How Digital Will Change Schools?

Digital learning is all the craze in schooling now, especially in the Western countries. It seems at times that going digital promises to fix all the challenges and problems in schools these days. The picture is, of course, not that simple.

The first truth about digital is that digital alone is absolutely nothing.

A book read from an iPad is still a book. And often, using old media in a new platform gives a worse user experience than using the old media itself. A printed book, after all, is still one of the best user interfaces for distributing information.

In digital, I believe the old adage is true: content is king. If the content is not of high quality and well adapted to the platform in use, learning results will more likely suffer than benefit from adopting digital tools. This has, in fact, been what many schools have found out after pouring millions into digital infrastructure.

A tablet or a mobile phone alone does nothing. In the worst case, the digital tool will even contain distractions that will draw attention away from learning. Hence, plummeting learning results.

The second truth about digital, the one fueling all the craze, is that once a digital tool is used well, it can boost our activities in ways previously thought impossible.

Email, with all of its shortcomings, is a massive improvement over penning letters. Digital imaging enables us to do in seconds what used to take graphic artists hours, days or even weeks. Music, video, desktop publishing and countless other fields have benefited massively from adopting digital tools. And so may schools, if they do it right.

There are a few guidelines that I think are critical for successful implementation of digital tools in schools.

First, school districts, schools and individual teachers should direct resources for content curation. It is critical to understand and differentiate high quality material, whether it’s online content, MOOCs or learning games.

Second, this curated material should be made available to teachers as widely as possible. (To be of some help, I compiled a while ago a list of what I think are the best learning games out there.)

Third, teachers should be aware of when to use digital tools and when to stick to the good old pen and paper. Sometimes using the chalkboard is more interactive than using a smartboard. And, as I already said, often a book beats an e-book just because you can leaf through it, fold dog ears and scribble in the margin. Try doing that to your iPad.

Lastly, teachers should also make sure to eliminate as much of the distractions online tools offer. While I’m not a big fan of content blocking, in a big classroom this probably does mean turning on the parental controls on the tools available to kids.

Also, trust is key: telling kids it’s ok to use their phones as long as they use them to study might work if you have a good relationship with your class. But I would be very careful with allowing non-study related online or mobile activities in the classroom. (That being said, there have been teachers successfully leveraging even Angry Birds in teaching, say, maths. So if that’s your thing, go for it.)

Digital tools are not a magic wand that will transform learning straight out of the box. But like so many other technologies, they do offer a lot of ways to make learning more fun and engaging – if they are used right. As with any tool, using digital in the right way in the classroom requires time to understand how it works – and how to get the best mileage for your and your classrooms’ needs.

When digital tools are used in the proper context and with the kinds of emphases that I have described above, I do believe they can have a huge positive impact on schools. But this is only if digital learning is done under the supervision of a capable teacher.

In this way, I think that the digital revolution, when done properly, will make the teacher’s role even more crucial than it used to be to generate truly engaging learning experiences.

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Why Lightneer Exists?

The question that eventually led to the founding of Lightneer was: what if we could really leverage games for learning? And not just any games. What if we could bring together some of the best game designers in the world to create real learning experiences?

After having studied these questions for almost five years, we started the company, with a mission nothing short of ambitious. Could we make learning games that are as loved and as widely adopted as the best games out there, like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga?

Our goal is simple.

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People play on average over two hours of mobile games every day. Could we take a chunk of those two hours and direct it to something that is as much fun – but where you also learn things, ranging from particle physics to biology, from history to new languages?

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We want to be the missing link that creates in an informal setting connections to topics that might otherwise not appeal to people in formal education. People young and old may explore freely things like the periodic table by playing a Lightneer game. Not because they want to learn physics, but because it’s just a really fun game to play.

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Then, when they first encounter these typically complex topics in a formal setting, like a classroom, they will instantly recognize concepts that are already familiar. Instead of feeling intimidated by the complexity, the players of our games will feel excited by it. After all, a physics teacher can explain so much more about what goes on in the life of atoms.

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We see our games as taking some of that space that is now occupied by casual games, social media and other digital pastimes and offering something that is as much fun, but that introduces and helps stealth learn an abundance of ideas and concepts that can then be further deepened in formal learning. This is why we don’t see our games as teaching tools – but rather as ways to have fun in a whole new way.

Because learning doesn’t need to be funified. Learning, when it happens, is one of the most amazing things we can experience as human beings. Learning is fun.

It is this new kind of fun we want to bring to the world, starting with the launch of our first game, the particle physics game BIG BANG LEGENDS in January 2017.

What Will Schools Teach in 2040?

I gave a talk last week at Suomi-Areena, the annual event collecting Finnish decision makers to discuss work, learning and the future among other topics. Our session consisted of seven talks on the future of work and learning that were commented by the members of the Finnish parliament, as well as our former President Tarja Halonen.

We had been tasked to sketch visions of what Finland will look like in 2040. The futurists and researchers such as Risto Linturi and the creator of “pulled oats”, Maija Itkonen, argued that in the future, work will be more entrepreneurial, and that robots will make many present day jobs obsolete.

My thesis was about the future of Finnish schools. I argued that in 2040 it is possible schools will no longer teach siloed subjects or even many skills like languages. At the present pace of technological acceleration, it is likely that information will be instantaneously available through augmented reality hardware, and that many skills will be supported or even replaced by machine learning solutions and artificial intelligence.

Already, Waverly Labs is developing a real time audio language translator in the spirit of Star Trek. Google Translate’s camera translator flips written language like sign posts and menus in augmented reality. (We just played with the Chinese camera translator at the office; it’s like living in a science fiction movie.) In 2040 our everyday lives will be overlaid by a seamless digital augmented reality, not unlike what many are currently experiencing with the popular new game Pokémon Go.

As President Halonen argued in her closing remarks, availability of raw information does not preclude the school’s role in helping students understand, for example, historical events. Information alone does not lead to understanding, if people don’t know the context behind the information. However, in 2040 instead of rote learning about historical events, students will make virtual reality journeys to experience them themselves. Google already offers virtual travel for schools, and this technology will no doubt become part of our everyday experience in the next 25 years.

In a paradoxical way, I think the role of the teacher will in fact be emphasized in the future. As access to information grows faster and more ubiquitous, the more important a role will human connection and human understanding play.

In order to get ready for this world of the future of learning, we must move from siloed subjects to phenomenon based learning, from teaching to coaching and supporting learning, and make sure our students will have access to the relevant new learning technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality. In Finland, all of this is already being implemented in the new curriculum rolled out this fall, which makes me all the more proud about our amazing educational system.

We are facing a whole new world of learning and understanding, where, if we take the right steps, these developments will release a massive amount of cognitive capacity to direct towards, for example, literature and art, as was pointed out by MP Merja Mäkisalo-Ropponen. This is where the role of the school and teachers are crucial.

When technology replaces processes that are difficult for humans – as it has done for centuries – new resources are freed up. Thus the most important thing to teach in 2040 is how to evaluate thinking itself.

This is why I believe in 2040 schools will teach children primaly how to wonder.

Bridging the Attention Gap

Schools have an increasing challenge in keeping up students’ attention. While Finland scores at the top of pretty much any education evaluation, even in Finland we have pretty big challenges for schoolwork.

In a recent research it was found out that 25% of Finnish elementary schoolers suffer from bore-out, whereas one half of them have lost the sense of meaning for schoolwork. In other words, full half of Finnish schoolkids have no idea of why they need to go to school.

The reason why the current generations have hard time focusing in school is simple: the rest of our lives has become too much fun. We have evolved to a state where we are, from the point of view of the old world, too good at entertaining.

When my generation went to school, forms of entertainment were dramatically scarcer than those of today. Books, comics, movies, TV, outdoor games, indoor games. And pretty much all entertainment required some degree of effort to reach. You had to set up a game. TV shows would air at a given time and if you weren’t by the TV set then, too bad for you. In my childhood in the 80’s, many didn’t even have VCR’s.

With the onslaught of mobile technologies, the situation has changed dramatically. Now, entertainment is abundant in the form of games, social media, Netflix and whatever you can dig up in the wonderland that is internet. A practical abundance of entertainment is available in every pocket, and to top it all off, it’s fast to access and infinitely customizable. In other words, entertainment tailored precisely to your tastes, the very moment you want it.

The world has become too much fun for people to endure boredom. I am not at all certain this is a good thing. There are a great many situations where coping with boredom is an important skill. But whether it’s a good thing or bad, it’s a thing that I believe is practically unavoidable. The role of parents in setting reasonable limits to mobile device use is critical to learn to moderate one’s use of entertainment. But pretty much the only strategy that would guarantee for our kids to learn to put up with boredom would be to outlaw smartphones for anybody under age 18. And I truly hope nobody takes this suggestion seriously.

This evolution of entertainment and it’s effects on our attention has created a widening attention gap in schools. Life outside school – and even during recess – is replete with fun and games. Schoolwork, in turn, is still often carried out like it was in the 19th century: sitting in rows, listening to a droning monologue.

If we stick to the old world methods, I see no way around the attention gap growing wider. The 45 minutes in class will become an increasingly difficult endeavor to the generations to come, whose life elsewhere consists of customized games and entertainment, an active social e-life through social media and, soon, trips to strange new worlds through virtual reality.

To bridge the attention gap, school too must evolve. I believe schools should acknowledge that they compete constantly for the attention of students with the rest of their everyday lives. Schools must learn to tap into the same toolkit of generating engagement that is available to entertainers.

That is not to say that schools should be about entertainment. But given that engagement is a crucial factor also in learning, schools should turn every stone in how to engage the students – without losing their primary mission to generate learning.

This is not an easy task. But it is a task that has more tools at hand by the day. We should indeed be wary of not jumping into one trendy learning bandwagon like flipped classroom, e-learning or learning games and assume it’ll solve all our problems. In fact, I believe that even with the abundance of technology based learning tools, by far the best way to engage a student is to have an engaged teacher. To evolve schools, we should jump into many new bandwagons: experiment with new ways of engaging learning and fun so that it will draw the students in again and again.

The world is changing faster every day. Much of this change leads to evolution in our lives, from productivity to logistics, from travel to entertainment. To bridge the attention gap, we must acknowledge the changing world, hop onboard and surf along the change towards a better tomorrow.