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Deep Dive into the Future

April 13, 2017

Here, at VET:eXpress, we’re never content to rest on our laurels. Technological advancement continues to perpetually disrupt the educational sector, and RTOs with their eyes on the prize must remain ever vigilant to stay ahead of the curve. This month, in the spirit of the Italian Futurists, we thought we’d turn our attention to some deep speculation about “the Future” of training and learning in Australia and beyond. Just what will the classrooms of 2050 look like? And what tools and learning platforms will trainers utilise to deliver the highest level of engagement, student satisfaction and conferral of skills?

Many writers and thinkers have famously theorised about how future societies would store, process and distribute knowledge. Sometimes the future has looked very dark indeed, such as in George Orwell’s 1984, where contradictory facts are disseminated across the entire population via State-produced propaganda. Or take Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where a spacecraft computer named Hal, said to be ‘foolproof and incapable of error’, proves to be less helpful than programmed when he tried to murder the human astronauts on board.

More optimistically, futurologists actually presume a society’s technology drives the development of its social structure and cultural values. For example, the Internet has fundamentally changed how information is disseminated and people communicated, and we’re now seeing that this change to traditional information exchange has affected how people vote in elections, how they fall in love, and how they learn. But what else will affect how people learn in the 21st century?

1. Highly-Adaptive Learning: An ongoing project now for the last sixty years, adaptive learning may well be the single most important development to education in the 21st century. Put simply, adaptive learning involves computers serving as interactive teaching devices for students, adapting the presentation of educational material according to each student’s particular learning needs. The student’s particular inputs into the computer program will cause the computer to adapt the educational material to suit the student’s learning style. This technological trend will cause a shift in the student’s role, from a passive absorber of information to a key collaborator in the education process. Currently, adaptive learning technology has been integrated into trailblazing computer applications such as Australia’s own “Smart Sparrow”. Does this spell the death of human trainers altogether? Not exactly. Many vocations and disciplines will still require trainers to teach physical, practical and emotive skills that machines simply cannot deliver…yet.

2. Badges / Microcredentials — We’ve already written about the massive overhaul to the certification system that ‘open microcredentials’ will spell in the education market (go to https://vetexpress.axcelerate.com.au/open-microcredentials-the-new-digital-certification-7616f6cddd0b ). Micro-credentials will be familiar to anyone who was immersed in the Xbox 360 gaming community in 2005, when players could earn badges that symbolised their achievements within the game. Companies like ‘Educators Rising’ are already touting the benefits of the new accreditation system, promising that each micro-credential submission requires an estimated 5–15 hours of work, and contains a submission criteria, a research base, recommended resources for preparing a submission, and a scoring rubric. But this is still very early days. Expect education providers of the future to deliver ever more complex and minuscule qualifications, and to have these qualifications recorded on global databases, meaning that students can be employed globally to an objective standard of competence.

3. Remote Learning: According The Age, students will see and hear teachers on computers, with ‘remote learning’ the trend for tomorrow. In truth, this trend towards ‘online courses’ is already well underway, with a large proportion of courses in the VET industry now delivered predominantly online. Surveys already show that online learning is preferred by many students, as they are not required to adhere to the strict scheduling of conventional education, and can access and complete components of the course according to their own requirements. But there’s still much room for advancement. Key areas will be course delivery, with advances in streaming and telecommunication technologies increasing the engagement of students interacting with courses online.

4. Machine Learning: Building on the adaptive learning platform is the even bolder idea that machines will become active learners themselves — without the need for deliberative programming from a human agent. Alan Turing once proposed that instead of asking ‘can machines think’, we should instead ask: “Can machines do what we (as thinking entities) can do?” To answer that question, scientists focused on programming machines capable of studying and recognising patterns. In doing so, computers can learn complex data sets and then make increasingly accurate predictions on what will happen in the next iteration of that data. Already, the legal and finance sectors (amongst many others) are trialling machine learning to replicate many of the tasks currently undertaken by human beings. This trend will no doubt continue in the 21st century, with human beings teaching machines, and vice versa, and even machines teaching other machines to perform complex tasks.

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