The Third Revolution: Futurist David Thornburg Argues That "Disruptive Technology" Is Reshaping How Students Learn. but How Can Schools Prepare for What They Can't Predict?

Article excerpt

These days it may seam like education is changing faster than educators can keep up--Common Core State Standards, the charter school movement, increasingly diversified student populations, "new normal" shrinking budgets--but it's not moving nearly as fast as technology. That's par for the course though, according to David Thomburg, a noted futurist and education consultant who teaches graduate courses on emerging technologies at Walden University. After all, education is a deep-rooted part of society, one that can't always keep up with rapid-fire advances in technology.

"It's a common error that people make, which is to overestimate social change and to underestimate technological change," Thornburg says. That makes it especially tough to predict how the two will impact the future.

Thornburg contends that, in all of human history, only three major technological revolutions have fundamentally resculpted education. The first two are taken for granted: the construction of a phonetic alphabet, and the propagation of the mass-produced book in the 16th century. These changes seeped into education, Thornburg says, because they were consumer-driven, and ultimately too big to ignore.

Thornburg argues that mobile device technology has placed us on the cusp of the next great revolution, which is already very much in progress and is certain to affect education. Like its predecessors, this one is consumer-driven, and has the potential to drastically transform an education environment that has become, to his mind, too focused on assessment and evaluation.

Recreating Education

Thomburg is a strong advocate of teaching students creative construction skills. While attending a recent event, he sat down with some community-college educators and asked them how recent shifts in education policy, like No Child Left Behind, have affected creativity in their current crop of students. Their response, he says, was not promising. "They said, 'Honestly, we've lost an entire generation of students. They're just lost since NCLB got implemented. The high-stakes tests, they're useless. All [students learn] how to do is pass a test."

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Removing creativity from the curriculum has been a gradual process, and the evolution of educational technology itself has played a pivotal role. "When computers were first introduced into schools, there wasn't any shrink-wrapped software to speak of, so we tended to teach kids how write software using BASIC," Thornburg says. "And that was in some sense good, because it showed kids that this tool was something you could bend to your own whim. Whatever you wanted it to do, it would do it--if you learned how to speak its language." With the proliferation of store-bought software like word processing and computerized spreadsheets in the late 1980s, however, computer science assumed a diminishing role in computer literacy.

As software evolved to follow education's next trajectory (and its dollars) it became increasingly centered on helping students succeed on standardized tests, turning technology away from creative construction.

With the emergence of the Common Core and new science standards, however, Thornburg says educators' focus is shifting away from rote memorization and teaching to a test, and toward creativity and problem solving--a change he says is long overdue. That change is occurring in tandem with the sudden emergence of what Thomburg calls a "disruptive technology," an impossible-to-predict game changer that will fundamentally alter the conventional landscape. This technology, which he predicts will create the third education revolution, is the always-connected mobile device.

Thornburg believes that mobile devices hold significant promise for students, provided they're used appropriately. Disruptive technologies radicalize the field, as opposed to evolutionary ones, which iterate upon (but largely enforce) the status quo. …