Google Glass Might Pose the Biggest Challenge Public Education Has Seen Since Desegregation


Put aside for the moment that segregation of public schools in the United States is at its highest level since 1968; our country has backslid. During the more than three decades from 1954 (Brown Vs Board of Ed) and 1988 (peak desegregation in the US), achieving racial equality, or at least access to equal resources was arguably a more polarizing issue than immigration, gay marriage, and abortion are today. Currently, standards-based testing, and in particular, the changes that will be effected by the voluntary adoption of the Common Core, is occupying nearly all of the mindspace of educators, administrators, and education policy makers alike. Our obsession with testing will seem trivial, however, when we begin to confront the tectonic shift in paradigm that will be inspired by Google Glass.

I have argued before that all of the edtech we have seen in the last decade, cool as it is, has not significantly impacted how well we educate our youth. Few technologies, even expertly applied, have had an impact on the end product of K12 education. STEM scores have risen slightly in the last decade, though this is probably a result of myriad federal and state programs aimed squarely at placing more highly qualified STEM educators in classrooms. Diligently applied software programs to enhance reading ability and numeracy have shown some nice improvements on student test scores; though it could be argued that any mindful application of an educational protocol, employing technology or not, will increase student test scores.

Blended learning and its subset, the flipped classroom, are inspiring local pockets of change. Classrooms become somewhat more democratic, and a skilled teacher in an intelligently implemented blended learning context has the ability to increase the overall joy experienced by students in the learning environment. This is nothing to scoff at, and if widely and skillfully applied may ultimately be what preserves public education from privatization advocates. But even the blended learning classroom will appear as a ripple on the bay when the tsunami that is heads-up displays (HUDs) enters the education sphere.

I have been thinking and writing about HUDs for several years. I first came across the concept when I read Ray Kurzweil’s “The Age of Spiritual Machines,” in 2000. I got excited about the very real possibility that HUDs would hit the consumer market when Google began their Glass PR campaign last year. Then, I realized Google was serious when they hired none other than Ray Kurzweil as their director of engineering earlier this year.

I live, teach, and now work in edtech in the Silicon Valley. I can attest that Glass is not a prank. Although Google has only released HUDs to developers so far, Glass sightings on the streets of Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Menlo park are almost as frequent as sightings of the electric cars manufactured by Tesla. That is to say, still rare, but very real. That is soon to change.

Google has taken their time with a slow release of this new product for good reason. The HUD is going to be big. The first versions of Glass might look, well, too 21st century to transcend the fashion barrier, but it will certainly be the case that the flood of HUDs from all manufacturers that will hit the consumer market as early as later this year will offer you the ability to bling your headwear in whatever style suits you. In fact, I suspect HUDs might be popular simply because of the opportunity to accessorize that these devices will offer to those who do not need corrective lenses. Did someone ask, “How can we target the metrosexual market?” Indeed. And one more word on that thought – teenagers.

I speak from deep experience when I say that teens value their mobiles more than any other material possession they own. In fact, a recent Pew Research survey found that the smartphone is the new car; teens would rather text than be able to drive to McDonalds whenever they want. HUDs will take this to the next level.

If my argument that HUDs are coming to our culture in a big way has not been convincing enough, take a visit to your Google Plus feed and search Glass. Watch the frequency with which the posts arrive. I just did it now and received a new post about Google Glass, in particular, every five seconds.

At an education technology conference for K12 educators I attended in Massachusetts last fall I sat down for lunch with a group of intelligent, tech savvy educators and asked them what they thought HUDs would do to the classroom experience. I blogged about that lunch here. It was interesting to observe the trajectory of the discussion. The first ideas were practical: facial recognition to take attendance, document student efforts with easy photo taking, simple Google searches. They were all assuming that the HUDs would only be allowed on the face of the teacher. You must keep in mind that electronic devices are still prohibited for students in most schools; though, this is changing very fast.

As the conversation progressed, the educators thought it would be cool to be able to access student records while interacting with an individual. Knowing how many times Sally has been absent this semester, her current grade, areas of strength and weakness, and maybe even her interests can help you customize your interaction with her. For those of you who attended small independent schools where teachers already know these things about you, keep in mind the average class size in a public high school in California is more than 30 students, and the average caseload for a teacher exceeds 150 students.

Then, one of the teachers interjected, “Give them to the kids and see what they do! Flatten the access to information and figure out what that means.” The chorus of voices at the table, progressive as they were, reacted.

“ How will you know when they are working and when they are just texting?”

“I don’t think so. How do you control the testing environment? I suppose you could have them take them off, but what if they have become used to easily accessing all of the information they need?”

Yes. What if?

The starting price point for Google Glass for consumers is likely to be around that of a smartphone, and will likely be wrapped into your mobile service plan. Currently, three fourths of US teens possess mobiles, and half of those are smartphones. Both of these numbers are increasing rapidly. It is not inconceivable that within three years, nine out of ten teens in developed nations will be wearing a HUD. What will we do then?

I have more questions than answers at this point.

  • What will be the impact on the brain of an assistive technology that enhances your access to information and periodically draws you out of the present moment and into an information rich thin-layer on top of your physical world?

  • Does the ubiquitous access to information limit or enhance your ability to remember? What about your ability to process the information and think critically?

  • We know that excessive low quality screen time is associated with certain types of focus challenges. How might we curate the information available to students in an institutional setting to filter out low-quality content?

  • What becomes of the classroom environment when all of the expert knowledge in the world can be accessed by a student at any moment? How quickly can we democratize classrooms to accommodate this?

  • What becomes of the test? Is there value in testing with HUDs off? Why?

  • Is subject area expertise as important for all teachers anymore? Wouldn’t a better skill set prioritize excellent learning facilitation, curation, and communication?

I think it is likely that Google Glass is the device that will mark a significant divide Kurzweil identified in his prediction of the future of human interaction with technology. There will be those that adopt intelligence enhancing technology, and there will be those that do not. The financial benefits and likely the lifestyle benefits for those that do so, in an information economy, will cause a rift in resources significantly larger than any current divide in developed nations; probably something more akin to the rift between the rich and poor in developing nations in Africa. Am I being too dramatic? Maybe.

There will be those that vehemently oppose allowing teens to use HUDs in school. A research review of the impacts of mobiles on the developing brain published last summer in The Daily Beast may be representative of the reaction we can expect to see from what we might respectfully call the techno-cautious or more derisively, luddites. And because public education impacts 85% of families in the US, and more in other nations, we can expect a very emotional debate.

As I wrap up this rant so that I can return to hand scoring written exams for my physics classes, I can’t help but think that although the act of assessment of student work will hopefully become more of a focus in my profession in the near future, that in the more distant future, say 10 years away (after a generation has experienced ubiquitous, unhindered access to information), I might not be able to adequately assess the work of students of the same age studying science. This will likely not because my skills will have dulled, though that might be the case, rather because students of 2023 could be learning at a pace that puts their capabilities far in excess of my own.

7 thoughts on “Google Glass Might Pose the Biggest Challenge Public Education Has Seen Since Desegregation

  1. kenlonseth

    Nice article. Beyond the HUD device itself, the underlying software and data gathering is going to be a game changer. Imagine each HUD being personalized, with intelligent learning agents guiding them/us along. We would be outsourcing at an increasing rate, first the tedious and rote tasks, and eventually more higher level learning as well. You’re spot on about the fashion part of this, wearable computing is about the break. Google Glass is still kind of clunky, but that will change.

    • With greater interactivity with the device, particularly through voice to text, I agree that the opportunity for personalization is dramatically increased. There is certainly a lot of developer brainpower focused on exactly that problem right now. Hopefully education will benefit from this.

  2. Chris

    It will be interesting to see how something like Google Glass can impact education in the long term, but for the immediate future? I would wager most schools won’t be able to afford to buy it for everyone, which means it will be up to parents/students to get the device. Since not everyone can afford it, most school districts will ban the use of Glass so as to not increase the “digital divide.” Then there will be the small pockets of classrooms and schools around the county who will pony up the cash, get them for students, and then talk about how great it is, which will lead to a myriad of blogs by educators and reporters across the country that all talk about the same thing, much like we see with every other piece of technology trying to break into the classroom.

    • If the rate at which schools are going 1:1 with devices like the Chromebook right now is any indication, I think that schools will be used to every kid having a device in short order. LA schools are going 1:1. Many suburban school districts have already gone there or are about to. Charter schools are also going there. The cheap laptop and the tablet are the gateway. The HUD will not be that far of a stretch from there. And maybe in the same way that many developing nations skipped telephone infrastructure altogether and just went straight to cell service, schools that miss the laptop/tablet move will just go straight to HUD’s? Time will tell.

    • You raise a very important point, Melanie. In my heart, if not in the research, I know that not all content and not all edtech is the same. To put it another way, I don’t think all screen time is the same. I am concerned about gamifying education too early. I am concerned about over-reliance on video instruction. I am concerned about the dangerous idea that plug and play will fix our education ills. This concept of delivering the best teachers to the worst schools with the internet rubs me wrong.

      Edtech of any flavor is not the answer to our larger issues in education. I am quite hopeful about what certain, mindful implementations can do to liberate creative minds, but I also reserve a healthy skepticism.

      Thank you for your comment.

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