Thursday, December 01, 2011

Physics of the Future leads to the Learning of the Future

NPR Story - Text + Audio
Dr. Michio Kaku opened up DevLearn this year.  He was outstanding! And yet, I kept hearing feedback like this, "I LOVED Dr. Kaku, but it was strange to hear the people around me whispering that it doesn't have anything to do with eLearning".  I want to know who these people are that didn't enjoy what Dr. Kaku had to say.  I want to understand.  If our eLearning is about technology being used to deliver learning experiences then why wouldn't a look at the future of technology be interesting to some people?  That confuses me, but doesn't surprise me.

eLearning Follows Technology
I've often said that our industry is a lagging indicator.  Some economist once used that term and to an economist I'm probably butchering the term.  However, I use it to simply mean that we don't invent new technologies.  That's NOT our job.  Our job as designers/developers of learning experiences is to understand the current technologies available to us and our users.  For example, some organizations are still developing strategies for mobile learning solutions with FLASH.  Oops.

Its our job to understand the CONTEXT of our learners work environment FIRST.  That includes a complete assessment of the current technology available to our learners.  One of my pet peeves is Sharepoint bashing.  Yet in MANY organizations that's all they have and its as close to a "social media" platform that they'll ever see.  Some eLearning pundits will still speak quite negatively about Sharepoint.  What's the point?  (Pun intended) If that's what you've got to use then why not use it?  Buying ANOTHER system and forcing your users to learn and manage BOTH is not likely to win you any converts to support your learning solution.

Certain technologies never make it into the mainstream consciousness.  Let's take RSS for example.  I'm a big fan for many reasons.  Its such a simple technology that can be used in very innovative ways.  I was talking about it well over 5 years ago and today my guess is that many still don't know or care about what it is.  AND THAT'S OKAY!  RSS, or something like it, will take hold and none of our learners will be the wiser.  They don't care.  And that's okay too.  They don't need to care.  But WE DO!

What Does the Future Hold?
Doesn't that question intrigue us all even a little bit?  At DevLearn, Dr. Kaku made the case for some very radical new technologies coming in 10, 30, 50, and even 100 years.  You can read his book Physics of the Future: How Science will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100 to find out what he talked about.

Even if you only see yourself living for another 50 years, then what he foretold should have at least SOME impact on you.  For example, we are all currently very excited our smart phones.  In essence these devices give us access to a very large percentage of the world's knowledge in the palm of our hands.  Doesn't that blow your mind?  And that's REAL!  That's TODAY!  Not some pipe dream.  So, is it that hard to believe that in 40 or 50 years (or less) we will have the same access to knowledge and information via a contact lens?  If you are one of the people who didn't understand the relevance of Dr. Kaku at an eLearning event then this article is for you.  University of Washington researches have proven that bionic contact lens technology is possible...and safe.

My Fears for our Industry
I cringe at the thought of a powerpoint to contact lens conversion tool.  I know some of you were thinking it.  Let me just remind everyone that with the first mobile devices all we did was squash our elearning "courses" down to fit on the smaller screen.  And we all know that did not work.  We can do so much better.  And many of your colleagues have do a LOT better.  Check out the

I don't care if you didn't like Dr. Kaku, but don't blame me if you're in that organization in 30 years that thinks a "blink now" button will be a good idea to replace the click next button.


pixelgem said...

Hi Brent,

I thought Dr. Kaku's keynote was intensely relevant to eLearning (not to mention user experience). I also saw the article about the bionic contact lens (poor bunny!), and your comment about a "Blink Now" button has me chuckling. It can be daunting to imagine what future technology will be and look like. But I believe that instead of imagining what future technology will be or look like -- which simply takes our existing mental models of how we do things and tries to apply them into the future -- we need to imagine what we may need to DO (or do better), what our GOALS might be, then what technology could potentially fulfill those goals.

It reminds me of a 1964 Seattle Worlds Fair short movie (hilariously lambasted by the folks at Mystery Science Theatre) entitled "Century 21 Calling" – you can view the original here. Here's a money quote (starting at 11:07 on the video): "One day, you may be able to call home and automatically turn off the oven. Or…, turn on your home air conditioner...It may even be possible to call and water the lawn…” You get the idea. Do we do any of those things now with our smartphones? Aside from calling and getting the weather in a far-off city (which I can do on my iPhone with the weather app, without having to actually use the phone to call anything), I believe it was simply very difficult in 1964 to imagine all the things telephone technology might potentially do in the 21st century. It would be difficult now to imagine what technology could do in another 50 years, but when someone comes forward and gives us ideas, we shouldn’t discount those ideas automatically as irrelevant. So I feel your pain…

Now the burning question: If I read Dr. Kaku’s book, should I buy a physical book or buy it on my iPad? Or should I wait to have it projected on my contact lenses?


bschlenker said...

Hi Maureen! Thanks for commenting. I love your points. I agree entirely that the tech decision should not be our first. Too often we have technology in search of a problem to solve. We as an industry of professionals need to think more about how address the needs of the business first and foremost. Then we can start talking tech...if we even need too.

I also think home automation technology already exists today its just not mainstream yet. I can already open my garage door via my iPhone and check the stats on my electrical meter. My water sprinkler system is programmable via a .02 cent chip and my alarm system can be turned on an off via the phone connection to the central station. I've seen very fancy full home automation systems but they are pricey. But its definitely not science fiction.

My point is that while the exact technology may be a little different in the final solution, its the idea and the possibility of dreaming it first that then makes it a reality. The fact that we have SO much access to SO much information in our smart phones SHOULD be changing how we think about learning, education, and training. And yet its been a very slow cumbersome, scary change moving forward.
So much of what my kids are being taught in school is now pointless because of always on connectivity to information. Its sad to think that we can't imagine anything better for our learners with all the wonderful tech that exists today...not to mention what is right around the corner.

Philip Hutchison said...

I didn't attend DevLearn this year, but in previous years, most of the attendees I met were interested in acquiring skills or learning about processes they could immediately implement in their work. Not everyone is interested in cutting-edge technology or theories about tomorrow's technology.

A speaker such as Michio Kaku is very removed from the day-to-day realities of an e-learning developer. Visions of the future can be fun and are certainly interesting, and Kaku is fun to watch on TV, but if I was an attendee looking to find ways to improve my work *today*, I might have been disappointed by a keynote about technology that doesn't exist yet.

Think about it from this perspective: many attendees have to justify the cost and travel time for attending DevLearn, especially if it's hosted in a notorious party town like Las Vegas. Some of my previous bosses would most certainly have said "We can't afford it, and you'll just be gambling the whole time anyway."

Some employees also have to write summaries of the conference and present to their coworkers/management when they return.

A pointy-haired boss might look at the DevLearn marketing/handouts and see that the keynote -- the most visible session, which sets the tone for the entire conference -- is about technology that can't be used anytime soon and doesn't appear to have practical value to the organization.

In this context, the keynote by Kaku would not appear to be pragmatic or worth the thousands of dollars the company spent on the conference. Where's the ROI?

I should note that I personally would have enjoyed Kaku's keynote as I enjoy daydreaming about the future and using technology to find new ways to do things, but I'm just trying to point out how some other people might have been disappointed, especially in the context of their work environment.