Friday, 25 October 2013

Obsolescence and Technology

Once upon a time an ability to cut fire-sized pieces of burnable wood and stack it near the back yard privy was a necessary lifehack: each time someone went outside to make the hole shallower, they brought back some fuel to heat the family dinner.

Everything changes: cookers requiring anything other than an electricity connection are now a matter of choice (and an unusual choice, at that).

While we - according to Benjamin Franklin - can only be certain of death and taxes (1789), technological change should probably be a corollary to that: we can only be certain of death, taxes and new technology up-take.

I think when we humans are shown a better way to do something, we are great adopters. We are switching predators (Schaefer, 2007), selectively adopting and swapping tactics to make for easier prey. This applies equally to technology.

Why should we strive to do things when we can get things done more easily? Talk to any woman who has had to carry water: indoor plumbing was a no brainer. What I am surprised at is that we don't have warm water at the wave of a hand past a photoeye on all taps yet.

But that lag is interesting. We take on technology that is USEFUL. It takes quite a while to learn how to use new tech; and it has a high cost initially. So only a few try, then over time everyone gets on the band wagon. It is only when the extreme margins of the bell curve are in the market that we can consider something endemic. Think Facebook: now your grandmother is on FB, you know it is a normal part of our human environment.

What got me thinking about technology is an article on teaching tools predicted to be obsolete in a few years (Barseghian, 2011). Her obsolescence list included - amongst other things - desks, language labs, computers, homework, standardised testing, using Wikipedia in class, paperbacks, lockers, IT departments and paper.

I agree with the paper, lockers, paperbacks and pretty much nothing else. This is because many of the things mentioned are still useful to us. Most of the things that Tina Barseghian talked about are systems, not delivery mechanisms. In 20 years those systems won't look exactly like they do now, but they won't be unrecognisable, either:
  • Desks. We will still need workstations to gather around, save 'our stuff' at, work on, draw on, display on and put our drinks on.
  • Language labs are apparently translation tools. We will have more sophisticated language labs - and probably only an ap on our hand-held devices; but translation will still be a human need.
  • Computers are here to stay - they are useful ways for us to organise our lives. Check out what Corning thinks we will be doing with computer power in the very near future. Think about Google Glass. I agree that keyboards are likely to go the way of the cathode ray tube, but we will still want computing.
  • Homework will probably be around reading the set texts, and understanding the theory. What happens in classrooms - virtual or flesh - is more likely to be group discussion which informs our understanding and application of theory. However, lecturers may be anywhere in the world, and there may possibly be far fewer of us as a result of MOOCs causing massive education sector disruption.
  • Testing could well become MORE important, not less: and there may be a global organisation which does all the testing to ensure that standards can be relied upon, probably driven by employer demand for consistency.
  • Wikipedia still remains written by anyone, so I get my students to treat such entries as a 'library hub' and go back to the source citations. 
  • Books will still be written, but we will have ebooks or talking books, no longer paperbacks or hardbacks.
  • Lockers don't exist for us now, so I guess they have already gone.
  • IT Departments are likely to become more embedded in other areas of the business, but IT will be an even more critical service as more and more of the organisation's backbone is required to be connected 24/7. Someone needs to organise, co-ordinate and strategise IT; hard to do it with a big picture focus if it is too fragmented. I suspect IT will remain a key area for a long while yet.
  • Paper is gone. I print roughly three documents for my students: a course outline, an assessment outline and a calendar. For the first time this year, all my students had a laptop, tablet or phone to view course materials on. Students are still taking notes, but they are using OneNote or comments boxes instead of taking paper notes.
I think education will remain recognisable for a while yet.


    Check out the update to Corning Glass' video clip: the "A Day Made of Glass 2: Unpacked" where Corning explain what their technology will be able to deliver in the near future, and what is deliverable right now at  

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