Tech Visionary Nicholas Negroponte Talks About the Future of Education

The act of writing a computer program, says the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, allows a child to learn about learning

MIT Media Lab

Nicholas Negroponte is often asked to make predictions. In 1984, at the very first TED conference, the futurist famously predicted CD-ROMs, video teleconferencing, service kiosks, touchscreens and his very own effort to provide computers to children in developing countries.

The architect, computer scientist and investor founded MIT's Media Lab, an institution that combines technology, design and media, in 1985. The lab's mission was, and still is, to promote interdisciplinary research and thinking in arenas from health to urban planning to fashion and beyond. Alumni and faculty have won MacArthur genius grants for socially conscious engineering, composed award-winning operas and been eulogized as artificial intelligence pioneers

Negroponte wrote the bestselling 1995 book Being Digital, a collection of articles from Wired about the history of digital culture and what the rise of technology will mean for our collective future. He has been vocal about internet access being a human right, and in 1995, he launched One Laptop per Child. The project has distributed more than 2 million inexpensive, low-power laptops with wireless broadband to children worldwide.

We talked with Negroponte, who will appear at Smithsonian magazine's "Future is Here" festival this weekend, by email about his vision for the future of technology and education. 

What are some of the most interesting educational technologies you've seen recently?

The most interesting are those that do not teach and do not grade. Instead, they are tools and toys to think with. Mostly, that means making things, following, if I may say, the MIT founding motto: mens et manus [mind and hand]. Such making should not be in total isolation, and for that reason, collaboration tools are key.

One kind of making is writing computer programs. The process of thinking algorithmically with functions and conditionals results in a step-by-step program. Making that program is the closest a child will ever get to thinking about thinking. Upon executing that program, it invariably does not do what you expected and [the child must] start to debug. The debugging process could be as quick as finding a single mistake. More commonly, the child has to iterate, try new code, see new bugs, try corrected code, and so on. Think of it: that is the closest approximation a child will ever have of learning about learning. 

Are there any specific technology toys or games you recommend for children?

Lego Mindstorms [kits to create programmable robots] is by far the highest on my list. 

What has surprised you most about education and technology over the years? 

What surprised me the most was that programming was hijacked for 40 years. We all thought that all kids, rich and poor, everywhere, would be coding by the year 2000. Instead, companies use computer programming as a tool to make applications (read: products) for all of us to use, especially kids. Only recently has this come to light with a rush to put coding in curricula. While better late that never, most of those activities are not about learning learning, but are misguided by the current job market, thinking those kids might be at advantage if they wish to work for Google or Facebook. Get real.

What do you think about discussions of limiting so-called "screen time" for children? 

I am as enthusiastic about limiting screen time as I am limiting piano playing, book reading or traveling the world. We have not seen the beginning of screen technology—immersive, interactive, ubiquitous, reflective, transmissive, transparent, rollable and sold by the gallon. A screen as we know it on an iPhone or iPad is Paleolithic by comparison to what is coming. You will be able to visit Rome to learn about the Romans. So prepare yourself to ask a different question: “Sweetheart, are you spending too much time in Rome?”

Nicholas Negroponte: A 30-year history of the future

How will technology change the role of teachers in coming years? 

The best teacher is a child that did not grow up, one whose experience is how to play with ideas, and guides students accordingly. Design school is a contemporary model for that kind of teaching and learning, built upon practice and critique, trial and error, experiencing a steady stream of ideas, some of which could be as profound as reinventing the wheel.

[As an example of a specific technology], intelligent teddy bears [stuffed toys that use AI to engage in human conversation] could change learning in ages 0 through 5, especially if one believes, as I do, that all children should know at least two languages fluently. Once you know two, you know that each uses words differently, some languages even have words missing. One language could have six or seven words for what the other only has one. Knowing two languages is small but works really well to see things from more than one point of view, which itself is a prerequisite to understanding anything. 

How is the generation of children raised with internet technology different than the generation before? 

The good news is they know they can know what they don’t know with little effort. Generations before lived more within the confines of their basic knowledge.

The bad news is that the ease and speed of knowing, as well as rapid prototyping, has hurt the long hard problems of mankind. Not as many people want to face those. It is more fun to do a silly app or a small startup than solve nuclear fusion or cure Alzheimer’s. 

Smithsonian magazine's "Future is Here" festival will be held April 22-24, 2016, at Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall in Washington, D.C. Exhilarating and visionary, the event will provide an eye-opening look into the near and far future, where science meets science fiction.

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