A prophecy for educational technology being fulfilled

Tommy Otzen,
Co-Founder of KUBO Robotics

I recently read a phrase in an old book, which seems to be nothing less than a prophecy that has matured and is now in the process of being fulfilled:

Education will become more of a private act, and people with good ideas, different ideas, exciting ideas will no longer be faced with a dilemma where they either have to “sell” their ideas to a conservative bureaucracy or shelve them. They will be able to offer them in an open marketplace directly to consumers. There will be new opportunities for imagination and originality. There might be a renaissance of thinking about education.

The phrase is from the seminal book “MINDSTORMS — Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas”, written by the author Seymour Papert, father of constructionism and an educational thought leader. Papert scribbled down the text I have chosen as a way to frame the aim of this article, which is to give my view on the possibilities and implications of new educational technologies.

The Past of Educational Technology

People with good ideas, different ideas, exciting ideas will no longer be faced with a dilemma where they either have to “sell” their ideas to a conservative bureaucracy or shelve them.

In the book, Seymour Papert also introduces the QWERTY phenomenon, which is a reference to the well-known QWERTY keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard is an irrational relic of the old-fashioned typewriter. According to Papert, there is no rational reason for it to be used in the 21st-century computer, and certainly not in tablets or smartphones. The QWERTY structure was invented to prevent the keys of the typewriter from jamming, which they often did.

The QWERTY Keyboard layout

The reason the QWERTY keyboard has stuck with technology for so long is more due to conservative bureaucracy than rational reasoning. New and more intuitive ways to imagine the keyboard structure have already been suggested; for example, The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, designed by Dr. August Dvorak, has been found to reduce repetitive strain injuries and permit faster rates of typing.

So why do we let old and irrational habits discard technological innovation, which blocks the progress of future generations? My belief is that our culture shapes the way we think and that it sometimes works as an obstacle for harvesting the potential to let educational technology radically improve human learning. I shall return to my view on cultural influence later in this article. But as stated above, people with good, different, and exciting ideas, will no longer be stuck with conservative bureaucracy which leads us to the next paragraph.

The Present State of Educational Technology and its Possibilities

They will be able to offer them (their products) in an open marketplace directly to consumers. There will be new opportunities for imagination and originality.

The reason for labeling Papert’s phrase as a prophecy is due to his envisioning of a future, where inventors can offer their products in an open marketplace directly to consumers. That might seem obvious today, but Papert wrote his seminal book in 1980, which is 36 years ago. Not many people envisioned crowdfunding as a way to influence educational technology back in the 80s. Nevertheless, today this is very much happening.

Here are just a few examples of educational technologies that are crowdfunded:

The Pi-Top — The laptop that teaches
children about computers

According to their blog, the two founders, Jesse, and Ryan created the Pi-Top to “make affordable technology that anyone can use to learn, play and create”. They have successfully funded Pi-Top by aiming straight at their consumers instead of going through traditional and bureaucratic channels, that might not have believed in their vision.

Codie — An educational robot teaching
kids to program

Codie is a robot developed by Adam & Andras. They grew their idea from a Startup Competition. The inventors have built Codie to teach kids about programming, computers, and how computers “think”. They’ve chosen crowdfunding as the way of financing their robot, and they made a successful campaign on Indiegogo.

Besides the two examples given here, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of similar stories of creative people turning good, different, and exciting ideas into real products, which are ending up in classrooms and changing the way children learn.

The Future of Educational Technology and its Implications

There might be a renaissance of thinking about education.

It is evident that Papert was right. We live in a time where people can turn good ideas into reality by offering them in an open marketplace directly to consumers.

But can we do more than this, and what does Renaissance in education imply?

In my view, we can do more than “just” creating new and exciting educational tools. Technology has the potential, in my belief, to influence children’s developmental stages in a positive way. To be honest, this belief is also influenced by the work of Seymour Papert, so I can’t take full credit for such a vision.

Papert also explains how children can become epistemological thinkers if the right tools are available to them. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. When children become epistemological thinkers, they think about thinking or reflect on the way they learn.

Technology makes such processes possible; for example, when children learn to program, the goal doesn’t have to be the achievement of a particular result, but the goal could be for children to learn to debug their programs. In this way, they learn to think about the way they think.

From when a child is born, to the age of 11 years, it will have difficulties thinking in abstractions of a software program. With the use of robots, children can be supported in this achievement. Robots help children turn abstract concepts into concrete experiences, which gives them an opportunity to think about thinking and the way they learn.

Imagine the implication of a robot designed to fit the cognitive stage of a child at the age of 4 years. Could such a robot be created? What potential does it have to influence the stages of a child’s development?

These are some of the questions my team and I have been asking for the last two years. In my upcoming post, I will talk more about our results and how we wish to influence the way we think about thinking.

All I can say, for now, is that we’ve built a robot that is indeed good, different, and exciting, and that we believe will add to the renaissance of thinking about education.

KUBO, who?

If you don’t know who KUBO is, go to www.kubo.education or follow us on Twitter @KUBO_Robot or on Instagram @kubo_robotics to see what we are up to. We are also on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KUBORobot

Image sources, from top: technicalDrawingClass/TheNewOldStock; typewriter/Skitter Photo; QWERTY/wikipedia; crowdfunding-idea/Thrinacia; Pi-Top/startuphook; Codie Robot/Codie. Some rights reserved.

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