Microsoft has released a report on the class of 2030. Drawing on interviews with thousands of students and teachers across the UK, US, Canada, and Singapore as well as expert opinions from technologists, researchers and policymakers, it makes an educated guess at what skills graduates in the near future will need in a job market driven by technological change.
My 3½-year-old niece taps at my “outdated” iMac screen, wondering why “the big iPad isn’t working” but this narrative of the digital native, comfortable with new consumer technology is a shallow interpretation of the future of education; the classroom of the future will be shaped more profoundly by a world where automation has replaced several jobs and ever-advancing AI is integrated with others.
"The class of 2030 will be learning very different things," says Kevin Marshall, head of education, Microsoft Ireland. "The legal profession, for example, is beginning to use machine learning, and data algorithms can potentially allow all that precedent to be captured so the role of the junior lawyer will change.
“If you look at the way businesses are restructuring at the moment, in terms of how financial forecasts are carried out, for example: a lot of that is on historical data and machine-learning models can now take this data and produce your forecast. The issue is not filling a pipeline, the issue is: how do you interpret that?”
With artificial intelligence and automation doing much of the menial tasks, what will be required of our current junior and senior infants is the ability to interpret complex data patterns as well as other higher-level cognitive skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity.
Problem-solving vs code
The other side of the coin is equipping teachers with the skills and technological know-how to teach the graduates of 2030. An example of this is the Microsoft-UCD initiative to put trainee teachers pursuing a professional masters in education (PME) through a diploma in computational thinking with the aim of teaching them underlying core skills of logic, analytical thinking and problem-solving techniques rather than churning out a group of teachers who can code.
“The teachers thought the coding was okay but what they really loved was the computational thinking aspects: how computers work, the impact of technology on society, they thought that would be great stuff to teach the kids,” explains Marshall.
Similarly, Microsoft's DreamSpace initiative encourages computational thinking using technology schoolchildren are both familiar with and enjoy using: "The afternoon workshop we recently ran with DCU was about looking at complex problem-solving using Minecraft in one case, Lego in another and also Arduino kits."
These skills in conjunction with the requirement to work in groups will shape the classroom just as workspaces have changed, says Marshall, who points to the open-plan environment of Microsoft's Dublin HQ and "the open spaces and much more fluid make-up of the classroom" in countries with progressive attitudes towards education like Finland.
Technology is also a fundamental ingredient for making lessons go more smoothly. Adbul Chohan, edtech advocate and co-founder of Apple Distinguished School, Olive Tree Primary School in Bolton, UK, found this out almost a decade ago in his first job.
“In this school we had laptops on trolleys, computer rooms, technicians that were trying to keep things working. But we had an opportunity to replace some kit that was very old and instead of just buying the same thing in a more modern version I decided to do something that was radically different at the time. I calculated that for the same cost I could put a small, mobile computer ie an iPod Touch in the hands of every student and that’s where we started off,” explains Chohan.
He says there were teething problems at the time as it was uncharted territory with Chohan pressed to find examples of other schools switching to mobile devices. But something wonderful happened. Instead of wasting valuable teaching time fetching laptops from the computer trolley, having students return to their desk, power them on, wait for them to boot up, and sort out inevitable problems with uncharged units, forgotten passwords and the odd bluescreen, it was a breeze.
"With an iPod Touch it was suddenly magical: it comes on immediately and within seconds a student can Google what they need to find, put the device away and carry on with whatever work they need to do. It's a form of what we now describe as the digital pencil case," he says.
Mobile devices are now standard in many schools but technology is still driving change in others aspects of teaching: “In education, using technology to drive operational efficiency is an area that I feel has been neglected,” explains Chohan.
“We use technology for learning, finding information, replacing physical textbooks and so on, but a lot more is possible. I’ve been looking into the amount of money schools are spending on photocopying and how it can be drastically reduced. In my last school we reduced it by 70 per cent. And it’s not just the amount of money that we’re spending on photocopying, it is the amount of time teachers are wasting on photocopying too.”
Another extremely time-consuming activity for teachers is marking copybooks and providing written feedback. Chohan’s school is trialling the idea of giving verbal feedback: students are still doing homework and they are still using pen and paper, so writing skills are not being sidelined. The difference is they capture an image of their homework using a mobile or tablet device and submit that to their teacher.
“The teacher is able to annotate that document using voice; giving verbal feedback so the child can listen to it as many times as they want, their parents can listen, or they can go back three weeks later and listen to it of needs be.
“What we’ve seen from the teacher perspective is the amount of time they spend giving feedback is significantly reduced but the quality of feedback has increased because it’s human-to-human with the emotional range of the human voice.”
There is also the area of personalised learning software where data analytics are used to crunch numbers, observe patterns and come up with teaching plans to suit each student.
But data analytics is not a silver bullet for delivering the perfect lesson plan and it must not overlook the importance of designing with humans in mind, says Owen White, director of the Dublin-based Learnovate research and innovation centre, which focuses on edtech.
“This is something Learnovate has done quite a bit of research into. The dream of personalised education is something we can all immediately identify with, and it seems to make a lot of intuitive sense, but when you look at many of the solutions that are out there they don’t actually appeal to teachers as much as the theory would suggest.
“It goes back to getting the right balance between the technology and the human. A lot of personalised learning systems are designed in a way that they remove a certain degree of agency from the teacher. These algorithms are clever and efficient but when teachers feel this is dispossessing them of their professional judgment, they tend not to trust it.”
These algorithms are clever and efficient but when teachers feel this is dispossessing them of their professional judgment, they tend not to trust it
The key, says White, is designing technology that does not alienate key stakeholders but rather works with them, something Chohan agrees with: “It’s not about the wow factor of technology. I mean, of course we use augmented reality and other new tools but actually what we should want is a baseline good experience.”
White, who has been in the edtech sector for over 25 years, says there has been this rhetoric of “we’re at the tipping point because now we have laptops”, then interactive whiteboards, then tablets, then VR or whatever technology is now going to supposedly change everything.
“And then it doesn’t happen because there is too much resistance within the system and the reason I say that is because if you don’t figure out the right relationship between technology and humans – unless you understand the world of the classroom and the world of the school – you can have great technological solutions but if they are not solving real, on-the-ground problems then individual will not be interested,” explains White.
This isn’t to make the assumption that teachers are generally resistant to technological change or even that pragmatism in the classroom is a good thing. White says that companies designing edtech need to know their stakeholders well and, in turn, educators need to suck it up and learn to use new technologies for the good of their pupils.
“I was observing a class in a London school where some of the laptops weren’t charged, some just weren’t working, and the teacher wasted a lot of time troubleshooting before the children could get their work done. I asked the teacher why he didn’t just give up and his answer was: ‘well, it would make it easier for me but these kids are going into a world where technology is commonplace. I have a social responsibility to do this even if it causes me some hassle.’”
It is clear the classroom of the near future will augment the pupil’s learning experience and hopefully prepare them for the jobs of 2030 and beyond but what about the learn-to-code craze? Shouldn’t we be churning out future programmers to become tech entrepreneurs or populate Google and Facebook?
Children should not learn to code just for the sake of it; it is the underlying computational thinking skills alongside "soft" ie social-emotional skills that will stand to them
Marshall, Chohan and White are all pretty clear on this front: children should not learn to code just for the sake of it; it is the underlying computational thinking skills – alongside “soft” ie social-emotional skills that will stand to them.
“My view on coding is pretty simple: all the teachers in my school have a basic understanding of coding. There are some coding courses that are freely available on the iPad that we get all our teachers to do, which is kind of fantastic. They’ve got this base understanding but the bit that we’re really focusing on is computational thinking: logic, sequencing, patterns, these are the things that we really want our children to be able to understand. For me that is where the cognitive development is,” explains Chohan.
“We teach maths to all the children but we don’t expect them all to be accountants. We teach coding and it doesn’t mean that they’re all going to be app developers,” he adds.
“I do think that everyone should get the opportunity to code in primary school,” says Microsoft’s Marshall. “Everyone should be exposed to computational thinking to a reasonable degree, and then some will say ‘this is for me’ and some won’t. The bigger point is the notion of how we will tackle big complex problems in the future; everyone will need these skills because I think that’s the way the world of work is going to go.”