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Perceptive Computers and the Future of Ed Tech

John Medina, a molecular biologist by training whose book Brain Rules explores the natural behaviors of the brain set against the constraints of school, work, and home life, said adaptive software capable of possessing "theory of mind" intelligence may be the future of educational technology.

In his opening keynote Sunday here at the International Society for Technology in Education's annual conference, Medina said theory of mind, or the ability to understand other peoples' internal mental motivations, is the lone measurable psychological characteristic that could potentially help prescreen candidates for innate teaching ability. (By no means, Medina said, should it be considered a universal indicator.)

The address sets a tone of big-picture thought for this, the largest ed-tech conference in the nation, which we'll be covering for the next three days from Philadelphia. We'll be at as many sessions as possible and walking the exhibit floor to bring you the latest from the ed-tech world.

Medina posited that the most effective educational software would also be capable of involuntarily detecting student confusion, determining what the student's learning gap is and adjusting instruction accordingly. This could be done both by analyzing student work in a program, but also by computer recognition of facial expressions and physical behaviors.

"Is that what the future looks like?" Medina asked a crowd of at least several hundred. "Could you imbue a computer with the ability to detect when a student is bewildered or inspired simply by having the computer look at the student?

"Could you give a computer the gift of theory of mind? And if you could, how the hell would you feel about it?" Medina asked.

There is already software capable of the latter two functions—determining gaps and adjusting instruction—Medina said. The much-hyped School of One program is one example, and at an Education Week leadership forum last fall, Florida Virtual School CEO Julie Young gave a closing keynote about the potential of adaptive learning.

But as Medina notes, giving computers (or software) the ability to perceive human comprehension by physical observation could be a bit too Orwellian for the average educator's taste. Or would it be?

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