“This will revolutionize education”

The YouTube video This Will Revolutionize Education explores education technology, explaining how numerous earlier predictions of technology revolutionizing education have not panned out, and suggests that most current predictions will be wrong as well. (The title is meant to be ironic.) This argument is not new to those who have studied technology in education, worked in the field for long enough, or are thoughtful enough to be appropriately skeptical. The video quotes Thomas Edison from 1922:

“I believe the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

The same quote is in an EducationNext article from 2004, and is likely in many other discussions of the failures of educational technology predictions. In the decades after the Edison quote, radio, television, videodiscs, and computers each took a turn as the ensuing technology that would revolutionize education. None did, and people who are skeptical about the next “next thing” often quote these failed predictions.

Which brings us to a valuable question to be pondering at the start of 2015. Is digital learning going to revolutionize education? Or is digital learning going to be the source of mocking quotes in 2025?

Yogi Berra supposedly said, “It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” With that aphorism in mind, I usually try to avoid predictions. But there is no doubt that as of the start of 2015, several million students in the U.S. are taking advantage of digital learning in ways that are different in substance and/or scale than the previous technology-related efforts. Some of these students are taking online courses, often accessing the course from outside school and working through the material at their own pace. Other students are attending schools such as Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City, which look very different than a traditional school, and are possible only because of digital learning. These courses and schools, which are found in alternative education, charter, and traditional school settings, have changed the educational experience for students in ways that educational TV, radio, videodiscs, and many other previous technologies never did.

Yet there is value in being skeptical for at least two reasons. First, the percentage of students using digital learning in ways that have significantly changed their learning appears to still be quite small. Second, the promise of new technologies and applications that are supposed to “change everything” in the near future is all too often overblown. Many of the end of year lists highlighting technologies to watch in K12 education included, for example, MOOCs and gamification. Each of those may someday revolutionize education, but they won’t in 2015.

Although the skepticism has elements of validity and value, I believe it is exaggerated because it tends to overlook those cases where digital learning has changed the trajectory for a student. Perhaps it hasn’t done so for tens of millions of students yet, but the promise remains that it will.

The key question is—will the benefits of digital learning reach scale? The jury is still out, and we will be watching and reporting, in 2015 and beyond. In the coming weeks we will continue highlighting the Keeping Pace 2014 annual report findings that we haven’t yet discussed on the blog. We also expect to track new laws being passed during the 2015 legislative sessions, and to take a deeper look at the ways digital learning is being used—and often overlooked—in traditional schools.