I recently read this roadmap by Stephen Downes Publisher and Editor of OLDaily Contact North I Contact Nord Research Associate. I met Stephen Downes at the Educa conference in Berlin last year where we both spoke. Here are some of the, for me, highlights in the article. Full article found here.

Constant Change

How do the changes in society affect what goes on in school?  Even if things are changing quickly in some sectors there is a slow pace of society-wide change.  And most of the changes in technology you are expecting are still in front of you. At the same time, this long-term future is the future for your students. While we are still living in a world where ‘fast Internet’ meant we could use both audio and video Skype conferencing, our students will live in a world where ‘fast’ is meaningless – everything will just work. When we teach these students, it’s hard to fight the temptation to teach them for a world that no longer exists. It’s even harder not to teach them for conditions that apply today. The world we are preparing them for, however, is literally a next-generation world. We need to use the technologies of today to teach for the world of tomorrow.

There’s a technical concept in education and the social sciences called ‘affordance’. The idea of an affordance is that it is something you can do with a tool that you couldn’t do without the tool (we say that the tool “affords” this opportunity). The affordances are not just the things that the tool was designed to enable, it also includes the novel uses people come up with in the process of using the tool.


Change is not just the new, it is invariably a combination of the old and new. Change does not simply arrive from nowhere, it emerges as a result of a growing unease with existing practice. History, as Hegel said, is a process of thesis and antithesis clashing and combining to produce a synthesis. New knowledge, as Kuhn said, results from enough unexplained phenomena emerging to challenge normal science and produce a paradigm shift. We are tempted to say “it’s not better just because it’s new,” but we forget that the reason it’s new, the reason it came into existence at all, is because it’s better, if not for you, then at least for someone.

Normal Education

Near the beginning of the Internet era, people like Marc Prensky wrote of the ‘digital native’, people who would grow and act and learn and think differently because of the affordances created by new technology. This, he argues, will force all educators to change. Yet, he notes, “A frequent objection I hear from Digital Immigrant educators is “this approach is great for facts, but it wouldn’t work for ‘my subject.’” Nonsense! He says. We have since learned that sweeping changes predicted by Prensky were not generational but were more social and cultural and depended more on exposure to the new technology than on age. Nor were the changes as sweeping as predicted, and in particular, we’ve learned that multitasking is in many respects a bad idea. And we know that “the messy reality Change is not just the new, it is invariably a combination of the old and new. We are tempted to say “it’s not better just because it’s new,” but we forget that the reason it’s new, the reason it came into existence at all, is because it’s better, if not for you, then at least for someone.

Having said that, it remains true that in the traditional education system, we are still firmly entrenched in the pre-digital age even though researchers and developers continually proclaim this or that paradigm shift. This will not change in the next five years, though there will be (as there has been over the last two decades) proclamations that we are gradually moving toward the edge. We still study in classrooms (whether virtual or off-line), we still study subjects in cohorts or classes, we still employ texts and workbooks, and we still submit assignments and write tests.

My experience is that changes are more dependent on social conditions than generations and that there has not been a paradigm shift in schools. Multitasking is a problem in schools because students believe it is their right to do different tasks simultaneously and that they can master conversations on Facebook during class. Many teachers struggle with this and some leave it up to the students.

People change slowly, and institutions even more so, so ‘normal education’ will still be the norm in five years. But it will be less of a norm than it is today. When we look at the core elements of ‘normal’ education – classrooms, cohorts, textbooks, and assessment – we see the beginnings of change pushing us gradually to that point where ‘normal education’ is no longer viable. Let’s look at each of these four areas.

In time, our synchronous instructional environments will begin to look more like collaborative work environments. The emphasis will be on helping students manage products and create cooperatively. Online conferencing will emphasis dialogue and discussion, rather than presentation. The conferences themselves will be recorded and stored and will be usable by others as learning resources. In the longer run, the learning function being described here will be incorporated into production software used in offices and work environments.

One of the primary tasks of educational institutions is to place cohorts of learners together. The reason a person wants to study at MIT or Yale or Oxford is not only the quality of the instructor or the facilities, it is the quality of the person next to them in class. Look at what MIT does with the Media Lab (watch them work here), or what Stanford does with its innovators’ programs (they share their stories here). Waterloo engineering students work in teams devoted to rocketry or robots or alternate fuels.

This one of the points I think is the most important for schools. If what we offer our students are lectures and textbook quizzes, they might as well stay home and study. We need to offer something worthwhile. Opportunities to learn with students in the classroom and outside the school in a global world. We need to offer our students programs they can only find in schools.


There is still a market for books, though these are more frequently in the form of eBooks. That this is the case shows how little the production of learning resources has changed even two decades into the digital revolution. Supplementing books online are learning resources in the form of course packages, learning objects, audio and video recordings, and other media intended to transmit content from the author to the learner. No matter how you look at it, the revolution in learning resources has not yet occurred.

In the wider Internet, however, a full-blown crisis has emerged. Traditional news media are facing disappearing business models and a crisis in confidence. Online publishers are being challenged and often overtaken by marketing and fake news sites. People are abandoning record stores in favour of streaming media services and cable companies find themselves competing against Hulu and Netflix. It’s hard to imagine the $120 textbook surviving in this media environment whether online or off.

At our school, we are testing the use of Unibok, and my thoughts are that the product is overpriced. It is therefore easy to agree with the assumption that the textbook in any form will survive.


We have traditionally thought of pedagogy as the core of teaching and learning. But in a world where people teach themselves, what are we to make of a concept the core of which is focused on how to teach others? But we can’t go back to the days when our understanding of learning is limited by the conception of a teacher managing the learning of a collection of students in a classroom. The practice, and indeed, the art, of pedagogy, has been replaced by a technology and a science.


The early days of online learning saw the production of digital test and quiz creation software like Hot Potatoes. Version 6 of the software was released in 2013 and its enduring popularity shows that not much has changed in the intervening decades. Instead, technology has been developed to reinforce the existing model through proctoring and identity verification, through plagiarism detection, and through grading support. Teachers and professors have also engaged on ongoing conflict against students who purchase essays, copy answers, or otherwise indulge in academic dishonesty. From the early days of the Internet essay writing services were advertised online and this naturally led to the development of plagiarism detection systems such as TurnItIn, which launched in 1997 (view them here). The capacity of both sides has increased over the years and today students are using intelligent systems that paraphrase essays and institutions are deploying systems that catch them. The conflict here is easy to see: how can we design assessment systems that accurately and honestly measure a student’s achievement? Even more to the point, how can create incentives for honest academic behaviour?

Better, Easier and More Useful

Where we should see the most impact in the short term is that the use of collaboration and communications technology will become better, easier, and therefore, more useful. The technology will become better because of the already-noted improvements in computer technology in general. More powerful computers and greater bandwidth mean that we can share full-screen live video experiences with each other, and are well on the way to being able to share 3D and immersive experiences. The new technology will also increase the computational capacity of collaboration and The software is now used to provide automated counselling and support, student advice, medical information, and travel advice. …the use of collaboration and communications technology will become better, easier, and therefore, more useful. communications systems, giving us a wider array of tools, so we can do things like (for example) draw diagrams in mid-air in a shared augmented reality experience (here’s a video demo). As discussed above, these developments will be incremental, but will arrive very suddenly for individuals when they do arrive.

Our tools will be doing a lot more of the organizing for us. Today, for example, we need to go out and look for friends, or organize ourselves into teams or cohorts. Social automation tools will manage this for us, and will also assembles the tools and resources we need, and configure the space where we interact (or play, or work, or whatever). Social media automation is already a major industry (see top vendors here) but has mostly been used by advertisers and marketers. This degree of control will eventually reach the everyday user. And all this makes it more useful. We will be using digital conferencing and communications technologies for almost everything that is today done in person. The range of things that can’t be done online will shrink as these technologies spread into all aspects of human life. It seems difficult to imagine getting a haircut virtually (or by a bot) but we already live in a world where the technology for remote computer-assisted surgery already exists (see a news report from 2014) and is used.

Performance Support It will take time for pedagogies and delivery systems to adapt to new models of performance support through we will begin to see the beginnings of this in the next few years. We’ll see changes in two major areas: How we find the resources – right now we have to search on Google or YouTube (but not Facebook, where search is terrible). There has been a …expect the major media companies to push back where they can. It will take time for pedagogies and delivery systems to adapt to new models of performance support through we will begin to see the beginnings of this in the next few years.  Lot of discussion about the discoverability of learning resources, which is usually taken to mean discovering them through search. This is one of the major motivations for tagging resources with metadata (as the Smithsonian well knows). For many cases, though, search is not ideal. It takes time. You need to know what you want. There are too many resources to sort. This is why companies want to replace search with content recommendation. So we’ll see more of things like Google Now (here’s how to use it) and YouTube recommendations (which relies on advanced artificial intelligence). We’ll talk more about analytics, recommendations and personalization below.

What kind of resources?

This is the more interesting question. The majority of resource providers continue to support the presentation mode. They see resources – including learning resources – as things people consume, like video or text. This content is useful, no doubt, but bit represents only a small part of the potential of performance support. We can expand from documents to templates to assistive technology to specially designed cloud applications to scaffold performance. It is here we should evaluate the idea that new learning media will include virtual reality, augmented reality, games and gamification, simulations, and related technologies that have been predicted with increasing frequency in the education and consumer technology press. How long have we been reading predictions like this: “technologies such as virtual reality allows students to experience the pyramids of Egypt through virtual reality headsets, from their classrooms?” The question is – after you “experience the Pyramids”, what then? To be effective, these technologies (and here I include games, simulations, virtual and augmented reality as a set) need to be interactive. Unless participants actually do something, they will be no more effective than television. Just as importantly, providers will have to combat the loneliness factor. “The best ‘content’ is other people. When people get together in online games they may fight dragons or shoot lasers — but they are being entertained primarily by the other players.” This is as true in education as The content of the resource is much less important than the willingness to use it. “The best ‘content’ is other people.” in gaming. Finally, what we do in these environments must be real. It must actually matter.

Just as we need to reframe our understanding of learning from content transmission to active learning, we need to reframe our understanding of learning resources from content to consume to tools and materials enable a person to assemble, fabricate and design. When working with resources, the question to ask is not “what did you learn from this” but rather “what can you do with this.” A text isn’t something to read but is rather something to fact-check. A video isn’t something to watch but rather something to edit. It doesn’t matter what it is. The content will matter less and less. Being able to draw from and feed into the galaxy of resources becomes the new literacy, and the tools that support and enable this are the new printing presses.

How do we embody this in our learning and design: “compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience, and a great, soaring passionate intelligence — the clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity.” Who speaks for what our students will want, need and have in the future?

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