Communications scholar Janna Anderson is charting a new path for education outside of the classroom. The following interview was conducted by FUTURIST senior editor Patrick Tucker.
THE FUTURIST: You’ve talked about entrenched educational institutions of the industrial age, and how those will be replaced as computer interfaces will be improved. You’ve said that developments in materials science will make learning into a process that happens via computer and video game, and that may even be a precursor to learning by computer implant by 2030 or 2040. My first question is: What role does the classroom have in the classroom of the future?
Janna Anderson: I do believe that a face-to-face setting is an important element of learning. The era of hyperconnectivity will require that most professionals weave their careers and personal lives into a blended mosaic of activity. Work and leisure will be interlaced throughout waking hours, every day of the week. We need to move away from the format of school time and non-school time, which is no longer necessary. It was invented to facilitate the agrarian and industrial economies.
Faculty, teachers, and principals could inform students that they expect them to learn outside of the classroom and beyond homework assignments. The Internet plays a key role in that. Rather than classrooms, one can see the possible emergence of learning centers where students with no Internet access at home can go online, but everyone will be working on a different project, not on the same lesson. You can also imagine students making use of mobile and wireless technology for purposes of learning.
More importantly, we need to teach kids to value self-directed learning, teach them how to learn on their own terms, and how to create an individual time schedule. We need to combine face time with learning online. And we can’t be afraid to use the popular platforms like text-messaging and social networks. As those tools become more immersive, students will feel empowered and motivated to learn on their own — more so than when they were stuck behind a desk.
THE FUTURIST: One thing you and many others have said is that neuroscience has the potential to radically change the way we teach. As we develop a more real and full understanding of the way the brain accumulates knowledge, what technology, aside from IT, could change education?
Anderson: It’s hard to predict which new technology could capture people’s imaginations. I think the combination of bioinformatics — biology and information technology — could have the biggest impact in the next couple of decades. If we continue to see the digitization of all information, which renders even our chemistry knowable, the ramifications for education could be immense and unfathomable. But the far future is the confluence of too many different factors to see.
THE FUTURIST: Right now, many educators perceive a digital divide between the members of different socioeconomic classes. You’ve talked about how scalability — technology becoming cheaper and more available in the future — could help solve that. But what if some people adopt the new technology faster than others? There are early adopters and late adopters. Being a late adopter is a small matter when you’re talking about the new iPhone, but as education becomes increasingly digitized, late adoption could have significant consequences in terms of the educational quality. Do you see any threat of an adopter divide?
Anderson: There’s no doubt that there are capacity differences. When we’re talking about the digital divide, we’re not talking just about access to equipment, but also the intellectual capacity, the training to use it, and the ability to understand the need for it, as well as its importance. There’s no doubt that cultural differences are also a huge factor. In areas that have been less developed, especially in the global south, a capacity gap in terms of adoption of a new technology may emerge because some societies are less able to adopt something new at this point in time.
THE FUTURIST: How can this cultural divide be overcome?
Anderson: This is why the effort to educate women is so important. In cultures where women are highly educated and tend to be heads of the family in terms of the upbringing of their children, there’s a higher likelihood that those children are going to show a more open cultural perspective and be more willing to take up new technologies.
THE FUTURIST: So, you still see an active role for actual physical teachers. In many ways, teachers will be more necessary than ever if they’re going to help people, especially in less-developed nations, to pick up these technologies to improve their own lives?
Anderson: There’s definitely a role for technology evangelists who can help people to understand how to use information technology no matter what level they happen to be at. But the traditional idea of the teacher may be much less valuable to the future, just like the traditional library will have much less value. We need to remove the old books that no one has opened in twenty years and put them in nearby storage. What we do need are places were people can gather — places that foster an atmosphere of intellectual expansion, where learners can pursue deeper meaning or consult specialists with access to deep knowledge resources. It’s all about people accessing networked knowledge, online, in person, and in databases. We need collective intelligence centers, and schools could be that way, too.
THE FUTURIST: The Internet is inherently disruptive to business models; the decimation of the newspaper industry is a case in point. One of the aspects of digital education that people don’t talk about much is how disruptive it could be to the career of teaching. On the one hand, really great teachers will be able to reach a broader audience than ever before, but younger educators — teachers who have not yet hit their stride — could be left out. What happens when the educational community one day realizes that they’re facing the same forces of creative destruction that newspapers are facing today?
Anderson: Today there’s actually an advantage for young teachers because they generally understand better than the oldest generation how to implement new digital tools. If we eventually are able to “patch in” to all of the knowledge ever generated with a cybernetic implant, or if we are able to program advanced human-like robots or 3-D holograms to deliver knowledge resources, “elders” will have more influence over the content delivered. Regarding forces of advancing technology and their influence on things such as the news industry, the story of the entrenched institutions fighting change is an old one. We have to overcome the tyranny of the status quo. Many media leaders understood in the 1990s that they had to prepare for a new day, but they had this great profit machine. They wouldn’t let go of it until the economics of the situation forced them to change. Economics is generally the force that pushes leaders of stagnating institutions to adopt new paradigms. It will be interesting to see how all of this develops over the next few years.
Maybe what we need is a new employment category, like future-guide, to help people prepare for the effects of disruptive technology in their chosen professions so they don’t find themselves, frankly, out of a job.
About the Interviewee
Janna Anderson is an associate professor in Elon University’s School of Communications and the lead author of the Future of the Internet book series published by Cambria Press. She is also the author of Imagining the Internet: Personalities, Predictions, Perspectives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). She will be speaking at the World Future Society’s 2010 conference in Boston.
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