When we think of technology in the classroom, the first image that comes to mind is probably a room full of students staring at screens all day, raising legitimate concerns about their eyesight, lack of meaningful interaction with other people, and for the younger ones, even about their brain development.
But technology, including the devices and apps used in education, is not only advancing, it is changing form, so the stereotype no longer has to be true. Interacting with a screen is only a part of the experience EdTech has to offer: from artificial intelligence to mixed reality, education technology has left the limited space of the screen behind and is acquiring a role in the classroom that is not just larger, but also more varied.
Going beyond the screen ‘to explore strange new worlds…’
With the addition of mixed reality to the classroom, students can take part in activities that take place not only in front of them, but all around them. Thanks to the Internet of Things, screen-based devices are not the only objects that are able to connect to the web and give them additional information about what they are doing: to cite but one example, schools may provide them with sporting equipment that tracks their performance and allows them to re-watch it for improvement.
MR sets are an exciting trend in education technology with endless applications: where physical field trips were limited by practical matters of budget and distance, virtual ones can take a class to another planet if the teacher so desires—or at least a simulation of one. Interacting with a simulated environment provides an engaging, hands-on experience that teaches new information and skills while remaining safer than its real-world counterpart and opens up possibilities that the school would be otherwise unable to offer, such as travelling to the other side of the world or even beyond it, to outer space, different eras, or entirely imaginary settings.
The rise of artificial intelligence
What most people fail to realise about artificial intelligence is that it does not have to take the form of a robot. That AI is being used more and more in the classroom does not necessarily mean that we are heading towards a scene out of a science fiction novel in which teachers are aided or replaced by human-like machines.
The use of robots as teaching aids is certainly possible and, if done correctly, can be particularly helpful in the case of pupils with special needs who can benefit from interacting with robotic toys with predictable, programmed responses that will not overwhelm them and can even improve their motor and social skills by encouraging them to move and imitating human emotional behaviour that children with autism and other such conditions may have difficulties recognising and dealing with, both advantages that staring at a screen cannot give.
But what the majority of users take for granted is that AI is present in more than just robots: it is artificial intelligence that makes virtual characters in video games adapt to the player’s decisions, that recommends products based on our previous purchases and browsing history, that even provides customer support in cases that do not need to be handled by a human technician.
The same principle can be gainfully applied to education: a form of artificial intelligence that knows you well enough to suggest what to buy next can know the students’ needs well enough to customise their learning material and adapt it to their pace and level of comprehension, identify their weaknesses and offer new and improved methods to correct them. Moreover, AI can be available to students anywhere, anytime, beyond a teacher’s working hours.
This does not mean that teachers as we know them are destined to disappear anytime soon: students must be given a chance at true human interaction and taught soft skills that AI cannot convey. Technology, whether it is a device that contains a thousand field trips to faraway places or a robotic companion that aids them in their learning, is only a tool that needs a human hand to guide it.
One thing, however, is certain: looking at a screen is only a small fraction of what EdTech has become.