Here in the futurist community it is standard practice to seize upon some fun new technological advance coming down the pike and then prognosticate on the societal implications. And often this type of over-eager thought experiment is justified. After all, as we’ve seen with cell phones, adoption can sometimes happen shockingly fast. The self-driving cars that are currently confined to labs and controlled experiments really could find their way onto the road in surprisingly short order. In which case, we are more than justified in aggressively discussing them now.
However, we should remind ourselves that just because technology makes something possible, and even desirable, doesn’t mean that said thing will occur on an expeditious timescale. Let me illustrate with a personal example.
In 1999, when I was still in high school, I took an online class offered by the University of California, Los Angeles. It was a creative writing class, and at that moment in my life, it was the best class experience I’d ever had. The professor was excellent. The other students were excellent. I got great and useful feedback on the stories that I wrote, and all from the comfort of my home computer.
It seemed obvious to me then that the future of education was online. That there was little need for classrooms when you had the internet. That education, after all, is just the transmission of information from one individual to another, primarily via text and voice. These were tasks the network could easily handle. Surely, I thought, education was going to be transformed by technology and the internet within a decade!
Alas. Ten years later my utopia had not come to pass. In fact, I had stopped ranting about how computers would change education. I’d gotten tired of people’s incredulous responses. I’d realized that my pontificating on technology trends only tended to alienate people and ruin otherwise pleasant gatherings. Moreover, I’d made peace with the fact that apparently I was wrong. Technology had not transformed education. People were still using the same poorly written textbooks and paying for the same overpriced universities. As a professional tutor, I’d witnessed firsthand many absurdities. My favorite example was a widely used math textbook that explained its concepts using math more advanced than the actual math being taught. If you think about that, it’s not unlike teaching someone their ABC’s using Shakespeare as a guide.
Then one day someone said to me, “Hey you should check out Khan Academy. It’s like what you’ve been talking about.” And so I checked it out. And was initially disappointed. This was the future? Some hastily made Youtube videos? At this point I had at least ten years under my belt consuming online tutorials. To me, learning was a big part of what the internet was for. So the fact that some guy named Khan had collected a bunch of videos in one place did not seem new or revolutionary. From my perspective, this type of knowledge dissemination had been going on for a third of my life.
But in truth, there was something new going on. Because thanks to Khan and others, the potential of online education was finally being recognized by the mainstream. Culture was finally catching up.
Today we have a lot of buzz about MOOCs or massive open online courses. And this development is exciting, because it represents a major step closer to the full service online education I’ve always imagined. So why did it take so long to get here? The technology has not been lacking. Remember: the ability to transmit text, audio, and even video over the network has been around for a long time now. I had a fulfilling online class experience back in 1999. Rather, things seem to be happening in online education today because finally people are getting more culturally comfortable with the idea of learning in front of a computer instead of in a classroom.
In fact, there is still a lot of innovation that needs to occur. I’m convinced gamification and personalization are the main ways to continuing improving education, and I know I am not alone in this opinion. But designing such systems requires skill, money, and most importantly willpower. Again, technology, as I see it, has been more than sufficient for a while now. It is human motivation that has been lacking.
So the lesson from this is a cautionary one. It is an obvious point perhaps, but worth remembering: When it comes to technology, just because something can happen soon, doesn’t mean it will. Even if the thing in question is highly desirable. Technological progress is fast, but cultural progress can be very slow indeed.