The icy winds of change

Social networking seems quite good at providing random, but surprisingly serendipitous, information.  Recently, academia.edu told me that someone had searched for a book chapter I co-authored a few years ago (Rudman et al. 2008). It included a paragraph of predictions for the future of elearning, and I began wondering how accurate our predictions were, even after only three years.

At the time, I was thinking some 10 years ahead. In fact, the future has arrived faster than I expected. We predicted two areas of technological development that would impact on learning. The first was the growth of personal, mobile technologies; we described a number of functionalities – communication by audio and text, sharing of media, GPS – and we were on the right path. What we didn’t see was  how effectively these functions would all be joined together in one device (i- and Android- phone) through the “App”. The second prediction was of data storage moving from individual devices to centralised servers (or “clouds”). This is happening too. I have, for example, recently redirected my personal email to a new gmail account, rather than the previous combination of hired server and Outlook, and now have access to email on my mobile too.

With hindsight, I would say that we were correct in our predictions, albeit a little conservative. My work here at the BDRA in creating and evaluating a learning space in the virtual world of Second Life suggests that the future is much more exciting than we had dared hope! We were, in fact, closer with an earlier paper (Vavoula et al. 2007) where we used part of a science fiction story from the 1960s to illustrate the future possibilities for technology-enhanced learning. The story is by Brian Aldiss and was written for a children’s science annual about a world, thirty years in the future, where children learn through guided project work rather than formal education.

The winter of 1963 - suitable year for an Antarctic experience. . . (© Copyright Richard Johnson - see link)

“…It was a simple thing to do. Many of the parts of the miniputer were synthetic bio-chemical units, their ‘controls’ built into Jed’s aural cavity; he ‘switched on’ by simple neural impulse. At once the mighty resources of the machine, equal to the libraries of the world, billowed like a curtain on the fringes of his brain…Its ‘voice’ came into his mind, filling it with relevant words, figures, and pictures. … ‘Of all continents, the Antarctic has been hardest hit by ice.’ As it spoke, it flashed one of its staggeringly vivid pictures into Jed’s mind. Howling through great forests, slicing through grasslands, came cold winds. The landscape grew darker, more barren; snow fell.” (Aldiss, B. 1963)

What we are finding with virtual worlds is that the “user’s” experience is remarkably real, setting in play relevant emotional responses and remaining in memory in many ways as though the experience had been real. Aldriss’s portrait of a virtual trip to Antarctica could be achieved today using virtual world technology.

“Bio-chemical” elements aside, if you were to take today’s virtual worlds back in time to 1963, I venture to suggest that Aldiss would agree we have already achieved his vision.

Paul Rudman, BDRA
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Aldiss, B. (1963) The thing under the glacier. C. Pincher (ed.) Daily Express Science Annual No. 2, Norwich: Beaverbrook Newspapers Ltd.

Rudman, P. D., M. Sharples,  P. Lonsdale, J. Meek (2008). Cross-context learning. in Digital Technologies and the Museum Experience: Handheld guides and other media. L. Tallon and K. Walker. Lanham, MD, Alta Mira Press.

Vavoula, G. N., M. Sharples, P.D. Rudman, P. Lonsdale, J. Meek (2007). Learning Bridges: a role for mobile learning in education. Educational Technology Magazine. New Jersey, Educational Technology Publications, Inc. XLVII: 33-36.

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