What will the future hold for education?

Larry Stanford Editor

September 5, 2013

One of my favorite genres is science fiction. I like reading some of the older science fiction stories, like those of Jules Verne, and comparing their portrayal of modern day society with the way it really is today. Of course, I also like reading more modern science fiction and its predictions for our future.

While I like novels, I also like short stories, because I can read one or two at a time, stop, and not have to worry about losing the page I was on or wondering what happens next. One of my favorite science fiction short stories deals with kids in school. I don’t remember the name of the story or who wrote it, but it was written back in the 1950’s.

The story starts out with two children sitting at home, watching a video screen as a teacher gives them their lesson for the day on the screen. There are no more school buildings where children gather each day to learn from human teachers. Instead, children stay at home and learn by watching a video screen. The children can talk to each other, to other children also watching the screen, and to the teacher. But the teacher is no longer a human teacher. Instead, it is a robot built specifically to teach children. When the children have homework to do, they type on electronic devices, then send their homework in via the internet.

At any rate, when they get through with their homework, the children go outside, where they run into a friend of theirs who has found something. He shows it to them and says he found it in an abandoned building a few blocks away. The object is rectangular, about an inch thick, with a hard front and back. When they open it, they find thin sheets of some kind of substance inside, and discover they can recognize words on some of the sheets. Their friend tells them he asked his grandfather what the object was, and his grandfather told him it was a book, and that the world used to be filled with books on all kinds of subjects. Their friend is not sure he believes his grandfather and thinks he may be pulling his leg, because why would people need to buy and read books when all they have to do is go on the internet to look up whatever they need?

When I first read the story in the 1980’s, I found it amusing fiction. But over the last few years, it seems to becoming more and more realistic. Today you can sign up to take online courses and get a college degree or learn a trade without ever stepping foot on college ground. If you do go to college, a laptop is almost always a required tool these days. And now, school systems are getting into it, allowing students to bring their wi-fi capable phones, tablets and laptops to school to use in class. And if you go online and look up “virtual high schools,” you can find a number of online schools that offer courses to high school students.

Is it still fantasy to think that one day there will be no more brick and glass school buildings? If kids can learn everything they need at home online, why do we need the expense of buildings? Robots as teachers may still be off in the future, as robotics has not kept up in real life as it has in books, but could we build robots that are designed to do nothing else but teach? Of course we could!

As for doing away with paper books, we already have Kindle and other e-readers people can buy and download books on to read. And I imagine it is cheaper to publish a book online than paying for all the printing.

What will the future hold? Your guess is as good as mine, but don’t be surprised if your grandchildren or great-grandchildren laugh at you when you tell them what school used to be like. They’ll never believe you!