If knowing is obsolete. . .

Speaking in 2013 at ‘TED’ Sugata Mitra (2013) posed the question ‘Could it be that at the point in time when you need to know something, you can find out in two minutes? Could it be that we are heading towards or maybe in a time when knowing is obsolete?’. This question has merit and far reaching implications for education. 

A range of factors make this question worth exploring. Firstly is the matter of what we teach and the curriculum documents we follow. For those in Australia we have the new syllabus to implement and while this makes progress in some regards by placing such things as concepts and skills at the centre of our focus there remains a good degree of content to be taught. Secondly the technology that makes it possible to ‘know’ something on demand is with us today. Through the devices we carry with us, with the resources of the Internet and thanks to the power of search it is possible to find any chunk of knowledge whenever and wherever it is needed. 

Speaking to a group of Year Six students the director of digital for a large Australian telco described the near future of technology. He started with a brief history of technology and described in pictures how computers have changed from the time he was a teen experiencing computing for the first time to the technology we all carry with us today. He described how Gordon Moore of Intel had predicted a doubling of chip speeds every two years and how this came to be known as ‘Moore’s Law’. He demonstrated how computing technology has continued to shrink and described how this has allowed for technology that we can not only carry in a pocket but also wear. If the tech companies are right and wearables begin to gain traction in the market our reliance on ‘knowing’ will only further decrease. Once the watch or glasses that I wear are able to provide me with the answer to my knowledge based questions why would I burden my memory with these details?

The New Media Consortium, Horizon Report: 2014 K-12 Edition identifies Wearable Technology as one of the important developments in technology for school with a time to adoption in the four to five year category. Wearable technology is defined by the report as technology that can be worn in the form of jewelry, sunglasses, backpacks or items of clothing. The impact is described as being most significant in the enhancement of field trips and excursions and augmented reality. But this ignores the great ease of access to information that this style of device offers and ignores the potential for these devices to provide context aware notifications. How far can it be from a time when my watch or my glasses prompts me with potentially relevant ‘knowledge’ based on the data it is gathering from my environment, my online presence and the online presence of the people and things around me.

As we move towards a Web 3.0 world we will increasingly rely on machine learning to access and present data from diverse sources, including an expanding ‘Internet of Things’ in ways that we are able to make use of. The early signs of an internet populated by articles and sources created purely by computer are the ‘Knowledge Graph’ results Google provides and the emergence of articles written by algorithms. The ‘Knowledge Graph’ presents information based on a search query and compiled from a mix of sources as a result of Google’s algorithms. Steven Levy wrote an article for ‘Wired’ titled ‘Can an algorithm write a better news story than a human reporter?’ in which he describes technology produced by ‘Narrative Science’ that produces articles based on the data fed to its algorithms. A BBC report from 2014 describes the writing of an article for the LA Times that is reportedly the first written for a newspaper by a robot. The challenge for machine generated content will be finding an audience for the content that is generated and most likely this will be facilitated by models of content delivery where the information finds its user rather than relying on the user finding the content.

The implications of the evolution of technology, of search, machine learning and of ubiquitous access to knowledge are yet to be fully understood and explored but are part of the rationale for Ian Jukes to declare, while speaking at EduTech in Brisbane in 2014, that knowledge work or routine cognitive work will become a thing of the past at least in Western nations and that schools need to stop preparing students for jobs that will not exist. We need a greater emphasis on what Ian and others refer to as ‘Long Life Skills’ (creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, problem solving and social intelligence) and an ability for individuals and even groups to learn and unlearn the skills required for specific tasks. New opportunities for enterprise bring with them new challenges for learners e.g the birth and growth of the app developer. But this does not mean we teach app design in the same way we taught grammar, the skills needed now will be outmoded by next year or sooner, according to Ian we need teach the mind set required for app design.

Ian says ‘Our present system is not broken, it is obsolete, outmoded. We cannot make little modifications, it is time to redesign’ and that if schools are in the content delivery business then we are going to be out of work soon. Looking for the silver lining in this the future of education and of teaching is exciting. Freed of the need to teach content we can focus on teaching what matters most, what excites and challenges our students and builds capacity for creativity, knowledge creation and innovation. 

By Nigel Coutts