Graham Brown-Martin : “We continue to use technology to reinforce 19th century teaching practice”

Emerging Technologies and Edtech August 04, 2013

The new WISE Publication, to be released in 2014, will focus on the link between new technologies and learning. Graham Brown-Martin, Founder of Learning Without Frontiers and Founder of Education Design Labs, will write the third WISE Book, which will be illustrated by the creative photography of award-winning photographer Newsha Tavakolian.

WISE spoke to Graham Brown-Martin about this exciting project and the wider issues of technology in education.

What are the issues that you will be exploring for the new WISE Book and why are they important?

GBM: The world and our societies are changing rapidly. As a result, our knowledge and skills, and that of our children, are constantly evolving, i.e. they are not static. When you consider that by 2030, when children entering primary education now will leave higher education – if it exists – we may be routinely connecting information systems directly into their amygdala, it makes you wonder what our children should be learning today. 

A key issue I believe is why [has] technology, to date, had very little impact on improved learning outcomes? This could be because we continue to use technology to reinforce 19th century teaching practice to meet out-dated assessment models. Most of the world’s curriculum and assessment systems are based around fact recall rather than actually demonstrating that you have learned something and can deploy it within a problem solving situation. 

Given that in a connected society information is now at the fingertips of children, via smart phones for example, then perhaps it’s fair to say that our education systems are anachronistic. We throw technology at classrooms and educational establishments but the institutions themselves and the way we teach have hardly changed, we just get 19th century results more quickly and cheaply. But is this what we want?

Imagine if it was compulsory for children to take a connected digital device into an examination room so that they could look things up, contact friends or subject specialists, etc. How would our education systems then change?


Tell us about the research you will be conducting for the Book

GBM: We will be exploring and documenting how the digitally connected society is transforming learning. 

With an emphasis on digital platforms my team (award winning Iranian photographer Newsha Tavakolian assisted by Raphael Yaghobzadeh) and I are taking a new and original approach to the design and creation of this new work which will be presented as beautifully crafted printed book that can be optionally enhanced using a free digital app compatible with typical Android or iOS connected devices. The app creates a digital cloud above the printed page that augments the static information with a variety of rich media including film as well as opportunities to engage with fellow readers in real-time.

We’re taking a novel approach to the creative process by blogging throughout the production via whilst utilising social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We will also provide opportunities for the WISE community to be co-creators in the project by inviting members to contribute their stories and opinions via video capture during the WISE 2013 Summit and also online.

The project will take us across the globe where we will be interviewing thought leaders and featuring case studies from Silicon Valley to Ghana, Lebanon, China, Singapore, Brazil, Jordan, UAE, UK, India, Russia and beyond to establish a unique world view about the ways in which digital technologies are being used to improve learning and opportunity.

There have been numerous books, projects and conferences breathlessly evangelising the use of technology to improve learning as if technology were some kind of panacea to an unknown ailment. However the reality is that we have yet to see anything resembling a positive transformation of the ones so often alluded to. Often we see technology being used to reinforce ancient teaching practices to meet 19th century assessment standards rather than a transformative experience that equips our populations with the skills, knowledge and awareness to meet the challenges ahead. Our mission is to get under the skin of the debate around technology in education to understand and report back what is working and what are the obstacles as well as the triumphs.


How much do you already know about the projects and are you expecting any surprises?

Well, I like surprises so I am very much hoping that we’ll get some pleasant ones!

We have deliberately selected an eclectic range of thought leader interviews as well as case study projects to explore themes around the cultural and contextual impact of technology in education and learning. There are some important issues at stake here given the potential for digital technologies to export culture and ideology in ways that can have unintended consequences. Given the role of education as a part of a societies culture this is not as straightforward as, say, the transformation of the music industry that lead to Apple to become the dominant supplier of recorded music. A single dominant digital provider of learning could have catastrophic consequences in a world that is characterised and enriched by cultural difference.

I’m really hoping to find “home grown” projects using digital platforms to meet the needs of local populations within their own cultural contexts that also have the potential to scale or, indeed, already are.

There are also a number of aspects to the projects and influential people whom we’re interviewing. Some of these projects meet the needs of nurturing digitally agile talent that can create in the digital world others are where digital platforms are being deployed to radically transform how we learn. I still remain baffled, for instance, as to why in this century it’s not compulsory for students in examinations to use Internet connected digital devices and talk to friends and colleagues around the world to pass the test. It’s like the 21st century never happened.


What do you see as the most important development that technology has had on education in the last ten years?

We have to define what we mean by “education”. If I was thinking about schools in a Western context then I would have so say not very much has really changed despite the rapid shifts that we have seen in practically every aspect of our everyday lives. Education as a concept hasn’t really changed since the societal shift caused by the Industrial Revolution in 1750 and where the role of education was to transform agricultural workers into compliant factory workers. Until the mid-1950’s this pretty much worked however as we progress through this century we can be sure that the industrial model will literally run out of steam. I think this is why we are all so interested in transformation, we intuitively understand that the underlying foundation of society is shifting and as a result we want to ensure that our young people are properly equipped for this new world. Yet we fear transformation and change so the question will not be technological but whether we will help or hinder future generations who will need to reshape their world.


How do you see technology influencing education over the next two decades? Will we still have classrooms and teachers in 2030?

Many eminent futurists will show compelling charts and graphs that demonstrate the exponential shift that we are just embarking on with technology where, for example, acceleration in computational power will have profound impacts on our society. However I feel the issue is more complex than our ability to create these new technologies. Rather it is our capacity as a society to embrace and do the right things with them that is the biggest challenge.

By 2020 we will witness the emergence of exascale computing. An exascale computer operates at the speed of the human brain or in raw computational terms the equivalent of 50 million laptops of today. It’s hard for us to comprehend such processing capability but it does mean that the long promise of artificial intelligence is likely to be prevalent. Given access to relevant databases such platforms could create extremely accurate profiles of individual people even to the point of predicting what they may do in the immediate and near future. It is likely that you would be able to hold a conversation with such a machine and be unaware that it is not human.

Now this is just 7 years away and a child entering an education system today might not leave formal education until 2030 so what kind of world are we preparing them for? We continue to think in terms of marginal improvements to our education systems aiming at a 10 per cent improvement here or there against current measurements but what does a 10 x or 100 x improved education system look like?

By 2030 exascale-computing devices might be as common as your smartphone whilst governments and corporations will have upgraded to zettascale computing which is a 1000 x faster. Fast enough to sequence your DNA in under 10 seconds or map the worlds weather patterns for 2 weeks ahead with 99 per cent accuracy.

It seems incongruent that we are having debates about ICT and coding in our schools when our technological platforms have the potential to render an entirely new world where perhaps we have already begun to enhance our biology with such technologies.

Of course the question is what will it take for education, as we know it today to change? We’re still banning smart phones from classrooms in 2013!