EduTech Australia; where 6,638 people try to make sense of a generation of online learners who voted an artificial intelligence called Jill “Most Valuable Teaching Assistant”.
In an era where social interactions for hundreds of millions have been transformed by smart phones and social media, Prof. Susan Greenfield unpacked the idea of brain plasticity where our environments literally change our minds. If you haven’t heard Professor Susan Greenfield speak before, it’s worth a quick google and investing 20 minutes into a YouTube review of her ‘Mind Change’ talk.

Prof. Greenfield’s research proposes that “Digital Snacking” on Facebook posts and other social media (the cognitive equivalent of fast food eating), conditions the brain to both crave more of the same (the dopamine response), but also to set up for shorter attention spans with associated increased risk taking and diminished cognitive analysis and ability for abstract thought.

That’s all well and good for how we spend our personal time. But if we take Professor Greenfield’s thesis a step further, could it be plausible that if educational content is reduced to snacks and learning technology reduced to simple social interactions such as “like’s”, then could we be conditioning a generation of learners for a limited range of cognitive abilities and denying them the ability to develop essential interpersonal skills to today’s workplace?

On the workforce readiness side of the equation, David Thodey, Chair of the Board for CSIRO advocated for careers in STEM and gave a passionate call to embrace a culture of innovation. He captured a reality many of us now live and breathe daily when he commented, “work is not what it used to be”. Many workplaces now involve distributed virtual teams working via online meetings and real-time collaboration on documents and with new social contracts between employers and workers. Reports like Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 give evidence and insight to today’s working environments which demand skills from graduates, less related to knowledge and more to graduate attributes around problem solving, teamwork and critical thinking.

So let’s cut to it…
Simple social technology or learning tools may = “awesome”…
but without intentional academic design and supportive pedagogical tools
“awesome” technology may not = positive learning outcomes.

How should we respond as an industry? For starters, I’d suggest that as technology options increase, our professional communities of teaching and learning leaders are more critical than ever. Creating learning opportunities to challenge the mind to tackle new problems in social contexts requires intentional design of learning experiences which are actively curated.

With that in mind, here are a handful of gems from this year’s Edutech conference demonstrating academic innovation that seems likely to prepare students for the kinds of working environments Deloitte have described and apply new technologies in constructive ways:

Brian O’Dwyer’s case study (slash infomercial) on team based learning methods used at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University featured pre-class individual comprehension surveys and in-class team challenges targeted at some of the harder-to-grasp concepts revealed by the surveys.

Avi Galil’s Masters Program in Computer Science run as a series of MOOC-style courses (costing less than $7,000) not only demonstrated a viable business model for scalable online learning but also novel use of technology to free up human tutor time. Their teaching assistant Jill was voted by students as one of the top TA’s. She was AI based on IBM’s Watson platform and coded by Georgia Tech students.

The exhibition floor was buzzing with school children and their teachers engaged in activities with 3D printers, maker spaces and robots which children can command via simple coding. Creel Price’s Club Kidpreneur program in schools inspires children to explore entrepreneurship with a national competition supported by a 12 module resource mapped to National Curriculum across multiple subject areas.

I’d love to be a kid at a school which these kinds of kinesthetic learning opportunities. But more importantly, as an employer, I’d love to welcome people into our team who have learned through these kinds of simulated and discovery-based experiences and bring with them confident problem solving kills, strong interpersonal capabilities and an ability to apply a range of digital literacies in modern team-based environments.

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