CES: The Future of Education and the Great Gulf That Exists Between Now and Then

Education is a mess



John Shane


The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held virtually January 14-17, 2021 offered several futuristic sessions on education. The key message was that the global pandemic has quickened what is an inevitable adoption of technology in primary though to higher education. While the pandemic thrust a billion or more students into remote learning overnight—and there have been (and continue to be) significant struggles—speakers were convinced that some of the technology adopted during the pandemic will “stick” post-pandemic and will continue to be improved upon. Just like how it’s expected that many office workers who turned to working from home during the pandemic will likely stay at home post-pandemic, similarly, remote learning will see a significant boost post-pandemic vs. pre-pandemic.


However, speakers were clear that, for online learning to be truly as effective as in-person learning, new methods, tools, and technologies are needed.


Some of the main themes from the show were:

  • Use of voice command/recognition in leu of typing to set schedules, find information, call and talk to teachers or students, translate from different languages as well as other various utilities. Discussion involved the fact that an estimated 4.2 billion devices are currently in use globally that already incorporate voice. Perhaps the most obvious are Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant, and Apple’s Siri. Other devices, such as cars, also use voice instead of touch to perform tasks. Voice can be used to communicate with people of different languages or remove accents that may be a barrier to understanding.
  • Using augmented reality and virtual reality technology for a multitude of tasks from remote classroom to participation in historical events to chemistry labs. Advantages are accessibility, emersion in the topic, and learning by doing if in-person teaching is impossible or impractical. An example may be historical events that cannot be re-experienced firsthand. They can be recreated in virtual reality that can bring life to an event that words alone may not.
  • New online tools are expected that were described as a 3D version of Zoom where everyone feels as though they are all together despite being all remote. Instead of having a camera on, participants take selfies from several angles and the tool creates a 3D VR version of participants to plant inside the event. Think about a vastly more sophisticated Jedi Council. Attendees use VR headsets to participate in the event, which may be an instructional classroom, study group, or any such gathering virtually.
  • A bit closer to today’s issues, there were discussions of new remote meeting tools that are designed around the needs of educators and students. Comments were made that Zoom is a tool designed largely for business and was not designed for the needs of teachers and student participation. New tools should allow for break-out groups, one-on-one help, or different tables. Student engagement would not rely on whether a student is staring right at the camera, but other activities and movements as the classroom progresses. Tools also need to allow students to set up their own study groups. These tools would be available on all platforms that are used by students, including older operating systems.


To me, it became clear that there exists a great gulf between where we are now and the visions of the future that the speakers described.  There was one estimate that 20% of students will remain on remote learning even after the pandemic is done. But now during the pandemic, many more are online and struggling. Not mentioned was availability and access to high-speed internet. Even in developed countries like the US, one estimate is that 15% of US households lack high-speed internet. And what kind of speeds will be needed to participate in a virtual reality classroom?


Today, students and teachers are struggling with technology that it appears few know how to use. Even activities like submitting homework can be a struggle.


I have seen that education appears to have no standardized way for students to submit work. Every teacher appears to have his or her own way, which drives my kids crazy trying to remember how each teacher wants it done. For one still in High School, some teachers want PDFs emailed. Others want PDFs submitted through “Schoolology” that frequently fails to deliver. Others want the native file format such as MS Word submitted instead of a PDF. It can drive a student crazy.


My daughter is a freshman in college. Professors all want course works submitted differently. She screened shared with one professor as the professor watched my daughter attempt to send the assignment file the way the teacher wanted it sent. They tried it three times with the professor watching on screen and it did not arrive. The professor just gave up and gave my daughter a zero on the assignment because the teacher’s system wasn’t working. A new Lenovo WIN10 ThinkPad is not obscure technology.  


One ancient history professor had assigned each of 50 students to interview a veteran for two to three hours. He would only accept those interviews on multiple Audio CDs! Not one of the 50 college students in the class had an optical drive burner. They went out at least five years ago. Eventually, the professor was convinced to allow the files to be sent digitally but he initially would only accept them in WMA (Windows Media audio) format. The Apple users in the class had to scream that Apple does not support WMA format. Eventually the professor relented and would accept MP3 but AAC was still a step too far into the 21st century.


Today, education is a mess.


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