The Fun They Had

This blog post is a bit of a time traveller as we will jump from 1986 to 1951 then to 2155 and back again to the present day. Hop into the De Loren and off we go. 

Wooden desk in a classroom. Free to use under Unsplash licence. (Erik Maclean)

In 1986, I was in 6th class and in my English book was a short story by the American science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, called “The Fun They Had”. It is a story set in 2155, about a young girl writes about an old-fashioned book they found about schools from the past. She is intrigued by the idea of a school where children must use textbooks, complete assignments, and attend classes, rather than the mechanicalised education she experiences in her own time. The story looks back a few generations to probably something close to 2100, to something that we would recognise. 

If my memory serves me right in 1986, my school was collecting thousands of milk carton tops to exchange for a personal computer. I left the school before the PC arrived, but osteoporosis will never afflict any of my classmates, due to the gallons of milk consumed. That PC, running some version of Windows 3.x, sat on display in the principal’s classroom, with a specification lilliputian to the personal, pocket hidden, mobile device of an average primary school student today. Each student with a powerful computer in their pocket was science fiction to a 1986 version of me. 

In 1986, a PC in an Irish school was a big thing but in 2155 when Asimov’s story is set, there are no computers but a mechanical teacher with physical wires and bolts fixed by roving human mechanics. Some will be happy to note they is still a place for the man in the white van! Asimov wrote this in 1951 when classroom technology did not differ that much with the technology of my Irish primary classroom. The story gives a view of a 1950s US classroom more so than a vision of technology in 2155. Yet the 1950s US classroom is synonymous with a fascination for all things scientific, new technology, space exploration and due to the risk of nuclear war, duck and cover drills. A little bit more exciting than a 1986 Irish classroom, but I suppose we did have Chernobyl. 

So according to Asimov, the educational future will be mechanical robots following set parameters for each grade level.  A didactic brain spinning out worksheets and assignments on a rote learning model. There were no computers, no digital diagnostic tools, no Virtual Reality and no Star Trek holodecks. In one way, considering Asimov’s later work, I think he shortchanged us in this story.  

My presentation at the CESI conference in 2022 showed some clips from AT&T ads from the early 1990s. These ads in retrospect predicted the future better than Asimov, apart from the lack of mobile phones and use of telephone kiosks. Even going back earlier to the 2013 CESI conference, keynote John Naughton noted that we tend to overestimate the future in the short term and underestimated it in the long term.  

AT&T ads from 1993

So back to the present day, and some predictions on my part. In the past few weeks, there has been a lot of commentary on Artificial Intelligence within education circles as Open AI emerges as viable platform to generate essays on the fly. More and more schools and school districts are falling to cyberattacks as more and more student devices become opportunities for attack. A recent report on the progress of quantum computing suggested that it will power a new era in individual learning, knowledge, and achievement. The future is coming at us fast. I might expand on these in a later post.      

If you are teaching 6th class, share the story with them as those 6th class students that we teach today are likely to see 2100 and may write their own diary for their future descendants of 2155 exhorting about the fun they had in school.  

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