The Future of Learning Technology: Some Tentative Predictions

Article excerpt

Introduction

Some twenty one years ago I quoted an old Chinese proverb that "Prophesy is dangerous--especially when it concerns the future" and noted that it was "not so very long ago that those who claimed to be able to see into the future were given a show trial and then burned at the stake" (Rushby, 1990). These days it is only the expert's reputation that is burned.

I am even more hesitant to make prophesies when I read Philip Tetlock's award winning research on expert political judgement (Tetlock, 2005) which concluded that the "experts" were only slightly better than straight chance in their predictions about the future. For those of you who do not know this work, Tetlock asked 284 experts to make 28,000 predictions. The experts were drawn from many different fields. They ranged from university professors to journalists and had widely different beliefs from Marxists to free-marketeers. The predictions were followed up over a twenty year period and were--on average--dismally inaccurate. Interestingly, the most inaccurate were those experts who were certain in their predictions: those who spoke in terms of probabilities did rather better.

The lesson we should take from this, is that the rest of this paper and the companion papers from other editors, should be treated with great caution. You may do better by rolling dice!

I should also add that the thoughts which are set out in this paper are a work in process. I set out to write what, in an abbreviated form, is the first part of the paper. In conversations with myself and with colleagues, I began to realize that the traditional vision (now Vision 1) was flawed. As you read on, I hope you will understand why.

First however, let me deal with the question of why a journal such as the British Journal of Educational Technology (BJET) needs to be interested in what the future may hold for learning technology. It is more than idle curiosity! Journals have a complex relationship with the future: They are trying to predict the future so that, from the papers that are submitted for publication, they can select those that are likely to be of interest to readers in the future, and conversely, by their choice of papers they shape what people read and thus influence the future direction of research in their field.

The past forty years

It happens that 2011 marks my 40th Anniversary in the learning technology business. My postgraduate research in 1971 was on the use of artificial intelligence techniques in computer assisted instruction. Contrary to current popular belief, the use of computers for learning was already well established and we had no doubt that CAI was going to revolutionise education and training.

Over the following years, artificial intelligence grew and diminished in importance. It continues to support some learning systems, but the promise of intelligent tutoring systems has never quite been realised on any significant scale.

Around 1977 the first personal computers appeared and it was clear that these were going to revolutionise education. The UK Government set a target of equipping every school with at least one microcomputer so that every child could access to the latest technology.

This in what now seems very quick succession, came interactive videodiscs, CDi, compact disks, artificial intelligence (again!), the WorldWideWeb and mobile communications and ever more capable hand-held devices (I have omitted a number of other technologies in the interests of time and space). Each attracted its own enthusiasts, research projects in the classroom and initial trials, and some limited use--and then (with the exception of the WorldWideWeb) was superseded by a new technology with new enthusiasts. Thus we had a succession of sparkling innovations, but only a marginal impact on education and training.

In 2007 a colleague and I carried out a review of learning technology projects carried out in the UK during the period 1980-2000, and mapped their findings onto the research agenda of the British Educational Communications and

Technology Agency (Becta). …