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Have you heard the sad tale of Fabio?

Not the romance novel cover model Fabio, but Fabio the robot shop assistant who was fired from his job in a Scottish supermarket for being generally unhelpful and also creeping out the customers. 

Despite possessing the best artificial intelligence his Scottish university researchers could come by, Fabio had a hard time answering basic questions like where one could find the beer. When reassigned to handing out samples of sausages, people went out of their way to avoid him, resulting in 1/6th of rate of sausage distribution as his human counterparts.

The same day I learned about Fabio I also learned about the future of education thanks to a Washington Post article by Vivek Wadhwa, a professor and researcher with more prestige institution affiliations to his CV than one might believe possible. He is officially a very serious person with very important opinions.

After acknowledging the failure of our most recent future of education (MOOCs) to prove revolutionary, Prof. Wadhwa introduces us to the true coming revolution which is a combo platter of “virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and sensors.”

Prof. Wadhwa names his artificially intelligent tutor “Clifford” who does most of the teaching while Rachel, the human “coach” is on hand, ready to act on what Clifford decides should be taught.

Wadhwa’s vision: “Clifford has been with the children for years and understands their strengths and weaknesses. He customizes each class for them. To a child who likes reading books, he teaches mathematics and science in a traditional way, on their tablets. If they struggle with this because they are more visual learners, he asks them to put on their virtual-reality headsets for an excursion, say, to ancient Egypt.”

Astute readers would perhaps pause here, and question Prof. Wadhwa’s understanding of how education works as his mention of “visual learners” invokes the “learning styles” fad which we now know to be a myth,  but we can’t let evidence hold back the future, can we?

Clifford can also read students’ minds and emotions, likely knowing more about the students than they know about themselves: “By using advanced sensors to observe the children’s pupillary size, their eye movements and subtle changes in the tone of their voice, Clifford registers their emotional state and level of understanding of the subject matter. There is no time pressure to complete a lesson, and there are no grades or exams. Yet Clifford can tell the parents how the child is doing whenever they want to know and can advise the human, Rachael, on what to teach.” She can also help students with the “physical side of projects” because she has a physical body, I guess.

If this fantasy doesn’t get you sufficiently excited, there’s an even bigger one coming. It’s not going to cost anything: “Clifford, being software and having come into being in the same way that the free applications on our smartphones have, comes without financial charge.”

Prof. Wadhwa doesn’t put a specific timeline on when we can expect these innovations to arrive, though he does say the status quo is “about to change.”

Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t, but looking at the current state of the innovations Prof. Wadhwa is promising, there appears to be a significant gap between what he proposes is possible and what we can actually do.

Knewton, the personalized learning platform which once promised to be a “robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind and figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, down to the percentile” according to founding CEO Jose Ferreira has recently had to “pivot” because it was based on what is now called a “flawed” idea, by Brian Kibby the man who has replaced Ferreira. 

AltSchool, once the darling of Silicon Valley personalized learning which promised to combine high touch teaching with cutting edge software has “rebooted,” closing and consolidating itself from seven to four  physical schools and now selling its software directly to public schools at a rate far below its initial plans, because in the words of ed tech consultant Doug Levin, their initial vision of charging $750 to $1000 per student was “farcical.” 

How about the fact that there is no evidence software driven personalized learning works as anything other than a digital Skinner Box (in the words of Peter Greene) training students to satisfy the demands of the digital maze. Whatever salience it has in the current conversation is almost entirely dependent on marketing divorced from reality.

As for the pupil reading sensors, when Apple’s face ID is hardly foolproof, how long will it take to develop technology which can reliably read our feelings and emotions? 

The idea that VR headsets, no matter how much cheaper they get could somehow transform learning because students will be able to see a pyramid being constructed in three dimensions is…I don’t know, naïve if I’m being nice, laughable to be more accurate. I’ll need to hear a more convincing argument for how holograms will be transformative in education before I buy into the hype.

Our history is littered with technology which has never come to pass.

Where’s my hoverboard? Where’s my flying car? Never mind the unasked and unanswered questions about surveillance and privacy which attach to Wadhwa’s scenario, the technology itself is a pipe dream.

Fabio the robot can’t manage to point people to the cheese without screwing up and yet this fantasy of a seamless integration of artificial intelligence and human learning is around the corner?

It’s getting harder and harder to take these serious people seriously.



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