I’ve been reading lately about new approaches to teach children science and technology through storytelling via the use of specialized software and portable devices. The most notable effort I’ve come across is Alan Kay’s Viewpoints Research Institute which is integrated with the One Laptop Per Child project. The idea is that through the use of media and the integration of activities in one interface, children can understand complex concepts in science.

Another tool I came across is called Processing. Even though this software is not really targeted for children, it serves the same purpose: teach complex concepts through an intuitive user interface. Maybe in the future it could be tweaked for teaching kids how to write software.

Given the highly sophisticated educational software out there and the web’s ability to find knowledge fast, it’s fair to ask why would a teacher-in-school setting be necessary in educating our children in the future? In fact there are examples, where teachers start being replaced by devices running educational software.

An approach by Microsoft research relies on a multi-point mouse interface and off-the-shelf PC equipment to allow children in developing countries to teach themselves without the need for a teacher.

A start-up company called Knewton uses adaptive algorithms to coach students on standardized tests (e.g., SAT) in a personalized fashion by “understanding” their skill level. In addition, online services like MIT’s OpenCourseWare, teach university-level classes through rich-media content from the comfort of one’s home.

At the same time, the current generation of portable devices (iPad, iPhone, Android tablets) expose simple to use interfaces. Simple enough for children to use on a daily basis. So children could carry them around, meet with their friends and play and learn together. Not only that, but there are already games available that provide alternatives to learning how to read or count.

So, it won’t be long before schools have children carry around portable devices through which they enhance their learning. In fact, some schools have already started doing this.

So the obvious question is: will school teachers be entirely replaced? After all, intelligent portable software and a great user interface provide a powerful interactive storytelling medium that can not only capture the attention of a child, but also convey very sophisticated concepts that a teacher and a blackboard cannot.

On the other hand, after reading “Work Hard, Be Nice”, I see how much power an effective teacher can have in a child’s life. The passion and persistence of the founders of the KIPP schools is hard to replicate using software running on a personal portable device. The teachers made each class a ritual and enforced a “no shortcuts” culture in their schools by confronting students in person. Even unmotivated students responded positively. An iPad can’t do that.

What do you as current or future parents, teachers and educators think on this matter? I’ve created the following poll to pick your brains.

I hope we learned something useful today,

Dr. Techniko