How technology can actually change education

Classoom techBy Roger Schank


You can’t read something about education these days without reading about how technology will change everything.


Sorry to be a downer, but technology will change nothing if what is meant by technology is that we have new ways of delivering the same old material.


The basic philosophy behind education for millennia has been that experts know stuff, so the experts (or their agents) will tell you the stuff you need to know. The problem is learning simply doesn’t work that way. People learn by trying things out and seeing how it goes. Babies learn by crying and seeing what happens, or sticking something in their mouth and seeing what happens. Adults learn how to manage people by managing them and seeing who quits or who complains and seeing if they succeed at getting what they need to happen to actually happen. Pilots learn to fly by flying but since the air flight simulator is a safer way to practice they are better off using that.


Technology could change education in important ways by doing the following things (nearly all of which are regularly resisted by those in charge who want things to stay fundamentally the same):


  1. Eliminating all lectures. No one can listen to someone talk for an hour and get much out of it.
  1. Creating a data base of stories (a minute and a half maximum length) that are the kinds of things people tell each other in natural conversations that produce recognition in the listener about the potential use of that advice.
  1. Creating virtual experiences where learners get to pursue their interests in a world that reacts to what they do. If you want to be a fireman when you are ten years old, then you should get to be one (virtually) for as long as you like it. If you think you want to become a doctor, practice when you are ten on virtual patients and get advice from real doctors (in the form of video stories told just in time) when you make a mistake or ask for help.
  1. Building courses that students choose to take that help them learn how to do things that they want to learn how to do that are best learned in an environment where discussion can take place and teamwork is a natural part of the situation being learned.
  1. Understanding that real teaching involves mentoring. When you have an idea or are trying something out, it is always a good idea to have someone available to ask a question. My daughter ran up the stairs to ask me a question when she was five. After I answered she said “I will be back when I need you again.” And she always has come back when she needs me again. Good parents are natural mentors. They never sit their kids down and give them an hour lecture. Teachers cannot be mentors typically because they have too many students to deal with at the same time and these students are typically not pursing goals they have chosen for themselves.

Where does AI fit in all this?


We need to build an AI mentor so that there is always someone available to ask. This is difficult but not impossible.


It is an AI problem to provide just in time stories because it requires indexing those stories according to the points they make and then knowing what point is relevant at any given time. We have already done this but more work is needed.


And of course we need to build virtual environments. Depending on their complexity this needs a fair amount from AI as well.


So, will technology help fix education? It will if we re-define education as learning by doing in pursuit of one’s own goals, and if we re-define teaching as just in time mentoring that can help a student in a virtual environment.


This requires real money to do, but as an example, the state of Florida, where I live, spends US$300 million every year on grading silly tests it administers in school. That money would do just fine…


Roger Schank is an American artificial intelligence theorist, cognitive psychologist, learning scientist, educational reformer, and entrepreneur. He will be a keynote speaker at OEB 2016 (Berlin, 30 Nov. – 2 Dec., 2016).


2 Responses

  1. Daniel Lewis

    Hi Roger! We keep up with the times, technologies are replacing conventional classrooms, the government provides modern programs aimed at Improving and modernizing contemporary education spending millions $. Still, I found it rather questionable, cause students’ knowledge still leave much to be desired. Moreover, it now becomes relevant among students to use ghostwriting and ask for assignment help and it would definitely give us cause for concern.

    • Paul

      This article is Dr. Schank’s most succint writing about his views that I have seen. The video below is quite good too.

      Dr. Roger Schank on technology and education

      “So, will technology help fix education? It will if we re-define education as learning by doing in pursuit of one’s own goals, and if we re-define teaching as just in time mentoring that can help a student in a virtual environment.” – Dr. Roger Schank, PhD

      Industrial Simulators in Finland

      “Could it be that KNOWING is obsolete?” – Sugata Mitra

      The Future of Education (Mitra Cut)

      Redesigning Education for an Internet-connected World – Sugata Mitra

      “New ways of delivering the same old material”
      Posting a transcript of a lecture on a billboard in Second Life may be a use of technology but it is NOT keeping up with the times. Dr. Schank notes that many teachers are using technology in ways that he likens to filming a play and calling it a movie. H. G. Wells urged educators in 1921 to make use of the cinematograph (movie camera) to record scientific demonstrations and in 1961, R. Buckminster Fuller was urging educators to make video documentaries to be made available to students at home via a two-way wireless network. Efforts such as Acellus and Khan Academy are actually far behind the times because computers and communication technologies make possible the creation of real-time simulations, virtual worlds, Artificial Intelligence tutors and mentors and Skyping in real time with an expert that speaks a foreign language.
      One should be commenting on students’ abilities not their knowledge. Students can ‘Google’ things and the internet can allow someone to obtain knowledge when it is needed, just in time. There is no need to insist that every student must know something in particular. Dr. Schank has spoken and written frequently about this idea of saddling children up with a lot of knowledge that they MIGHT need in the future but actually don’t.
      Books were once a high technology and yet, although H. G. Wells wrote in 1921 in Ch. 7 of “Salvaging Civilisation” about how mass publication of books made live lecturing and attendance on Campus obsolete, Universities and other post secondary institutions did not abandon live lecturing. One professor in the U.S. even confessed that he assigned students to read one textbook while he based his lectures on a completely different textbook. The Universities had the new technology but did not keep up with the times. In the 1950’s, the professional writer, L. Ron Hubbard created an Academy that had no teachers or instructors but relied on recorded media (books, audio tapes and film) and roleplay training routines. The Universities continued lecturing right up to the present.
      The Universities had videos of lectures and mainframes but they were not the drivers of the internet or the founders of Khan Academies, Schools in the Clouds, Modeling Instruction or Schank Academies.


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