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Neighbors of Kane County

The future of education--Virtual classrooms, neural implants and no more snow days!

Jul 12, 2016 12:18PM ● By Neighbors Magazines

by Ben Scott

In the 2015–2016 school year, Batavia Public School District 101 issued a laptop or tablet to each K–12 student. This technology and its easy access would have been hard to imagine a half century ago. What, then, will the Batavia School system look like in 50 years? Will future students still congregate to a central location to learn, or will the internet and mobile devices render the brick and mortar classroom obsolete? How will cloud-based schools, artificial intelligence (AI) and neural implants affect Batavia students?

Today when people think of schools, one of the first images that comes to mind is a building populated by classrooms, teachers and students. It’s difficult to conceive of a day when students won’t ride a bike or bus to school, but some futurists predict a time when there is no brick or mortar building. Still, other educators see the physical school as a permanent fixture, with major changes made instead to the traditional school day and structure of the classroom.

In an article written for The Atlantic, educator Michael Godsey envisions a classroom with a “fantastic computer screen at the front, streaming one of the nation’s most engaging, informative lessons available on a particular topic.” Godsey further predicts the role of the traditional classroom teacher relegated to that of a facilitator or tech who manages the classroom equipment and monitors student behavior. In this future scenario, a “‘virtual’ class will be introduced, guided, and curated by one of the country’s best teachers…and it will include professionally produced footage of current events, relevant excerpts from powerful TedTalks, interactive games students can play against other students nationwide, and a formal assessment that the computer will immediately score and record.”

Michael Hall of the architecture and design firm Fanning Howey agrees with Godsey, saying, “It is hard to imagine there not being some kind of physical space where students and teachers come together to learn from one another. That’s the heart and soul of the educational experience.”

Schools are where students gather to learn, but also to develop social skills and participate in extracurricular activities. While it’s a good bet kids will continue to play sports and join clubs, some futurists believe learning itself will become a more individualized experience as technology evolves. Many classrooms across the country have already adopted a blended learning model, in which students spend part of their time using computers or tablets to access open-educational resources. Teachers give students lessons which are then complimented by software, apps and web-based services. For example, a student learns a lesson in math and then uses her computer to create a graph.

While some learning software involves simply creating or absorbing media, there are also adaptive learning programs that respond to the student by repeating lessons and putting emphasis on topics the student hasn’t mastered. For instance, a student clicks the wrong state in a geography test and the computer then re-asks the question or provides a clue to the correct answer. Similarly, programs like Coursera help today’s teachers work with each other to improve lessons by pointing out where a class is struggling; when many students submit the wrong answer to a question on a test or homework assignment, the system alerts the instructor so they can fill in gaps in the curriculum. Adaptive learning is also a reality outside the traditional education system, with sites like the Khan Academy offering over 100,000 interactive lessons on various subjects. Similarly, YouTube has an education channel with over one million subscribers. These sites make learning accessible to everyone, and many are free.

As students spend more time working with computers, they’ll need a new way to connect with one another. While texting in class might land today’s student in detention, tomorrow’s student may benefit from the incorporation of social media in the classroom. An article on predicts that students will more actively participate in the educational experience with backchannel devices like Socrative, Padlet and Twitter. Students will use these devices to share thoughts and aid each other in their learning experience, and their questions and comments will be shared on a class smartscreen. It’s hard to imagine a day when students won’t pass the proverbial love note, even if in the future this is an exclusively digital phenomenon.

Teachers, in turn, will use these same social media sites to respond more quickly to the concerns of the entire class. Teachers may also incorporate social media to make classes available as sites like YouTube or Google Hangouts evolve to unimaginable capabilities. Snow days may eventually become a thing of the past in a future where a basic classroom structure always exists through different forms of social media.

In the next 50 years, school systems may also incorporate advanced adaptive learning programs and move to a “flipped” academic model in which students are exposed to the bulk of their curriculum through technology outside the classroom. Students will spend more time at home as artificial intelligence evolves and adaptive learning programs become “teaching-machines” that instruct students in high-order thinking and creativity.

While AI of today is still in its infancy, students in the Batavia school system 50 years from now may get advanced support and feedback from AI tutors. But is this good or bad? It’s possible that AI may in some cases replace the role of the traditional teacher or become another factor that subverts the role of today’s teacher to that of a facilitator in the future. Although this kind of adaptive AI might sound like science fiction, some prominent figures in the tech world believe it will arrive sooner than later. In a recent interview with The Verge, Bill Gates responded to a question concerning AI and education, saying, “The idea that you could talk to a [virtual] advisor that would understand different misconceptions and arbitrary linguistics around it, that’ll certainly come in the next decade.”

Imagine a future in which each student has one-to-one access with an AI that can provide advanced instruction and feedback in every discipline from calculus to creative writing. The benefits of such artificial intelligence will go beyond egalitarian access to education; trial and error, a critical aspect of learning, will become less daunting in the face of a virtual instructor. Students who don’t like being put on the spot in the classroom will learn at their own pace with a system that adapts to their needs. Further, students may play a more active role in their education by developing their own curriculum and differentiating assignments in a way that fits their own personal learning style. This type of active student participation will become yet another possibility afforded by the advancement of personalized, one-to-one learning software.

Artificial intelligence might still sound like something out of the movies, but it’s not the most shocking evolution that could affect Batavia schools by the year 2066. Think of The Matrix and how characters learned skills like fighting and flying helicopters by downloading programs directly to their brains. Some futurists actually see neural implants as a viable aid to human learning before the end of the century.

An article from The Wall Street Journal titled “The Future of Brain Implants” suggests that, in the relative near-future, students may learn with the help of neuroprosthetic systems that send web search results instantaneously back to the brain. These implanted learning systems would usher in a paradigm shift to the educational landscape where instantaneous downloading of new knowledge and skill-sets becomes commonplace. Just as paper textbooks are being replaced by computers and tablets today, handheld mobile technology might one day disappear in the wake of biological augmentation. With implanted technology, students could absorb a semester’s worth of coursework in moments and become masters in multiple disciplines before they’ve even finished high school. And as a major bonus, the days of frantically cramming for tests would become a thing of the past.

Advances in neuroscience make it hard to speculate on the future of education or even what it might someday mean to be a human being. The most fantastic predictions aside, the ideal future school system might be one in which technology works in tandem with the positive aspects of socialization that today’s educational facilities provide. For now, Batavia students still have to study the old-fashioned way, deal with their human teachers and suffer the occasional snow day.