ociety typically sees new technology when it looks to the future. New technology is facilitating self-driving cars. Advancements in 3D printing are revolutionizing the organ transplant process. Technological change is behind every advance in modern medicine, every new stroke of genius in modern engineering, and every new mode of communication.
Similarly, technological change is also driving the future of education. In China, a variety of AI startups are revolutionizing the ways students learn everything from basic mathematics to soft-skills like leadership. Microsoft design strategist Margaret Price has noted that AI has helped build a PowerPoint plug-in that can provide subtitles in different languages—a must in a modern classroom that might be filled with young people from across the globe. And start-ups are even reinventing the way we gather information about the way technology is used in the classroom. In the UK, the innovation foundation known as Nesta is offering schools and colleges the opportunity to test new classroom technology for free. Under this program, known as EdTech Innovation Testbed, experts can advise schools on how to best use new technologies, all while gaining valuable insight into how these technologies actually work in the classroom.
However, as MIT professor and AI expert Max Tegmark argues, technology shouldn’t be our new religion. Tegmark explains that rather than assuming more technology is better, we should ask what we want to get out of technology. During a presentation at this year’s WISE Summit, the international conference devoted to discussing innovation in education, Tegmark explained his idea simply: “I want to start with the humans instead,” he said. “What do we want to happen in our education?”
Safeena Husain is just one education innovator answering Tegmark’s question about the future role of technology in education. Husain’s Educate Girls seeks to bring India’s out-of-school girls back into the classroom. Educate Girls operates through a network of volunteers known as Team Balika, named for the Indian word for “girl child.” The Team Balika volunteers are older boys and girls from the local villages in which Husain’s project operates. They talk to families of girls who are out of school and try to convince them to send their daughters back to class.
Husain’s mission is a daunting one. Currently, there are four million girls missing from classrooms in India, one of the largest populations of out-of-school girls in the world. However, technology has made Husain’s mission much easier. All of Educate Girls’ volunteers record their progress in an Educate Girls app. The app contains all the data volunteers need to talk to families about sending their daughters back to school: the survey the organization uses to record the number of girls missing from classrooms, maps of where the surveys should be conducted, and advice on how to best approach families. Through the app, Educate Girls collects data that accurately measures the magnitude of India’s out-of-school population in real time.
However, though technology makes Husain’s mission much easier, it’s not at the heart of what has made her project successful. Educate Girls’ volunteers send girls back to school by working directly with Indian families. It is these conversations, rather than a fancy app, that enables the volunteers to send girls back to school. Further, a lot of Educate Girls’ other strategies are more common sense than high-tech. The organization equips schools with whatever they might need to keep girls in the classroom, whether that be a separate toilet for girls or clean drinking water. Outside of infrastructure, volunteers make sure that classrooms are achieving their primary goal: fostering learning. In regions where parents might not have an education themselves, Educate Girls step in and provide classroom support to make sure girls are actually learning in school.
Across the globe, another pioneering force in education dependent on digital technology finds its roots in interpersonal connection. Larry Rosenstock’s San Diego-based High Tech High was founded with the intention of bringing lesser privileged children into the tech sector; however, the methods Rosenstock uses to get his students into the tech center are less technology dependent. Rosenstock built High Tech High, a network of innovative charter schools, off his ability to work with children. Additional elements of the curriculum critical to student success are also based on interpersonal connection. For example, High Tech High also hosts a graduate school of education whose students are embedded in the schools’ K-12 programs as student teachers. One student from the program said that by being so interwoven in the K-12 classrooms, she was able to apply the material from her classes at the graduate school “the very next day.” This deep connection allows both graduate student teachers and students to work together in the classroom to discover what really helps students learn best.
Courses at Rosenstock’s charter schools also rely heavily on project-based learning, whether the project be building a rocket ship or writing a book. Rosenstock argues that it’s this experience with project-based learning that then gives students the ability to thrive in the tech sector after college. According to him, it is this K-12 experience with learning through projects that gives students early experience creating new knowledge—a skill critical to jobs based on creating new technology. Clearly, Rosenstock’s efforts have been successful. Students at his San Diego-area charter schools are “72% of color, 13% special needs, and 97% college-going.”
Ultimately, though technology is critical to the future of education, advances in the field are still human-based. When we ask ourselves what we want the future of learning to look like, we shouldn’t start with the hottest improvement in AI or the newest classroom technology. Around the world, the most successful education innovators are making education more accessible by thinking of humans first, whether they’re bringing Indian girls back into the classrooms or helping lesser privileged kids make it into the tech sector. Future education innovators would be wise to consider their example and example as well as the thought-provoking question: what do we want to happen in our education?