In the global education domain, there are two predominant questions. The first: Can technology help make the world better by improving education?
Steve Jobs provided the following answer to the above question during an interview in 1996: I used to think that technology could help education… But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.
In 2011, a year after Jobs’ passing, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) came to the scene. New York Times called 2012 ‘the year of the MOOC,’ for the three major MOOC platforms today – Coursera, EdX and Udacity – were all founded in 2012.
Five years later, by the end of 2016, the three major MOOC platforms managed to collectively accumulate 37 millions users, surpassing the total higher education enrolment in China – the largest in the world. This achievement is revolutionary.
Why did the MOOC revolution happen suddenly? The answer lies in the world’s imminent industrial revolution.
The 46th World Economic Forum in Davos in 2016 set its theme as ‘Mastering the Fourth Industrial Revolution,’ while one of the six agendas of the 2017 meeting was similarly on how to respond to Industry 4.0. Such themes and agendas signal the international community’s recognition of the arrival of the new industrial revolution and its great impact to human societies.
Industry 4.0 was triggered by artificial intelligence, robotic technology, the ‘Internet of Things’ and other new technology advancements. Technologies related to the management and analysis of communication, information and data are informatising education and allowing students and learners to learn from teachers of top institutions from around the world. Their homework and examinations can be administered remotely by software applications and teachers on the MOOC platform.
It is under the general background of Industry 4.0 and the continuous advancement of technology that Jobs hoped to see the expected influence of technology on education.
Is the MOOC revolution merely to improve the efficiency of education, so that a teacher’s lessons can reach thousands, or even tens of thousands, of learners? Or is the MOOC revolution here to help reduce inequities in education, so that underserved children in remote places can also learn from top teachers in top urban schools? Let’s take a closer look at the overall impact of Industry 4.0, so that we can better understand how the informatisation of education is impacting education as a whole.
Klaus Schwab, Chairman of the World Economic Forum, believes Industry 4.0 is changing the economic society in a comprehensive way. He argues that advancement in technology is never an isolated phenomenon, for a change in one technology leads to the change of the entire system. Similarly, information technologies in education, such as MOOCs, will change all aspects of education. The changes will affect not only basic education and higher education, but also pre-school education. For example, it is becoming increasingly common for parents to play games with their young children on mobile devices and tablet computers, and use them as preschool teaching tools.
According to the WeChat User Behavior Report published in 2017, a large number of senior citizens have started to socialise and learn on the WeChat platform. Technical advancement had brought about changes in the education value chain. Stakeholders in education – students, teachers, schools, parents, the government, employers and the society as a whole – are all being impacted. In the future, schools will no longer monopolise the provision of education. Commercial enterprises have begun to play the role of education providers. For example, the three major MOOC platforms are operated by business enterprises. The influence of the informatisation of education is all-encompassing. It will necessitate changes in education ideologies, education mindsets, education models, pedagogy, as well as education management. The informatisation of education is not a matter of the education sector alone. It requires the participation and involvement of the entire society.
Should teachers and schools continue to exist?
This leads to the second big question in education, one that was asked by Mark Zuckerberg: Given how advanced personalised learning is today, is there a need for teaching, as a profession, to continue to exist? In other words, will the new education technology disrupt education entirely?
Today, academic courses and learning modules from leading education institutions in the world are readily available as MOOCs. They are well-packaged and come at a low cost. Learning aids in the form of intelligent software applications automatically ‘push’ suitable courses based on the learners’ learning needs and academic levels. On top of that, they measure one’s learning progress and assess one’s understanding of a given topic. In such a world, are teachers still needed? Will traditional education be replaced? Should physical schools continue to exist?
In 2012, American magazine The American Interests predicted that half of the 4,500 universities in the United States would disappear. The prediction of the founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, is even more drastic – he expects to see only ten universities survive the next 50 years. Are these the right projections? Will these predictions become a reality?
Bill Gates once said that we typically overestimate the changes in the next one or two years, but we often underestimate what would happen in ten years. However, as far as the informatisation of education is concerned, it appears to be the opposite. Many believe that not much has changed in traditional secondary education and tertiary education despite significant investments in the informatisation of education in recent years. They feel that MOOCs and other similar tools are merely an improved and online version of PowerPoint slides, and will not have much impact on education as a whole.
Have Thrun and others really overestimated the long-term impact of the informatisation of education? MOOC and other education technologies are becoming more sophisticated. Teaching assistant robots have appeared on MOOC platforms in the US, and even in China. Analytical tools for education, such as big data technology, are also being deployed with ever-increasing data volume and ‘intelligence.’ Are these really not threatening the very existence to traditional schools and the jobs of our schoolteachers? Should schoolteachers today be worrying about their jobs like cabdrivers do? Such a future scenario is not easy to predict.
So, what should we do about all these concerns and predictions?
New York Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman predicted that the digital divide in the digital age will be fast-disappearing. In other words, the gap between the haves and the have-nots in access to knowledge is narrowing. When information can easily be searched and obtained online, knowledge will become highly accessible to anyone who wishes to learn. The biggest divide of the future will instead be the motivational gap, i.e. the gap between individuals’ passions for learning.
In an era when knowledge is readily available, gaps among individuals are manifested through the passion for learning. If one were eager to learn, one would take advantage of the huge reservoir of online knowledge and continually motivate oneself to absorb new information passionately. On the contrary, those who lack the passion for learning would squander away their time playing internet games and browsing social media, neglecting the opportunities for self-enlightenment brought about by new education technologies.
In the new Internet era and the age of Big Data, the most important role of education should not be in skills improvement alone. It should also be in cultivating the passion for learning. Education technologies like MOOC should go beyond facilitating learning to rekindle the passion for learning among learners. In fact, this ought to be the most important objective for education development in the Internet era.
Coming back to Zuckerberg’s question – will teachers become obsolete? Teaching is a profession that requires much wisdom and innovation. If you were merely teaching technology as a technician, you will soon be replaced by technology. However, if you are a motivator who can instil in your students the hunger for knowledge and innovation, igniting the flame in their spirit, you will never have to worry about losing your job.
Teachers are the engineers of the human souls. And teachers and educators should always keep the following saying by Socrates in their minds: ‘Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling
of a vessel.’
PROF WANG YUANFENG
Professor Wang Yuanfeng is a professor and PhD advisor at the School of Civil Engineering of Beijing Jiaotong University. He specialises in structural engineering and sustainable design. He contributes articles regularly to international media and academic journals.