Technology - A world where learners never meet their teachers

25th October 2013 at 01:00
Bold vision for education to be shared at international summit

The lessons of the future may not take place in schools - and students may never even meet their teachers, an education technology expert has predicted.

Instead, education could take place in centres for students of all ages, with expert teachers giving lessons by video to thousands of learners across the globe, according to a bold vision of how teaching could look in the decades to come that will be debated at a global education conference next week.

This vision belongs to Mervi Jansson-Aalto, director of education partnerships at Finnish digital education firm InnoOmnia. She will tell delegates at the World Innovation Summit for Education (Wise) in Qatar that politicians, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and schools need to work together to harness the potential of technology for improving education.

"We already have access to technology," Ms Jansson-Aalto told TES. "Five years into the future, access won't be the issue (for developing countries) any more; learning can (take place) in very different geographical locations."

While young people were digital natives, many teachers were uncomfortable about switching completely to digital learning, she said: "Children are very fast with technology; it's the adults who are too slow. As people in the teaching profession, are we weighed down with our historical perspective about what education is?"

Broadcasting lessons by "expert teachers" to a number of schools simultaneously using video technology would be a cost-effective way of improving teaching standards, Ms Jansson-Aalto suggested, with students receiving assistance from "learning guides" in their classroom.

"I think it can be successful anywhere," she argued. "In Europe you have budgets being cut; this would be affordable and would transform education.

"Whether it's in a building called a school, or more of a learning centre (where students have) a personalised schedule and learning goals, I don't know."

But Ms Jansson-Aalto insisted that it remained vital for students to share a physical location: "It's important they learn together. The real world involves communication, learning to be with other people. I can't see how that would not take place."

Her belief that some kind of classroom would persist was echoed by Ted Chang, chief technology officer and vice-president of Quanta Computer, a Taiwan-based firm. Dr Chang will also address the Wise conference.

"We can't reprise everything, we can't recreate the whole classroom environment," he said. "We are unable to virtualise everything: what about the smell in the classroom? What about the interaction between students and teachers?"

Ms Jansson-Aalto believed that progress in harnessing the transformative power of technology in the school sector had been delayed because countries and organisations had failed to work together to raise overall standards.

"Why hasn't education used its resources already to reach out?" she asked. "The education market is rather fragmented, with NGOs, governments, municipalities, private schools. There's lots of nice and pretty talk, but there should surely be somebody looking at (how to use technology). There are a lot of great initiatives. I'm not out to say people are not doing their jobs. But we have to pull that together."

Hundreds of politicians, teachers, academics, business leaders and technology experts will congregate at the Wise summit to discuss the biggest problems facing global education.

The event was founded in 2009 by the Qatar Foundation, a non-profit organisation that is part-funded by the Qatari government and was established by the Middle Eastern country's royal family. The theme of this year's event is "Reinventing education for life", with a particular focus on how technology can close the gap between learning and life.

Other topics up for debate include the United Nations Millennium Development Goals - such as the target of achieving universal free primary education across the world by 2015 - and what the UN's next global ambitions should be.

Former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard will deliver a speech on education, women and leadership at the summit, in what will be one of her first public appearances since leaving office earlier this year.

Also appearing will be Finnish education guru Pasi Sahlberg, former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is working as UN special envoy for global education, and female Qatari sprinter Noor Hussain Al-Malki.

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