Thursday, May 30, 2024

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Conference in Trondheim opened with a blast! A young brass band, confident and accomplished wakened us all up, followed by a primary school choir, not stuffed into school uniforms treated like recruits into the army cade core, but natural, willing and confident – it made the heart soar. They gave it their all, as did we in the audience – with thunderous applause. Their faces at hearing adults appreciate them was one of pure innocent wonder., as it should be. This is, after all, what education should be about, growing young people into being confident, autonomous people and giving them the knowledge and skills to thrive.

The Director of Education was up next and talked about the difficulties of having a National Policy and implementing such a policy, as like good teaching, it can’t be too didactic and lecturing and must have a tension between what is directed and what is devolved out to regions and schools. It was a balanced and honest talk, so unlike the hectoring we get from our own politicians and Civil Servants. He did, however, have a title for his talk which irked me – ‘There is no magic in the machine’. 

I understood his talk, in Norwegian, because the magic in the machine (smartphone) was translating his talk in real time. I understood the text on his slides as I was using Google Lens. Both of these, for me, are real but magical. Indeed, my whole keynote was about how technology has now become quite magical. I even had a slide saying as much, showing Arthur Clarke and his quote “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

My turn next and with 1200 Norwegian teachers in front of me, like the kids, I praised than, as having seen their output the kids, they must be doing something right – and I meant it. Norwegians are relaxed, open folk who relish the fact that they live in a wild and mountainous country, so I cracked a joke about we Scots getting the Norwegian Vikings, while the English got the Swedish and Danish Vikings – adding that we got the real Vikings – they gave me a round of applause! Then added that my mother never called my three sisters and I ‘children’ or ‘kids’, always ‘bairns’ – the Norse word for children. I feel at home here and we Scots may be as close to their culture as England.

Anyway, I started with some avatar stuff, my Digital-Don with all of my writing in a chatbot, then OpenAIs recent magical release of ChatGPT4o being a maths teacher heling solve a linear equation, which it did in voiced dialogue. This was followed by another example showing the same software’s ability to teach trigonometry, this time recognising things drawn by the learner. Finally, I showed Google’s Project Astra, where the context is understood from just using a smartphone to recognise what is in the room, including objects, even interpreting code it is shown on a student’s screen. 

My point was that real teaching, or at least teaching support, is here NOW.  For the first time in the history of our species, a teacher can teach that most difficult subjects to teach and learn, maths, using what real teachers use in classrooms – voice, dialogue, structured feedback based on learner’s output. The difference is that it can teach any subject anytime, at any level, anywhere in almost any language. It is a UNIVERSAL TEACHER, something I’ve written about in my latest book ‘AI for Learning’. Learners will use it, parents will use it, teachers should be using it. The rest of my talk was about the affordances of this new AI tech, its engagement, the interface which is now speech, real dialogue and multimodal. I also showed real examples of learner support, learner deliver case studies, even its role in wellbeing. This is the real deal. 

Honestly, this was a great audience, none of that uptight, uniformed, boot-camp conformity, none of that lazy scepticism. They don’t have school uniforms, less crowded curriculum, have an enlightened set of routes out of schools, with a good, well-funded, vocational system.

I travel to a lot of countries and get to meet a lot of great people working in education and workplace learning. Travel, I think, does broaden the mind, and in this one respect, shows how others educate and train their young people. Sure others have their problems, like us, but they often have a more sophisticated view of schooling; not cramming them into uniforms, making them follow lines around the school in silence, an overcrowded curriculum, Sisyphean levels of administration for teachers, obsession with examinations and a brutal demand for conformity. Out and about every single young person I met as servers in bars and restaurants, in the hotel were confident, fluid in English and seemed happy at work. We seem to be trapped in some shadowing of public-schools nightmare, where neither teachers, politicians, learners nor parents are happy – it’s all so fraught. Harry Potter be damned.

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