Throughout history, pandemics have had the secondary effect of accelerating innovation and intellectual progress. With Covid as the trigger, we are forced to imagine entirely different ways to educate our children. And while the situation may require only temporary stopgaps, the solution may prove superior to the status quo.
As school districts continue to evaluate the safety of returning to the classroom, parents nationwide are worrying both about whether it is safe to send kids back to school, and how to support and augment their children’s virtual learning so they won’t fall behind.
One of the big learnings from the remote education needs of 2020 is that virtual learning, quality education, and career-readiness don’t need to be mutually exclusive. The flaw in the curriculums schools initially adapted in response to the pandemic is that they attempt to replicate classroom learning in a remote environment. In order to provide students an equally rich, or even superior educational experience, we need a curriculum designed specifically for virtual learning—utilizing advances in adaptive artificial intelligence to deliver learning experiences that can be customized to student’s diverse learning styles.
This technology already exists. All that’s missing is the vision—and partnerships between private sector technology, education companies, and a progressive school district willing to implement a pilot program.
Launching off Microsoft’s second generation HoloLens, it’s not a far leap to envision a use case for an enriched AI-based virtual learning or homeschooling curriculum. In the relatively near future, parents and students could have a dramatically different experience of education outside of the classroom, with or without a pandemic.
Thinking about these possibilities led our team to explore one possible Future of Education scenario, shared below, which is based on a hypothetical partnership between a technology company such as Microsoft and an education partner such as a traditional textbook publisher.
Michael is in junior high school and is participating in a Virtual Education pilot program, supported by a free subscription to Hands-On Homeschool (HOH), a new product that’s a partnership from Microsoft and a traditional textbook publisher.
The HOH kit contains a brand-new Microsoft HoloLens Education Edition, a welcome guide, and instructions on how to get started. Michael puts on the HoloLens, and as it starts up, a browser window opens on his computer. His account has already been set up and activated by the education partners so that as soon as the headset is switched on, features load and the system is ready for use.
Michael hasn’t yet selected a vocational path, but based on his discovery experiences, combined with learning data imported from Google Classroom, his curriculum has been tailored around computer science and his math content has been designed to support the types of things he’ll need to learn to code.
As Michael begins his Algebra lesson, he is instructed to put on his headset. Next, the system prompts him to pick up an object—he grabs his television remote. Next, he’s instructed to duplicate the object 50 times following a set of steps. After he’s made three copies—and it’s beginning to become tedious—the system points him to a better, faster method. Michael learns how to define a variable and then iterate through a loop to reproduce the remote. He removes the headset and types the code into his computer. He runs the program, and it complies. He’s then instructed to put the headset back on. He re-runs the program in AI and, sure enough, the remote starts duplicating on a loop.
Through this process, Michael has been learning TEK111.40 – Algebra II (c)(7)(G):
(7) Number and algebraic methods. The student applies mathematical processes to simplify and perform operations on expressions and to solve equations. The student is expected to:
(G) Rewrite radical expressions that contain variables to equivalent forms
As Michael looks around and focuses on things in his room, he’s immersed in an AI experience. This is the HOH world-explorer: a way for Michael to better understand the human-built world around him. He can see details about each object, select the item with hand gestures, and “go inside” them. He fixes his gaze on his monitor, and sees virtual bubbles pop-up around it: “What is this?” “Why is it there?” “How was it made?” The bubbles fill. What Is This? describes that it’s a Dell Computer Monitor, Why Is It There? describes what it’s for, and How Was It Made? lists electrical engineering, silicon manufacturing, injection and molding.
Michael focuses on What Is This? and sees that he can zoom in with his hands for more detail. He touches the Dell logo, and sees a shift, Now, he learns that it’s the Dell logo mark which exists to protect their brand, and it was made through a marketing and legal process.
Michael continues around his room and everything comes to life: his water bottle, his Nike shoes, and even his iPhone. He zooms in on the phone and sees circuitry and engineering details. He starts to learn a little about electrical engineering, which sounds interesting. He sees that, under How was it made?, he can add this profession to his learning curriculum. He adds it.
Anne, Michael’s mom, sees a custom curriculum load on his computer screen—lessons in engineering have been added. Some are online videos from the HOH library that focus on the history, math, and science of engineering. Others are traditional reading and writing assignments. And some are interactive and require the headset. The first headset-enabled lesson will require Michael to take apart his computer speakers. Anne confirms the lesson online—a set of tools will arrive tomorrow via FedEx overnight.
As Michael’s education continues in the coming weeks, he starts to gravitate toward programming and computer science, instead of electrical engineering. His educational activities are building a learning graph: a web of understanding about Michael’s interests, how he learns, and how his interests and learning style relate to other learners in the HOH ecosystem.
His curriculum adapts, sometimes automatically, and sometimes driven by explicit exploration from Michael, with direction from his mom, Anne. As Michael gets deeper into programming, he unlocks an assigned mentor, Samantha.
Samantha is a freelance programmer with an HOH teaching certification from Microsoft. She’s paid to work one-on-one with up to ten students for an hour a week, and in a small group for two hours a week. These students are located all over the United States, and have very different backgrounds, but they share a similar style of learning and an interest in a specific subject matter.
Over the course of the semester, Samantha helps Michael program a new interactive game. He also works on collaboration assignments with the other students in his working group. He shares his game with his cohort and they build on his code together. The game starts to grow and evolve.
After nine months, Michael has progressed significantly, not only in his programming group, but also in the other subjects in his 10th grade core curriculum. The HOH world-explorer has learned and adapted along with him—now, when he looks at digital artifacts, he sees snippets of code, product management roadmaps, profiles of other students and practitioners, and future internship opportunities.
One of the opportunities listed is a summer in-person programming camp at the local University, sponsored by Microsoft and taught by top programmers. Although Michael is only fifteen, his HOH credits qualify him to apply. During his next virtual conference with Samantha, they weigh the pros and cons of the program and she coaches him through the application process. He applies…and he gets accepted! He’ll spend his summer break working alongside other students, learning more advanced programming skills, and making friends and future career connections.
By utilizing existing technologies to create a platform for a virtual education curriculum, we can create learning opportunities that leapfrog traditional education experiences. Far from leaving students behind, these hybrid technologies and mix-reality tools propel students forward through exploration and hands-on prep towards future vocations.