A Brave New World: The new frontiers of technology and education

by Tracey Burns
Project Leader, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD

“I don’t actually have an attention problem. I just take the pill when I need to be sharp”. Legal drugs such as Ritalin, used for treating attention deficit disorder, are increasingly being repurposed by healthy students to feel sharper on exam day.

“Smart drugs” allegedly improve memory and concentration. In addition to Ritalin other drugs are also taken to aid learning, such as modafinil, normally used to treat sleep disorders. University students can rely on them to pull all-nighters during exam weeks. The belief (true or not) that these drugs might boost academic performance has grown along with their availability – both through a marked increase in the number of prescriptions and  through more prevalent online markets where prescriptions are not as carefully scrutinised.

This raises a series of ethical and practical questions for education. Do smart drugs provide some students with an unfair advantage? Should tertiary institutions take a stand on the illegal use of cognitive performance-enhancing drugs? And what about younger users? Reports of teenagers and even pre-teens abusing smart drugs have raised concern about the lack of research on the impacts of these drugs on developing brains.

These questions highlight some of the more challenging aspects of the technological advances sweeping our classrooms and societies. Trends Shaping Education 2016 looks at how technology is transforming our lives – and asks whether education will be able to keep up.

When we think of technology and education, we usually think of information and communication technologies (ICTs). And indeed, ICTs have changed the way we live. Increasingly mobile technologies allow us to buy our groceries, pay our bills, watch films and attend meetings without ever leaving our homes. In fact, we increasingly do many of these things at once: Internet users perform seven activities at any one time on average, up from five just a few years previous and giving rise to worries of decreasing attention spans among today’s youth.

However, technological advances are not exclusive to the Internet. Although it might seem like science fiction, biotechnology is used in medicine to combat disease, in agriculture to produce higher yields and more resistant crops and in the environment to develop cleaner energy. One example of how biotechnology is more integrated in our lives comes from genome sequencing, or the process of revealing the genetic make-up of cells. Once extremely expensive, technological advances have reduced the price exponentially in just a few years. Individuals can now afford to map their genes and identify whether they carry potentially life threatening mutations. Earlier this year scientists from the United Kingdom were given permission to edit the genes of human embryos for research purposes. Will designer babies (and designer students) be part of the future?

The impact of technological trends on education is clear. A great deal of work has already been done to identify how and where education can better use technology in the classroom. And there is interesting new research on emerging opportunities for education and work that could develop from human enhancement and biotechnologies.

In contrast to many trends that are relatively gradual and often linear, the pace of technological development is exponential and its impact much less predictable. One of the most difficult issues will be staying abreast of the evolution of technology and human behaviour: the use of smart drugs is one example. Another is the delicate terrain of human emotion and large online audiences, which has given rise to new risks such as cyber bullying and revenge porn.

In education, schools and teachers are increasingly asked to guide students through the advantages and disadvantages of the virtual world without always having the necessary skills themselves. Difficult questions will evolve as quickly as the technology. For example, how does “textbook learning” interact with the easy answers available at the simple push of a button? Whose voice counts if there is competing information? And what should we do, if anything, about smart drugs and other biotech advances?

The key is adaptability. Worries about decreasing attention spans, digital withdrawal disorder and “fear of missing out” syndrome illustrate the shifting landscape of the future. Advances in biotechnology and smart drugs will continue to raise difficult technical and ethical questions as well as provide new opportunities. All of these issues need to be part of a long-term strategy to help education keep pace with modern society. When Aldous Huxley wrote A Brave New World in 1931 he was worried about the fast paced world of the future. That time has now come, and it is up to us – and our education systems – to make the most of it.

Trends Shaping Education 2016
Students, Computers and Learning: Making the Connection
Trends Shaping Education 2014 Spotlight 5, Infinite Connections: Education and new technologies
Measuring the Digital Economy: A New Perspective
Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)
Photo credit: Scientist examining samples with plants @Shutterstock

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