The future of ed tech is here, it’s just not evenly distributed

Using design fiction to cut through the relentless TEDTalk-like optimism of ed tech marketing

By sava saheli singh and Tim Maughan

People talk about the future of technology in education as though it’s right around the corner, but most of us get to that corner and see it disappearing around the next. This innovation-obsessed cycle continues as we are endlessly dissatisfied with how little difference these promises make to the people implicated in these futures. These products and practices, cloaked in the latest buzzwords and jargon, often trickle down to non-western geographic regions after they’ve been tried and rejected, yet still adopted as the new and advanced “western” methodology that will solve the “problem” of education.

In an attempt to cut through the relentless TED Talk-like optimism of ed tech marketing, this year at the HASTAC conference in Peru we presented a series of fictional case studies. These four design fiction based personas aimed to illustrate the possible impact on society and education, in both positive and negative ways, of not just emerging technologies but also global social and economic trends. They give brief snapshots of the lives of individuals in imagined futures from different geographic, ethnic, economic, and cultural backgrounds, illustrating how each of them might interface and interact with the different technologies.

Case Study 1: Shep

Shep is the 15 year old son of successful Bay Area technology professionals who have become disillusioned with both the US state and private education systems, which they see as not preparing their children for the future they imagine. Instead, Shep is home-schooled and with the guidance of his parents, he is hand-picking online courses from the world’s most exclusive universities and the best reviewed private education providers. Even at his relatively young age, he is mapping out a career as a consumer technology entrepreneur and benefitting from one-to-one augmented reality based mentoring from industry gurus at corporations such as Apple and Google. In fact, because his mother got him into a special mentoring program with an influential Venture Capitalist, he got seed funds to develop a prototype based on his first assignment for his biotech fashion design class. While his parents are being very careful to ensure all bases are covered in terms of basic english, science, and math literacy, most of this is taught through simulations such as running a virtual start-up, in which he has to not only lead product design, but also manage PR and balance the books.

Today, though, his main focus is supervising a team of other teenagers around the world who are working on a collaborative website project. The work they’re doing is far below Shep’s abilities of course, but that’s not the point. This is for the leadership credits Shep needs for his entrepreneurship class. He’s frustrated — some of these kids don’t even speak English all that well. But he has managed to get everyone on the same page, and the site is almost ready to go live. They should be thankful to him that they’re going to get their own credits — without him they’d still be trying to understand each other.

It’s nearly 5pm. He has half an hour before his one-on-one with the CFO of a start-up he’s not even allowed to speak the name of yet. Obviously all this work means Shep doesn’t get to hang out with his friends as much, but that’s a small price to pay for the important connections he’s making through his virtual education.

And sure it’s expensive, but Shep’s parents believe that investing in Shep’s education is investing in their, and America’s, future.

Case study 2: Iona

Iona is 67 and lives in Athens. While continuing socialized medicine in Greece has meant that her life-expectancy is higher than her parents’ generation, European economic shifts in the early decades of the 21st century mean that the state pension that Iona was banking on is no longer sufficient to cover the rising cost of living. As a widowed retiree, she’s now in a state-run, big pharma sponsored, re-education program to allow her to re-enter the workforce.

As a young woman, she was a public sector clerical administrator, but now she can turn her passion for her country’s rich history into a late-life career in the tourism industry.

Today, Iona has her Greek Mythology, Customer Service, and Mandarin classes. But first, she has to upload her sleep data to Pfizer’s research lab, gathered via the multiple sensors on and in her body that collect her heart rate, blood pressure, and other biochemical information. While the data uploads, she watches a sequence of infomercials aimed at her demographic, while the same sensors track her emotional responses and her tablet’s camera monitors her eye movements and facial reactions.

Although her favorite class is mythology, and the reason she picked this course, she has to dedicate most of the morning to her Mandarin class — it’s her weakest skill, but she realises how important it is as the majority of her potential customers will be Chinese industrialists and their families. She’s hoping to specialise in giving highly customised ‘classical experience’ tours, so good language skills are vital. She struggles through getting the right intonation for some of the intermediate conversation lessons, repeating phrases over and over again, until her virtual tutor is satisfied with the result.

The prototype Pfizer food synthesiser in her kitchen pings to tell her that her lunch is ready — a thin broth made from chicken and vegetable molecules customised with vitamins based on the data she uploaded this morning. The synthesiser is new, experimental technology — probably at least 2 years from market — but she’s been given one as part of the program that pays for her education. She winces as she spoons the unappetising soup into her mouth; telling herself that not only is she paying for her classes but that being part of these clinical trials will help the Greek government feed pensioners less well-off than herself.

She enjoys her post-lunch mythology class far more, as most of it is spent in a discussion with her fellow students — she’s popular with her classmates, who are based all across the globe and envy her local knowledge, most of whom are younger and view her as something of a mentor. She likes helping them out — correcting them and showing them examples from her own photo and video libraries — but she’s also aware of devoting too much time to their needs; especially when the native Mandarin speakers talk about moving to Athens on graduation. She doesn’t want to give an advantage to potential business competitors.

Case Study 3: Sun Hee

24 year old Sun Hee still misses her mum who died two years ago while she was away at University in Pyong Yang, studying to be a bioengineer. After graduation, she had no choice but to leave her friends and give up on further studies to go and look after her dad and her kid brother — which stung even more when her dad announced that he was uprooting them to move to the Kaesong Industrial Park — a special economic complex situated in the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, where companies from the south pay wages directly to the North Korean government in return for cheap labor.

Every morning, after her dad leaves to go work on the Hyundai production line building self-driving cars, she makes a pack lunch for her brother and drops him off at the labour camp’s kindergarten. Once back home and safely alone, she checks in on her computer which has been running all night — doing what, she never knows — it’s the price she has to pay to keep the illicit VPN running. You see, Sun Hee still wants to be a bioengineer. In fact she dreams of doing her PhD in nanotechnology at one of the premier universities in Europe or the US. And she knows she can’t do that without the Master’s degree she couldn’t even start. So, she rented out her computer’s processing power in order to circumvent Kaesong’s draconian internet restrictions, and enrolled in an online Master’s program. When she lifts the lid on her laptop, it feels like it’s going to melt. Someone’s been running it at full tilt; maybe it’s mining a crypto-currency or maybe it’s doing something more nefarious — she’s heard rumours from other VPN users that their machines are used for DDoS attacks against corporate, organised crime, or even foreign government targets.

There’s one advantage to living in the Kaesong Industrial Complex, though. Through contacts working in some of the factories here, she’s able to get her hands on some essential equipment fairly cheaply. For example, this Samsung virtual reality headset she’s putting on now would normally cost the equivalent of one month of her dad’s wages, but instead a woman she knows let her have it for a fraction of that. Sure it’s a bit glitchy and probably should have ended up in a landfill somewhere, but it does the job well enough. Plus, as an industry standard piece of kit it’s required for her classes in molecular engineering and DNA sequencing.

After five hours with the the faulty headset strapped to her face, her eyes hurt — but her assignment is coming on great. In fact she thinks she might be close to a major breakthrough — something that’d impress even the admissions committees at Princeton or Oxford. But it’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning now — she can hear her dad coming through the front door, so it’s time to hide the headset under her bed and hand the computer’s processing time back to her unseen educational benefactors.

Case Study 4: Kumar

13 year old Kumar lives in a village in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, quite literally the “middle state” of India. He’s excited because today is the first day of school — somewhere he’s not usually keen to go, but his school was chosen for a pilot educational program that Google and the Indian government has started in different cities and villages around India. It also means he’s going to have stable access to the internet — something he could previously only get at the local Internet cafe, which his parents wouldn’t let him to go to because they were worried that “those places” would be a bad influence. Now, as part of the pilot scheme, Google is not only providing internet via a high altitude, balloon-based mesh network, but also giving Kumar his own cheap android tablet.

Sure, he’ll have some of the same boring lessons and same boring teachers as last year, but he’ll also be learning to code, something even his parents are excited about, having their boy grow up to be a “computer programmer”.

However, by the middle of the first semester, Kumar is less excited about going to school. For a start, he’s tired. He’s had to stay up late every night just to keep up. And today, his first major coding project is due. It’s designing a website in HTML 7. Which actually Kumar hasn’t had a problem understanding at all, but it’s been a collaborative project with kids from Singapore, the US, Denmark, Peru, and Kenya, and all the communication had to be conducted in English. In fact, Kumar spends almost twice as much time on his English lessons as on his coding classes. He’s had to earn English proficiency badges in order to continue in the pilot program. His day starts with an English test which he needs to pass before he can continue with his other work. Not only is the constant testing slowing him down, but he’s also embarrassed to engage with his international teammates who don’t seem to struggle with English as much as he does.

But he’s got it done. He stayed up all night and turned it in on time. And the code looks good. School is a blur, but he makes it through the day and is happy to be heading home to relax for a change. When he gets home, he’s surprised to see his cousin Mohan chatting with his dad. As he washes up for tea, Kumar overhears some of the conversation. Mohan is moving back to the village from Mumbai to work on the family farm, because even in the big city there are just too many computer programmers, and too few jobs.

Image Credits:
Header: By Rudolf Simon [
CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Shep: By Timo Kohlenberg [
CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
Iona: By Craig Cloutier [
CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr
Sun Hee: By Justin De La Ornellas [
CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr
Kumar: By Barabeke [
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0], via Flickr