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The keyboard is dead. Long live voice recognition

A festival explores the future of technology in education

A festival explores the future of technology in education

The keyboard is doomed. The rise of voice-recognition systems means that today's children will spend more time talking to machines than typing, so teachers had better start preparing them for that now.

This vision was among the near-future scenarios explored last week at the Learning Without Frontiers conference, a gathering of educators, innovators and software developers in London.

Lord David Puttnam noted the speedy rise of voice-recognition systems, such as Siri for iPhone, Google Voice and a startup called Yap that was recently bought by Amazon. The Labour peer and educationalist said that, while more advanced voice and touch systems were being developed, no major research was taking place to improve keyboards.

"Keyboards have, to all intents and purposes, been written out of the story," Lord Puttnam said. "So, whether you like it or not, we are going to be forced into (systems using) gesture and voice.

"Many of those currently in primary schools are likely to spend the majority of their working lives in environments dominated by voice-recognition technology, with the changes in productivity and working practice that will inevitably bring. But when was the last time you heard anyone raise that as an educational issue?"

A prototype voice-recognition system Lord Puttnam had seen at Stanford University was even more advanced - "like the computer HAL from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey" - and will be on the market in two years.

Lord Puttnam said that the impact of such developments on education was comparable with the introduction of machine guns in the First World War; a technological advance that no country could afford to ignore.

He suggested that schools should place a greater emphasis on spoken language skills or "oracy" - a subject the national curriculum review group has indicated will be given more weight from 2014.

The potential impact of new technology was a major topic at Learning Without Frontiers, which was sponsored by TES. The event started eight years ago as an annual conference on handheld learning devices, but has expanded to look at wider ways in which learning can be transformed.

Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist, said that advances in 3D printers, which are already being used in some schools, meant that he "could send you a violin as an email attachment".

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author, said it was becoming easier for teachers to use virtual reality in their lessons. So chemistry teachers should consider "turning a kid into a molecule" using the technology.

But many speakers argued that technology was just being used as an add-on to the existing education system, rather than genuinely changing it. Graham Brown-Martin, the festival organiser, said it felt as if "it doesn't matter how much technology we throw at education - it will never change".

The US philosopher Noam Chomsky also warned in a video speech that it was wrong to assume technology was inherently a force for good in education. "As far as technology and education are concerned, technology is basically neutral," he said. "It's like a hammer - the hammer doesn't care if you use it to build a house or if a torturer uses it to smash in someone's skull."

Videos of speeches from the festival can be viewed at www.learningwithoutfrontiers.comlwf12

Get with the program

The importance of teaching children to write computer programs themselves was stressed by many speakers at Learning Without Frontiers, with some praising the government's recent decision to promote programming in schools.

Culture minister Ed Vaizey told the conference that the announcement meant he and the education secretary now felt less like hate figures. "When I came here last year, I felt that if I'd worn a Michael Gove mask, you might have pelted me with eggs," he said.

Mr Vaizey agreed that it was important to ask how technology could be used, not just to help pupils, but also to "re-evaluate what education is".

"But I don't have a big enough brain to answer that," he said.

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