Educators advised to prepare for a tech revolution

In a scene that’s repeated at many other conferences throughout the country, attendees of the National School Boards Association’s Technology + Learning (T+L) Conference in Seattle, Wash., crowded into the main hall Oct. 28 to hear what the keynote speaker had to say. But unlike at other conferences, where the flashing lights and neon colors that educators have come to expect emanate brightly from the stage, the mood was somber—with keynote speaker Paul Saffo asking serious questions about the future of education and the role technology will play.

As attendees and exhibitors sat in their seats, sipping Seattle’s trademark beverage, their eyes focused on the stage: Seattle’s black skyline with hues of purple and blue, clouds massed on the horizon—signaling rain clouds on the way.

“I’m here to talk to you about the technology landscape that lies ahead … and what this implies for education,” said Saffo, an associate professor at Stanford University and technology trend forecaster and strategist. “We live in uncertain times because of the economy, because of the abundance of technology schools could use to better education—and because most schools can’t afford this kind of technology.”

But even clouds have silver linings, and Saffo said the same is true for schools and technology. “You as educators need to look back twice as much as you look ahead,” he said. “Mark Twain once said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but sometimes it rhymes—and that’s the lesson that will help educators through this changing economy.”

According to Saffo, there are some tips educators can use to predict the next big technological innovation that will directly affect the economy.

First, take a look at history: In the 1950s, the key technological innovation was the television—and the media expression of it was broadcasting in the 1960s. In the 1980s, it was the client server that led to the media expression of the World Wide Web of the 1990s. Earlier this decade, peer-to-peer file sharing and online social networks emerged, and perhaps in the next decade, sites like Twitter will be the definitive media expression.

“If you look at these trends, technology makes the medium possible, but the … medium is not ubiquitous until the next big innovation comes along,” explained Saffo. There is a trend of a decade’s difference between the technology and the medium—and most media will not be fully integrated until the next new technology is able to leverage the decade-old medium.

Saffo listed examples, such as an avatar site called Habitat in the 1980s. Even though it was the same concept as we see today in sites such as Second Life—the avatar moved around a virtual world, buying things and being able to talk to people—the right platform just wasn’t there, and it failed.

According to Saffo, it wasn’t until gaming became popular and gaming software improved that people got into virtual worlds. Thanks to new gaming technology, Second Life is now a huge success.

Another example is handheld electronic books. In the 1980s, Franklin Electronic Publishers made a handheld device that stored books. But it wasn’t until the invention of sturdier hardware, newly designed plastic frames, and the switch from print to digital nearly two decades later that Amazon’s Kindle eBook reader was able to take off.

Saffo related the popularity and successful mainstream implementation of technology to an “S”-shaped curve.

At first, educators and technology trend watchers usually overestimate the influence of a new technology on the market. Then, just when educators and tech enthusiasts give up hope and severely lower expectations, the technology is diffused into society.

“I give this piece of advice to educators: Embrace failure,” he said. “It worked for Christopher Columbus. Don’t be afraid. It’s only through failure and unexpected conclusions that progress happens.”

Saffo also provided analysis of some future trends educators should look for: the rise of “superstar” educators, thanks to the ability to blog and post free classes online; the change from the information revolution to the personal media revolution; and the switch from a consumer economy to a creator economy.

“All of these things are important to watch as an educator, because students will have to learn from different types of teachers; use different types of resources, such as Web 2.0 tools; and exist as a citizen in a ‘you-buy-and-you-sell’ economy,” he said. “We have to prepare these kids.”

As attendees pondered these tips and trends, their coffees now finished, Saffo closed by saying: “Don’t be in the valley, be on the mountaintop. Don’t look for what little bits of tech you need just to stay afloat, look around to the past and the present. Be a leader and look out.”