education revolution has its own learning curve. Through trial and error, EdTech solutions will be tested and evaluated – some rejected and others adopted – with the ultimate goal of providing a truly individualized experience to meet the needs of each learner.