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Why Higher Education Lags Behind - And How It Can Be Fixed

A world that can be brought to a standstill when students, teachers and other knowledge workers are forced to stay at home for a prolonged period, is a world that must learn how to use technology to reduce the dependency of cognitive labor on physical surroundings.

Higher Education is moving in the right direction by using technology to a greater extent, which brings some comfort, but it's not addressing a more fundamental problem, one that requires a different mindset to solve.

Our over-reliance on classrooms to convey knowledge, is a relic of a less developed world and a testament to the long road we still have ahead of us, before we'll reach our goal of an educational system that is accessible, individualized and considerably more productive.

e-Learning is a big step in the right direction

With regards to Higher Education, the last decade or so has seen a transition from teaching on-site in physical classrooms, towards automation and teaching on-line. This has certainly been an improvement and has made teachers much more productive as they spend less time repeating the material. Instead they can now focus their time on attending to individual students, creating more engaging assignments and updating the learning material.

Technological advances have now made the knowledge possessed by teachers almost infinitely more accessible, as some of it can be digitized, transcribed, distributed and searched.

The learning environment in Higher Education has certainly improved, especially in cases where flipped classrooms can be employed, i.e. the combination of on-site and on-line learning.

But it's still somewhat stuck in the paradigms of the Industrial Age, as is apparent upon closer inspection.

  • In addition to classroom lectures, there are now recorded lectures.

  • When not being stuck in classrooms, students are confined to screens.

  • Questions and discussions during class, can now take place over emails and on-line chat.

Furthermore, access to the source of the information is still not freely available and is made scarce by natural constraints on a teacher's time.

In short, we have computerized the process, but we haven't improved it. This a classic mistake.

We haven't yet redefined education within the parameters of the technology around us and I believe that a new approach is needed, that more automation is needed.

The system must also accommodate the needs of the students

The current educational paradigm still relies far too much on the teacher being a "sage on a stage" as opposed to a "guide on the side," as coined by Alison King.

I'm a university teacher myself and I've been supercharged with the latest technology for learning management and recording of lectures, while the students themselves have been somewhat neglected. How have they been supercharged?

Your average young adult has generally benefited from technology and is already accustomed to almost unrestricted access to information and entertainment. Searching online and accessing music, podcasts and audio books while cooking, exercising, commuting or doing anything else where her eyes and hands are otherwise engaged, are all viable options.

But when it comes to education, the options are very different; we still tell students to sit down in front of a teacher or a screen, with eyes forward and listen, while they receive their education and are told how it is.

Opting for classes that are exclusively on-line is no magical solution either since around 85% of those who attend then, don't finish. And in the end, we're still confining the students, they've just transitioned from a physical classroom to a screen.

The flexibility gained, is akin to moving from prison to house-arrest. We'd rather just be free.

Offering digital lectures is a huge improvement to offering only their physical counterpart, don't get me wrong. Technology allows us to be completely submerged in digital content and even interact with it, which brings much needed flexibility to education, allowing students to attend to unexpected personal events, without the risk of falling behind and losing track.

But teachers are obviously just lazy and want to get out of doing their job - especially the one writing this - some people would probably think when reading this. The truth, however, is the contrary.

When us teachers don't have to spend most of our time repeating the syllabus, we can spend more of our time attending to each student's individual needs and requirements. We can also use the time we gain to create more engaging assignments and gather examples of practical applications of the theory. Then we can use the few moments we share with the students more productively, by working together to solve problems, interacting and conversing. In other words, a time well spent.

Most students have a desire for learning and a need for flexibility, and most teachers have a desire to be inspiring and a need for structure and consistency in quality. While the methods of obtaining these goals leave us so misaligned, the classroom will always be fraught with conflicts.

The classroom should never have become a tugging war between people that are essentially working towards the same goal in the first place. But it has, and in this war, everyone is a loser.

So there has to be a better way. There must be.

New opportunities in Devices and Voice Technology

The last few years have seen an enormous increase in the availability of affordable, internet-enabled, smart devices.

Said devices surround us wherever we go; at home we have phones, speakers, displays and smart TVs, at work we can have the same and outdoors we have our watches, headphones and other wearable technology. Even our cars are smart these days, and perpetually on-line.

Additional gains have been made in Voice Technology - i.e. the processing and understanding of spoken natural language - to obscure the boundaries between our daily escapades and the digital world. Voice Assistants such as Alexa, Google Assistant, Siri and DuerOS by Baidu, have quickly become an essential part of many daily routines, whether they're being used to conveniently manage the devices at home, create reminders, play media or perform other tasks that are appropriate for personal assistants.

And we're now seeing more and more sophisticated use-cases for Voice Assistants, which can handle things like shopping online, hailing rides, guiding us to a destination, making appointments, booking hotels and meditate.

The news of Voice Assistants taking over routine tasks just keep on coming and if you have any doubt about where this development is heading, just consider the vast majority of people that a few years back, would only do their banking at the local branch and wouldn't be caught dead doing something that personal, on-line. Sooner or later they conceded to using the browser but at least they would never be so horribly reckless, that they'd consider doing banking on their smartphones. But in the end they did.

I guess you see where this is going ... "Alexa, pay my bills, transfer $50 to Andrew and then read me the news."

Interested in more use-cases for Voice Assistants? Check this out ...

Voice isn't just more convenient, it's also more natural. If we find it strange to talk to a machine, then that's because we've been conditioned to use the console interface where we click buttons and select from drop-down menus, which is far removed from how we choose to interact with each other.

The console interface approach is akin to calling up a friend and hearing "Hi, Laura. Welcome back. Is your reason for contacting me of a Professional, Academic or Social Nature, or perhaps Miscellaneous?" instead of having a natural conversation that might simply start with "Hi, Laura. How's it going?"

Voice Technology that allows us to interface with technology in a more natural way is, in my opinion, a paradigm shifting disruption capable of propelling us forward, as did the adaptation of the personal computer, the internet and later, the smartphone.

Enter the personal Learning Assistant

The future of learning is on-demand, mobile and conversational, meaning that the source of knowledge is always available, regardless of time and place, and allows for exploring the topic and conversing about it - you know, the way we actually learn something from teachers, as opposed to just regurgitating facts.

But the problem of slavish memorization in education is one of scarcity, not lack of ambition.

Imagine if we could replicate each teacher as often as need so there would be one teacher per student. Then we'd be in a much better position to attend to the needs of each students, to have meaningful information exchanges and cover what each of them doesn't understand, and to go through the material at a pace suitable to each individual.

This is essentially Adaptive Learning and is now emerging as a very realistic option due to advances in Machine Learning. And why shouldn't it be. It's already the year 2020.

Combine Adaptive Learning with Voice Technology and you'll witness the creation of something spectacular.

Teachers should be able to replicate themselves as many times as needed and, to the extent the technology allows us, offer individual assistance to each student through a solution that can converse about the material, deliver information in way that fits each person and situation, as well as ask and answer questions, while being always available, on any device.

In that way, learning can be extended to a greater part of our daily lives, such as when going about housework, exercising, commuting or just lying in the grass on a sunny day.

This is why I created Atlas Primer.

Armed only with a laptop or smartphone, a single teacher can now reach thousands by distributing recorded lectures or live-streaming them over the internet. She can also attend to students on the other side of the planet, in person, through video conferencing or chat. But the one-size-fits-all approach leaves many ostracized and that last part, the individual attention, just doesn't scale.

Combine current e-learning solutions with a digital Learning Assistant that caters to your personal needs, and this intriguing new world emerges out of science-fiction, and becomes real.

With the information-delivery part of education taken care of, and the lessons being further instilled through conversations with a digital agent, representing some of the instructor's knowledge, us teachers can now devote more time being productive by creating workshops that are designed to help students further apply the theory and fine-tune their professional-, problem-solving- and social skills. We can also spend more time on enhancing the material, evolving it and ensuring it reflects current events.

Let's not forget that this benefits the students too. With a more humane learning environment we might see them display more interest in the subjects, which is one of the greatest catalysts of learning. Just imagine the flexibility all of this brings to their lives and the subsequent reduction in stress, as has been clearly indicated by the students that are already using solutions like Atlas Primer.

I like to imagine a world where education has become so adaptive that it caters not only to the students' learning preferences, but their circumstances as well. The more we manage to utilize technology in education without if suffering in quality, the less we rely on keeping education within the confines of physical structures, which allows us to integrate education to a much greater extent, into the professional lives of our students. Thereby we'll allow them to experience a much smoother (and sooner) transition from being passive citizens to productive ones. They'll be able to contribute more in their respective fields, first as students but also as productive interns, supercharged with a digital guide on the side that keeps them on track while they're learning.

This approach will also help working professionals transition to become students of different disciplines, as is becoming increasingly necessary due to the increased automation of the workforce, the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution.

I know, it's ironic that the solution to this problem depends on even more automation within Higher Education but, it is how it can reach the necessary scale and levels of efficiency.

The positive effects this approach could have on the economy are considerable and they are further increased by the added feasibility of lifelong learning. People will have more support when increasing their contribution through learning new skills without the need to get into debt, put living on hold for the duration of the course, or slave over it during all their free time and at night, thereby sacrificing health, family time, peace of mind and the interest they might once have had for the subject.

Further benefits, and perhaps more important ones, can be expected by looking towards developing countries and the mobile-first markets, which are so aptly named after the leap they made from having no internet access to having constantly connected smartphones, often bypassing desktop and laptop computers all together.

Current e-learning services for Higher Education have failed to address this sizable part of the population as they mostly depend on a large screen. But a learning assistant designed for smart devices and Voice Technology, has every potential to succeed.

Additionally, many societies suffer because women are unable to attend schools for reasons such as caring for homes, children, parents, or simply because of cultural reasons. They too can benefit immensely from Education Technology and we should also keep them in mind during our efforts.

In conclusion, from my seven years of experience in creating and instructing university courses for technical and non-technical students alike, I'm convinced that combining current Education Technologies with Smart Devices and Voice Technology, is an essential step towards moving Higher Learning from the Industrial Age into the Information Age.

And that is my mission.

Hinrik Jósafat Atlason,

University Lecturer and Founder of Atlas Primer


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