Primer

Tech in, school's out by year 2065?

This is the 11th of 12 primers on various current affairs issues, published as part of the outreach programme for The Straits Times-Ministry of Education National Current Affairs Quiz.

The year is 2065. In schools - if they even exist at all - interactive "smartboards" replace the conventional whiteboard, and mobile devices take the place of textbooks. Robots substitute for teachers, and deliver lectures and supervise students' work in the classrooms.

The conventional and enduring sage-on-the-stage model of education - where students face the front of the class and passively receive instruction from teachers - no longer persists. Instead, the students are seated in clusters and plugged into their mobile devices, while their teachers become guides on the side, facilitating discussions rather than telling them what to do.

These developments may become commonplace in future schools. 

Institutions around the world are reinventing themselves - most of them tapping on technology - but even then, uncertainty is often the buzzword when it comes to what schools here might be like in 50 years.

 Some experts predict that the bulk of schools, as people know them now, might not even exist in the next half century. 


A robot teacher named "Xiaomei" guiding a class during a demonstration at a Jiujiang University class in the Chinese province of Jiangxi earlier this month. The robot, made by a team led by a teacher, is able to narrate the teaching materials and respond to voice orders such as "repeat" and "continue". In Japan, a robot is being used as a substitute in short-staffed smaller schools. PHOTO: REUTERS

It is hard to imagine, since schools have endured the test of time largely unchanged.

In the 19th century, for instance, students packed a classroom and listened passively to a teacher at the front of the class. In 2015, some 200 years later, most students still do almost the same thing, but with the inclusion of learning aids such as PowerPoint slides and gadgets such as tablets. 

The conventional way of teaching in a classroom has worked well for learners before the dawn of digital technology. Back in the day, when books were not readily available, the best way to acquire knowledge was through a teacher, who would read to the masses and share his insights.

This model continued and, only decades ago, was extended to include tutorials and workshops. 

But today, students, who are mostly digital natives, learn differently. Armed with smartphones, many search for answers on Google before approaching their teachers.

Students now learn "better" from the Internet, from their peers and from hands-on projects. 

American educationalist and author Marc Prensky, who coined the term "digital native", explained that people are in a "new world full of imagination, creativity and innovation and digital wisdom", but are only at the ground floor. 

Already, signs of change are unfolding in various degrees in different parts of the world in remaking the traditional classroom.

Perhaps the most progressive, and radical, shift is the idea of the "flipped classroom" - which reverses the traditional teaching arrangement by delivering instructions, often online, outside of the classroom, leaving classroom time for deeper learning activities such as homework and discussions with peers. 

The concept, where students go through lectures and course content at their own pace - via videos or recorded PowerPoint presentations - ensures they are better prepared even before class. 

Flipped-classroom learning is not new, having been around for about a decade, but is increasingly popular, especially with universities globally. Educators took notice when two high school chemistry teachers in the United States recorded PowerPoint presentations of their lectures and uploaded them online for students who missed their classes.

The presentations were well-received, and the concept has since gained a following in US schools, where those that have adopted the approach saw fewer disciplinary cases and higher test scores among students.

Singapore's universities, such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, are among those that have embraced the idea of flipped-classroom learning.

Increasingly, institutions around the world are tapping on technology to enhance learning. 

In countries such as Japan, robots have become substitutes for teachers.

Saya, a female humanoid robot, was initially created to work as a receptionist in local companies but is now used in smaller schools which lack human teachers. 

With brown hair and pink lipstick, "she" closely resembles a human, and is able to express emotions such as fear and anger through programmed actions and is capable of ordering students to be quiet. 

Researchers in countries such as the United States and Australia are looking at incorporating augmented reality into lessons.

History students, for instance, may soon be able to experience a historical moment recreated without stepping out of the classroom. 

Medical students are using a virtual knife to remove layers of tissue in a 3D visualisation of the human body, and trainee dentists are practising with dummies installed with tactile feedback technology, which allows learning via trial and error.

In three years' time, students at the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, for example, may be able to dissect 3D holographic cadavers in what would be the first medical school in the world to use virtual-reality simulation on a full scale.

And in future, students could also take "smart drugs" - which have long been the stuff of fantasy - in the morning to help with memorisation or last-minute cram sessions before their exams.

Futurist expert Neil Selwyn, professor of education at Monash University in Australia, noted that these drugs will, without doubt, change the way people think. But he added that things said about the next 50 years are merely speculations and "must be taken with a huge pinch of salt". 

Technology has taken over many of a school's functions, such as explanation and feedback, so much so that bringing children together and having them sit in a box for hours may no longer be necessary. 

Prominent artificial intelligence researchers such as Roger Schank and David Gelernter have predicted the demise of schools.

And with the rise of massive open online courses (Mooc), schools are less relevant and may even become obsolete. Mooc allow individuals who are not enrolled in a school to take short courses at their own pace via the Internet. 

The courses may range from demanding topics such as computer science to light-hearted ones such as the music of the Beatles. Elite universities around the world, including the University of Oxford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have been offering such courses on online learning platforms like Coursera and edX. 

But the extinction of schools may well defeat the purpose of education.  Schools occupy children and young adults with tasks where they develop extra skills not found at home, such as the ability to think on their feet and how to socialise with others. 

Schools play another vital economic role. For a few hours each day, they assume the role of caregivers - providing a safe place for the children so that their parents can go to work. 

At a time when countries are cutting back on their education budgets, shifting education online in its entirety sounds attractive, but this may not work as online learning is still new territory, and yet unproven.

Until there is a better alternative, schools will continue to exist, but probably not in their current form.

One thing is certain - the world is changing at a remarkable speed, and educators may have to experiment and discover what works. 

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 13, 2015, with the headline 'Tech in, school's out by year 2065?'. Print Edition | Subscribe