EdSurge Fusion: A Reflection


Last month I attended the EdSurge Fusion Conference where the focus for the event was on Personalized Learning. Right off the bat, the presenters acknowledged that we lack a common definition for what Personalized Learning is, what it looks like and what it might mean for the future of education. The idea behind Personalized Learning isn’t new. Since the one room school houses of old, Personalized, Differentiated, Individualized Instruction has been sought after, nostalgically it seems, in response to the success of the factory, one sized fits all model of education. It’s not a new idea, Personalization has just been very hard to do well at scale in the current system.

Personalized Learning represents the perfect intersection of Technology and Education. It is the space where Technology will eventually (finally?) disrupt education as we know it, the way technology has disrupted almost every other sector of our lives because technology has the potential to make Personalization at scale a reality. Essentially, Personalized Learning is the disintermediation of the system of education and, if the big thinkers at EdSurge are right, it will be powered by AI (Artificial Intelligence).

My last few EdSurge events had been vendor heavy and education leadership light, with a scattering of messages about education reform and the startup culture driving change from diverse approaches with technology. This event was different. At Fusion I heard a unified front from vendors, philanthropists and educational leaders alike around the promise of Personalized Learning. AI is going to power Personalized Learning of the future, and big money is being concentrated around this idea to make it a reality.

What learning looks like powered by AI, with Natural Language Processing (think Siri or Alexa for schools) and the world’s information being sucked up by Big Data, one can only guess. And yes, Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant all pretty much suck at accepting spoken commands, but if we’ve learned anything from Moore’s Law over the past 15 years, it is that compute power gets faster and cheaper exponentially. Natural Language Processing and AI will get better and fast. With the big vendors and philanthropists converging on Personalized Learning, educationally relevant Big Data will form a trifecta that will, in the next 5-10 years begin to transform education in a way technology has never been able to do before.

This is not the next overhead projector, or the next interactive white board or even the next 1:1 device. This is technology that will understand the spoken word, search the sea of infinite information available on the Internet and return a relevant answer. Call this vision version 1.0, which we’re already living in, by the way. In version 2.0, AI will add contextual understanding and factual information retrieval will become faster and more accurate. Relevancy will increase and it will seem as though AI knows what information you need before you do. Information will be presented in ever increasingly easily understood interfaces.

Versions 3.0 is where it will get really interesting. When AI starts to provide relevant, real time feedback on student learning. This will be the shift from teaching content to teaching learning strategies. When AI makes this jump, and it will make the jump, learning as we know it will change forever. This is the kind of change brought on by the modern industrial model of school or the cheap information access made possible by the printing press before that. Natural Language Processing + AI + Big Data + ubiquitous Internet access and student devices will make learning truly Personalized: Anywhere, Anytime, with Real Time Feedback, Just-In-Time Context, formatted to fit the needs of each individual student. Think an Iron Man “JARVIS” for every child. Far out there, I know, but not so far out that we can’t begin to see it now.

If you had asked me a month ago how soon I thought we’d see the Vulcan School from Star Trek, I’d have guesstimated 20-30 years. Certainly after my 1st grade graduated high school. But after listening to a bunch of smart people at EdSurge Fusion describe how they are directing their efforts (Time, Money, Political Capitol) on AI powered Personalized Learning, focusing on student centered learning paired with the exponential innovation of the technology revolution, I came away from EdSurge thinking the future is much closer than I imagined.

The education system faces many challenges. Technology has been nipping at the heels of education reform since the Internet was invented, but the convergence of AI and Personalized Learning will challenge the system like never before. Once an AI powered device learns to “teach”, what will become of School?