The Future from My Rearview Mirror

On my journey to becoming an eLearning Expert I have taken the Gallup Clifton Strengths Survey several times to discover my Signature Themes. My top 5 are very consistent—I always get Futuristic. I nod in agreement as the Clifton Strengths survey says, “The future fascinates you.” I guess that explains why I‘m drawn to articles written by futurists.

I just read an interesting article by Kevin Drum in the July/August of Tech World Welcome to the Digital Revolution.” Kevin challenges us that the best lens at gaining the elusive glimpse of the future may be the past.

Where We’ve Been

History is full of events that seem to change the course of the stream of humanity. The French guillotined their king and a handful of John Locke enthusiasts across the Atlantic established a republic. John Stuart Mill ably defended liberal democracy and human dignity. Karl Marx brought economics to the proletariat. Monarchy had its day.

The nineteenth century was the height of Western empire and colonization but it was also the start of the era of human equality movements. The United Kingdom outlaws slave trade. The United States fights a bitter war that emancipates its slaves and Russia frees its serfs. Women demand equal rights in Seneca Falls, NY and New Zealand becomes the first country to give them the vote.

Then there comes the 20th century with its massive loss of human life through genocides and world wars. But we also saw the discovery of antibiotics, vaccines and Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution that may have prevented starvation on a massive scale (for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal).

All of these course changing events were incredible catalysis for vast numbers of books but in Drum’s (2018) thinking—none matter. The catalyst that made all this possible was the Industrial Revolution. Without it, there’s no rising middle class to create pressure for democracy. There’s no colonization at scale because there is no unending appetite for raw materials. There is no total war without cheap steel and precision manufacturing. With a world still stuck in a subsistence agriculture culture there’s possibly no end to slavery and no beginning of feminism.

The key drivers of this era were the steam engine, germ theory, electricity, and railroads. When Thomas Newcomen invented the first practical steam engine no one realized all the massive social and geopolitical events historians write about were to become mere footnotes to the Industrial Revolution.

Drum asks if the world might be at the dawn of a second massive cultural “revolution” like that caused by the steam machine? Instead of steam and steel this “revolution” will be technological and digital driven by artificial intelligence (AI).

Drum paints a Les Misérables meets The Terminator future where AI rolls over us in the Digital Revolution like the steam engine of the Industrial Revolution.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t see the same future. Yes, the future holds possible issues such as the malicious use of AI robots to hack databases and the fate of truck drivers may be the same as the agrarian “peasants” in the Industrial Revolution. But those agrarian peasants rose to become a middle class that gave us democracy, equal rights for women, and germ theory—and, the understanding to develop AI and to produce incredible cultural works like Les Misérables and The Terminator. These achievements happened through education, innovation, and unconquerable human spirit.

My futuristic vision of the Digital Revolution sees the AI (and perhaps versions of R2-D2) but I see much, much more. I see third-world children not in poverty but having access to learning. I see former truck drivers not stealing bread to survive but using AI to learn new skills economically. I don’t see robot terminators but rather AI systems helping young learners become scientists who cure cancer and authors that write the next great classic.

The Bright eLearning Present

Among the many promises of learning environments in the Digital Revolution are promises of equal access, increased student engagement, and teachers and students both evaluating learning and providing quick useable feedback. We see the beginning of these promises in new approaches such as the Google Classroom.

Google Classroom contains built-in communication and collaborative tools, integrated Gmail applications, the ability to send private comments, and it provides ways to comment on student work in the grading tool. Within Classroom, teachers have the ability to include links, videos, interactive games, and collaborative assignments within lessons and assignments. Hundreds of apps and extensions integrate with Google Classroom—literally making the possibilities for increasing engagement limitless. With the Share to Classroom extension for Google Chrome, nearly all websites can now be shared to Google Classroom.

The problem with these promises becoming reality is the complexity of the classroom. When I was teaching high school, I taught six classes a day with an average of around 130 to 135 students a year. Anything—any task, grading, feedback, etc.—I did had to be multiplied by 135. Even in a classroom of 30, you have students with individual challenges, strengths, and special needs. When you add the complexity of grading and absenteeism it can become overwhelming for many teachers. So while I understand the potential of the Google Classroom, how does one human being handle this?

The Shining Future

What if we had AI along with Google Classroom to make this kind of learning environment possible (and scalable)? How much more could teachers do if they had AI to help with grading and managing routine communication with students? What if each student had an AI companion that knows their personal history as well as individual challenges and strengths (and could even help students with special needs)?

What if we had an AI to take over providing students with information and allow the Google Classroom teachers to move into the role of classroom facilitator or learning motivator? What if we had AI that could identify when groups of students miss certain questions letting the teacher know when material needs to be retaught? What if the AI knew which students were absent, what they missed, and if they had special needs?

None of this is too far off. So where Drum sees a possible bleak new reality due to AI, I see a bright eLearning future because of it.

How do you see eLearning using AI in this bright future? Are you more inclined to dystopia (we have to admit it makes for a good story)? Let us know what you think!

Tucker, Gary


Drum, K. (2018, July/August). Tech world: Welcome to the digital revolution. Retrieved from

CliftonStrengths 34. (n.d.). Live your best life using CliftonStrengths. Retrieved from

Google. (2017). Share to classroom (Version 1.1709.1300) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from

Lynch, M. (2018, May 5). 7 roles for artificial intelligence in education. Retrieved from

Lynch, M. (2018, September 18). How to use Google Classroom to create the perfect digital learning environment. Retrieved from

Norman Borlaug. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved September 27, 2018, from

Author: Gary Tucker, Executive Director of eLearning

An early adopter in online education, Gary helped develop and deliver one of the first fully online Masters degrees in Educational Technology. Still an early adopter, he now depends on the expertise of his dynamic eLearning team. When off-the-clock, he reads and rides his bicycle.

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