Predicting the Future is Still Difficult

Next week I will be presenting on “Online Learning Innovation: Community, Openness, and Turning Things Inside Out” at the 2012 NUTN conference with my colleague Sarrah Saraj. We will also be talking about the next 30 years of education at a panel discussion earlier in the conference. So here is what I have been thinking about the future.

A new web series on YouTube called H+ is set in a future timeline where transhumanism has gone very wrong (thank you to Katrina for getting me hooked on another show). They show some futuristic ideas on the show – computers on thin sheets of plastic, then embedded in our heads, etc. One line got me thinking:

“Didn’t you ever hack an iPhone when you were a kid?”

“Before my time pops”

Yep – someday the shiny new iPhone that will be introduced today will be an ancient museum relic that old fogeys reminisce about.

But, of course, I will still want one :)

In 1991, I was a recent high school graduate who took out a loan to “catch up” on technology. For around $2000, I bought a 13″ TV, an IBM PS/1, a phone for my room, and a subscription to this new thing called Prodigy.

If you think about it, the smart phone (iPhone or iPaf or Android or whatever for that matter) pretty much does everything those things did. They don’t really do anything new, they just combined several devices and did things we had already been doing… only better.

In fact, most people will tell you that the Internet is still just doing what the printed press did with information, the telephone did with communication, the radio did with broadcasting, and the movie did with entertainment… just in a vastly improved manner.

So “looking at the future” really needs to mean focusing in on concepts and not devices. And we will pretty much find out that these concepts will be very familiar. Our devices for utilizing these concepts will change and improve – and there is nothing wrong with liking these devices or exploring their usage.

But we need to quit spending time and money investigating the devices themselves and focus more on how we can best use them to improve how we accomplish the concepts of teaching and learning. How the iPhone 5 will change education is irrelevant. How the functions of smartphones will help us improve how we teach students or accomplish sound theoretical frameworks is a better question.

How many hundreds of times more do we need to read an article that ends with “It wasn’t the _____ itself, but how it was used that made the difference.”

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