Education and Skills

Is academia losing its chance to capitalize on technology?

A graduating student waits to cross the street before Commencement Exercises at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., June 7, 2019.

Even with advanced technologies at their fingertips, students have not replaced teachers as the primary source of knowledge. Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Ahmad bin Abdullah Humaid Belhoul Al Falasi
Minister of Education, Ministry of Education of the United Arab Emirates
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This article is part of: Annual Meeting of the New Champions

“Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day,” goes the adage. “Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” The proverb may be an old one, but it still applies today, particularly in the field of education. Traditional teaching methods, which rely on simply divulging information to students, corresponds with the proverbial fish in this situation. Meanwhile, modern approaches to teaching, which bank on advanced and emerging technologies, flip the process on its head, allowing students to go beyond simply receiving information, and actively seek it out themselves.

There’s no debate around the fact that education in many countries around the world has long adhered to a unilateral – I call “monologue” – format, where the teacher holds all of the knowledge and imparts it to their students, who in turn memorise it to pass their annual exams. There were never any guarantees that this knowledge would stick after they’ve moved on to the next school year or, eventually, graduated. Time passed, and technology jolted forward and transformed the way we do just about everything. The teacher is now far from the only source of wisdom, and students have easy access to a wealth of information.

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But can we say that this progress has truly transformed education? Is the sector capitalising adequately on these innovations? Has it reinvented itself and the way it carries out its purpose?

If we were to take a closer look at international education indexes, the answer to the above questions would be “not quite”. Even with advanced technologies at their fingertips, students have not yet replaced their teachers as the primary source of their own knowledge, despite serious attempts from governments, ministries and policymakers around the world to facilitate that transition. Many do speak of “personalised learning”, and tout technology’s role as enabler of this new and improved mode of education. However, on closer inspection, it’s clear that the education these new channels are offering is not personalized – rather they provide what I call “paced learning”.

What this means, essentially, is that technology has succeeded in allowing students to pace the content according to their academic ability – but that content has remained largely the same. Technology is yet to have the same impact on education that it has had on other sectors, such as e-commerce, online entertainment and social media, where sophisticated algorithms allow a website or platform to analyse users’ input and preferences to tailor their experience and optimize it to their liking. There is no academic equivalent to this as of yet; we have yet to see a piece of software that can, on its own, study a student’s capacities, preferences, talents, and learning patterns and build on that data to offer them the content they need to develop their knowledge.

Image: eLearning Infographics

This begs the question: have we truly embraced advanced technologies in the education sector? We have adopted some advancements, yes, but they have so far been somewhat superficial. Tablets for students and online courses are an effective step in the right direction – but these are, at the end of the day, advanced platforms offering the traditional curricula in a different format.

A tailored knowledge journey

For technology to truly reshape education, and finally establish the students themselves as the primary source of knowledge, new formats must be created and designed, first and foremost, for the digital age. New and advanced platforms should send students on a knowledge journey tailored to their capacities and interests; platforms that can study the user as they are using it, to identify their educational needs and propose material for them. Carnegie Learning made great strides in that regard with MATHia, which was named Best Artificial Intelligence Solution at the 2019 EdTech Awards. MATHia is a math learning software that uses artificial intelligence and cognitive science to mirror a human tutor.

Nonetheless, more needs to be done in that direction. Current technology, such as MATHia, can to a great extent replicate a tutor, detect when a student is struggling, and intervene to correct them as they solve a problem. That said, MATHia is exclusively focused on mathematics. What we truly need is a solution that can understand how different students actually learn and deliver the content in the format that best suits them. What we need is for technology to develop, and to understand how different people acquire knowledge and absorb concepts – and then to deliver those concepts based on each student’s individual style of best learning, be that through storytelling and videos, gamification, simple instructions or practice.

A good start … two schoolchildren use an iPad.
A good start … two schoolchildren use an iPad. Image: Unsplash

These technologies, and the many more we hope to see materialize, must go beyond exclusively targeting students while they are still between the school walls. Instead, the goal should be to open the doors wide for them to continue learning, to remain hungry for knowledge, and to invest in their skills long after they have left their classrooms and university lecture halls. Only then can we be confident in saying: we have successfully used technology to serve the human brains, developed a culture of lifelong learning and created a nurturing, enabling environment.

Education, after all, is the catalyst that brought technology into being in the first place. Behind all of these innovations are scientists and engineers who spent years learning and building their knowledge and expertise.

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