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C2C Digital Magazine (Spring / Summer 2018)

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Imagining Future Models of Education to Recapture Engagement of the Past

By Hap Aziz, Director of Learning, Adventist Health System

Note:  Dr. Hap Aziz will be giving one of the two SIDLIT 2018 keynotes! 

The Past Reveals the Future

On September 12, 1940, four teenagers followed their dog into a cavern located in the southwest of France, where they made a significant discovery. The cavern, more commonly known as the Lascaux grotto, is the site of approximately 600 painted animals and symbols as well as almost 1500 engravings on a surface area 66 feet wide and 16 feet tall. Between 15,000 and 17,000 years old, the detailed images depict deer, cows, horses, cats, and even (what are thought to be) mythical creatures. And one bird-headed human form.

This discovery, while of immense archaeological importance, represents a pattern of behavior that continues to this day: it is our natural inclination to use the technology at hand to teach ourselves and each other about the world around us. What archaeologists and historians identify as cave paintings, I (as an educator) prefer to think of as the first discovered implementation of a smart classroom. Imagine those on the hunt, stalking and ultimately dispatching their prey. The adventure and excitement of the experience fresh on the hunters’ minds, they rejoin their clan and tell their stories. But the storytelling process is enhanced and augmented: brightly-colored pigments are used to produce vivid illustrations while the dancing flames provide the illusion of motion, bringing the animals to life on the cave walls—the projection surface—as crude but effective 2-dimensional animation. Making use of this first-generation smart classroom technology, the hunters capture and hold the rapt attention of everyone in the clan, from the youngest children to the clan elders. Engagement is likely at a level not easily reached in modern classrooms.


Figure 1:  Caves of Lascaux in Second Life(R) by Opensource Obscure (2008)

This smart classroom model was a construct of necessity, an artifact of the way in which human beings were built (or evolved) to learn. In his paper titled “Multimedia Learning” (2002), Richard Mayer defines the multimedia principle: “students learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.” Mayer provides the rationale that students can make better connections between verbal and pictorial mental models when words and images are provided, and this is more effective for learning than verbal models alone.

Built to Learn

Multimedia learning makes sense from the perspective of people having different learning styles, and the styles are not mutually exclusive but rather they reinforce each other. Consider the VARK Inventory, formalized in 1995 by Neil Fleming: Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. Fleming contends that most students prefer some learning styles over others, and that the preference distribution among young adults is fairly uniform. Yet the next—perhaps most significant—advance in education technology ever created a learning bottleneck that still stands today. While it has democratized learning like no other technology before or after, in many ways it now serves as a barrier to greater engagement compared to other, more modern transformative technologies. That is the invention of the alphabet.

The invention of the alphabet revolutionized data storage and transfer. It allowed us to bypass the immediacy of experience as a constraint of learning, and it removed oral tradition as the standard methodology of education. Perhaps most significantly, it changed teaching and learning from a one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationship to a one-to-many endeavor, where “many” became millions with the addition of the printing press to the technology mix.

Unfortunately, it introduced an additional, prerequisite layer of complexity in the learning process.

Now, instead of directly accessing the desired content to be learned, a whole new process of coding and decoding symbolic information must first be mastered. I’ve written previously on the topic (“The Seduction of the Senses,” December, 2015):

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling are focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn [multimedia learning]; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

There is at least one more important “side-effect” from the introduction of reading and writing into education. That is the concept of asynchronous learning and the resulting facilitation of learning without the actual presence of a teacher. Before reading and writing was so integral to teaching and learning, students quite often had the opportunity to interact directly with the teacher. That interaction manifested itself as discussion, and the discussion often resulted in a form of co-creation or design of the learning experience based on the learner’s needs. In this way, we can see Vygotsky’s constructivism (1978), the internalization of knowledge as a social activity, as possibly a more common occurrence in the era before the alphabet. This means that the alphabet had a profound impact on education, in that it curtailed the learner’s agency and ability to design the learning experience. That ultimately has a dampening effect on engagement.

At The Next Web 2018 Conference held this year in Amsterdam, the CEO of Logitech, Bracken Darrell, had this to say about designing learning: “When you were a two-year-old, or a one-year-old, or a three-year-old, you were a designer… Our education system does a great job of coaching us out of design.” Making the education process more “one way” and removing learner agency appears to be an unavoidable outcome of the invention of the alphabet. And there is another important consequence in removing agency, which is to divorce the learner from the reasons they are learning. In this interview with Sal Khan, Elon Musk talks about knowing the “why” of learning as giving a purpose to the learner’s activities (and driving more engagement as a result).

Around the Corner

We continue to build technology upon technology to address the challenges of teaching and learning, and there are many new and different tools and approaches currently being implemented in the education space. On a yearly basis for example, the New Media Consortium (recently acquired by EDUCAUSE) releases its NMC Horizon Report where upcoming trends, challenges, and developments in education technology are identified and discussed. Corporate analysts such as Gartner and Deloitte publish their trends lists of useful and forward-facing tools and solutions. Institutions and individual educators regularly offer up their own predictions of the future based on current practices. Not surprisingly, there is strong alignment across the different predictions. Briefly:

  • Fast approaching “household name” status, Virtual Reality (VR) is a computer technology that simulates an environment usually through sophisticated 3-dimensional graphics, then allows the user to interact in that environment through the use of some hardware that allows the movement within and manipulation of objects in that environment. Augmented Reality (AR) is similar, but it allows interaction with rendered graphic objects that are superimposed on a real-world foundation.
  • Better integrating assessments within a learning experience has long been a goal of educators, and gamified assessments has great promise in this area. Using techniques of gamification, gamified assessments offer to bring greater engagement to the testing process while also depicting methods in which assessments may be better integrated into coursework as opposed to a separate (and often dreaded) activity. 
  • Blended Learning environments for younger learners follow a trend that has been growing in higher education for a number of years.  Combining remote, asynchronous work with more traditional school settings and assignments, blended learning environments might be able to set the expectation that learning is ubiquitous, rather than an isolated activity that takes place in a set location (school). Younger learners already make use of the online environment to learn about their personal passions, so leading them to be more formal lifelong learners is worthwhile.
  • Broadening the online environment beyond the classroom is a new approach. One of the current shortcomings of online learning environments is that they “confine” the learner to the virtual classroom setting. While students in traditional brick-and-mortar institutions have an expansive environment (the campus) in which to interact with their peers, faculty, etc., online students mainly interact with their classmates in discussion forums. And when they’re not interacting in their class, they’re usually not interacting with their institution at all. eSports—competitive games and leagues of teams that connect computer gamers together in networked game play—is an example of expanding the environment. More and more colleges and universities are stepping into this space, and even high schools are joining eSports leagues, turning their computer labs into eSports playing fields.
  • Imagine having a specialized Alexa or Siri always at the ready to answer questions about the Pythagorean Theorem or the War of 1812. It would be in the form of an artificially intelligent assistant (AIA) equipped for more than just the recitation of known facts or the demonstration of simple steps, but also with the ability to assess a learner’s unique challenges and to provide specialized tutoring based on learning styles. These AIAs would perform the tasks we expect of exemplary teachers in providing learners with specific guidance, but much more sustainably in the long-term. Provided, of course, problems such as aggressive AIs don’t overwhelm the system.

These (as well as many other) new and coming education improvement solutions are technology-dependent incremental solutions, more evolutionary than revolutionary. The trend is as it always has been: how do we use new tools to educate using same old processes that have been around since the invention of the alphabet? Unfortunately, the technologies currently being tapped are often complex to use and expensive to acquire and maintain. And it is not clear that the technologies as implemented (or to be implemented in the near future) will drive real transformation in the teaching and learning space.

Surveying an Unknown Future

Taking a more imaginative approach, I often like to look at science fiction for potential future directions. The literature is varied, so it is somewhat of a surprise that the genre isn’t rife with different education models and technologies. However, there are some notable examples.

In 1958, Daniel Keyes wrote the short story “Flowers for Algernon” that depicted boosting human IQ by performing a particular type of brain surgery. In this way, people could learn more information more effectively because their basic capacity and mechanism for learning was improved significantly.

In his Old Man’s War series of novels, John Scalzi writes of a device called the BrainPal. The BrainPal is a neural implant that allows the “user” to send and receive data, communicate directly with other BrainPal equipped people, translate languages in real time, read books, and more. The BrainPal can interface and operate external technology items that the user has never seen before. Ultimately, it is a synthetic consciousness that guides the user through new situations with just-in-time training.

The movie The Matrix was released in 1999 by Lilly and Lana Wachowski, and it showed how a direct brain link might be utilized to transfer large amounts of information as an alternative to actual hands-on skills training. The idea is to compress the information to be transferred digitally (realizing that learning is much more than information transfer), so that much less time is required than if the learning were to take place through the traditional analog means. 

This scene presents how such a transfer might work. There are several initiatives underway to link human and machine minds. Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) are currently being used in various stages of experimentation, with the intent to polish and perfect the brain’s ability to control external devices. Actions such as moving your mouse cursor with your thoughts or giving motion to mechanical limbs if you are a paraplegic or quadriplegic. More problematic is the Computer-Brain Interface (CBI) which reverses the flow of information authority and would represent the first step in computer information-push learning.

As I indicated above, however, learning is more than information acquisition and absorption. Anecdotally, we understand that learning is related to the experience of the activity. Our memories associate sights, smells, and sounds—and even feelings we felt when we learned something in particular. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb, 1984) indicates that learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience." I would argue that the more meaning these experiences hold for the learner, the more successful the learning outcome will be. 

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is a novel about teaching children how to become the leaders and warriors who will defeat an alien species to save humanity from extinction.  Card’s fictional Battle School takes the students through a series of physical activities designed to refine abstract strategic thinking as well as virtual simulations of increasingly difficult battles with the enemy. A powerful common theme running through the story is that in learning how to defeat the enemy, Ender (the main character) must develop a deep emotional connection with the enemy. It is this emotional connection that drives engagement more significantly than the technology-driven simulations.

Win One for the Gipper

In an article titled, “The Future is Now: Triumph and Tragedy of Coach George Allen,” (Psychology Today, May, 2012), Dr. Nassir Ghaemi wrote, “Coaches are the philosophers of America, my father always said.  People don't read Nietzsche and Plato, but they listen to the coaches.  They teach us about life, not just sports.” Ghaemi went on to describe the man that George Allen was; that he was focused on his players’ emotional issues, and how he wanted to know everything about them as a counselor and confidant as a way of getting them to play their best. Rather than appealing to reason, Coach Allen understood the power of emotions to drive engagement.

Neuroscience may prove instructive here. Some years ago, neuroscientist Antonio Damasio made a very interesting discovery. He studied people that had damage in the parts of their brains where emotions are generated. Damasio found that although these people seemed to function normally, they were unable to feel emotions. As he observed them, he found that they all had something odd in common. These people were not able to make decisions. They could describe in logical terms the choices before them (for example, “Where should I eat for dinner?”), but it was very difficult for them to make the choice and commit to a course of action. (An interview segment in which he discusses the phenomenon may be found here.)

As Damasio puts it, “It is emotion that allows you to mark things as good, bad, or indifferent.” From the perspective of learning, knowing the “how” provides a learner with all sorts of data… but unfortunately, no connection with the subject matter and no impetus for engagement. Recalling Elon Musk’s interview, it is knowing the “why” of things that is the foundation for emotional impact. And as coaches like George Allen understand, it is the emotional impact that gets people “fired up” to accomplish a task, whether it is to win a football game or to learn about topics such as the Pythagorean Theorem or the War of 1812.

The Future is Now

Combining some of these observations on emotional engagement and technology, we can extrapolate current trends and make better predictions on what the future will hold for the education experience. In the nearer term:

  • Educators will become more involved in coaching students about living life, providing context—the why—for everything that is taught. Academic support services will acknowledge the emotional state of the student, and that what happens outside of the classroom is as important as what happens inside.
  • Education will become more focused on participation in active learning environments rather than on the acquisition and recitation of knowledge. While simulations will allow students to interact in a wide range of scenarios, these scenarios will be richly narrative stories with meaningful emotional impact for the learner.

Adding a dash of future tech to the mix, what form might these predictions take? The idea of digitally compressing knowledge for a computer-to-brain download is attractive, but it still lacks the emotional connection to actual experience. Fortunately, Science Fiction has explored this concept in a way that provides us with a vivid depiction, and gives us an indication of where the future may lead.

A little over 25 years ago, an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired, titled “The Inner Light.” The premise is that an alien space probe forms a link with Captain Picard’s mind. While he is connected, he experiences 40 years of another life on a different planet where he has a wife, close friends, raises children and grandchildren, and experiences the tragic death of that world as its sun goes nova. At the end of those 40 years when Picard is very old and his wife and friends have passed, it is revealed to him that his life was an experience from a thousand years in the past that finally found his mind as a place to unfold. All so that there would be someone with the memories of long-dead civilization to pass on. When Picard finally awakens in the present, he finds that only 25 minutes in real time had passed. Yet everything he learned during that stimulated lifetime were skills truly mastered; everything he felt still resonated in his heart.

Rather than a straightforward digital data dump from computer to mind as in The Matrix, the Star Trek episode depicted a model of computer-to-brain interface where the content being transferred included a compelling emotional component. For such a model to work, the content developers had to be storytellers as well, weaving a narrative into the material to be learned. The good news is that educators today don’t have to wait for the technology to be ready before incorporating emotionally engaging stories into curriculum. That’s something we’ve known how to do for tens of thousands of years, using nothing more than colored pigments and cave walls.


Aziz, H. (2015, Dec. 24).  The seduction of the senses.  Learning through Play & Technology.  Retrieved July 6, 2018, from  

Fleming, N. D. (1995, July). I’m different; not dumb. Modes of presentation (VARK) in the tertiary classroom. In Research and Development in Higher Education, Proceedings of the 1995 Annual Conference of the Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), HERDSA, Vol. 18, pp. 308-313.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential learning. Experience as the source of learning and Development (Englewood, NJ: Prentice Hall).

Mayer, R. E. (2002). Multimedia learning. Psychology of Learning and Motivation:  41, 85 - 139.  Academic Press.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. Readings on the Development of Children, 23(3), 34-41.

About the Author 

For the past three decades, Dr. Hap Aziz has been transforming learning through play as an educator, interactive experience designer, and learning technology visionary. Hap has worked extensively to create new and compelling experiences for adult learners in both physical and virtual learning spaces through the implementation of serious play technologies. Hap has partnered with dozens of colleges and universities to launch complete learning management ecosystems, online academic programs, and professional development training that considers pedagogy through the lens of narrative, interactivity, and engagement.

Hap has served on the Board of the International Game Developers Association and was responsible for the merger between the Computer Game Developers Association and the International Game Developers Network. Hap launched the first game design degree program at Full Sail University, and he has designed, advised, and managed digital design, game, and technology programs at several higher education institutions. Hap currently serves as the Director of Learning for the Adventist Health System, with over 80,000 employees across 45 healthcare facilities. An accomplished speaker on learning and play, Hap presents at conferences and appears on television to discuss learning and technology topics of the day. Hap holds a BA degree in Computer Science from Rollins College, an M.Ed. from Nova Southeastern University, and he obtained his Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida.

He has professional affiliations with the Association for Talent Development, International Game Developers Association, and International Society for Technology in Education. 

Dr. Aziz may be reached at  
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