Emerging tech will enhance your kid’s education — but not their creativity


Did you know TNW Conference has a track fully dedicated to bringing the biggest names in tech to showcase inspiring talks from those driving the future of technology this year? Tim Leberecht, who authored this piece, is one of the speakers. Check out the full ‘Impact‘ program here.

At first glance, it is an unlikely match: on the one side, Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality (AR/VR), blockchain, Artificial Intelligence (AI), or neuro-computing — so-called “exponential technologies,” defined as technologies that develop exponentially fast, with power and speed doubling and cost dropping by half every year. On the other side, the pre-kindergarten kids enrolled in Head Start programs across the U.S. who benefit from early childhood education and comprehensive health and community services for the most vulnerable children and their families. Moonshots catapulting humanity into the next evolutionary chapter and efforts to promote school readiness for low-income children seem to present a stark contrast. But the two camps have more in common than one might expect — and they have a lot to learn from each other.

Fifty years ago, the birth of Head Start as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, was a disruptive innovation before that was even a buzzword. The work product of an interdisciplinary task force, the program was the first large-scale example of applied design thinking, and it has since produced a remarkable amount of, wait for it, “frugal innovation,” led by the practitioners, teachers, administrators, and parents in the field, and reached more than 30 million children, including one million each year. An in-depth understanding of “user” needs, a high degree of empathy, and strong ingenuity under tight constraints are Head Start’s characteristics, and those are the same qualities that are often now viewed as hallmarks of innovators.

The National Head Start Association (with which I have worked as a consultant for more than a year) recently launched the HeadStarter Network, an independent non-profit organization with the mission to connect the learnings and innovations from Head Start with forward-thinking education professionals and the tech industry in order to help create next-generation models for early childhood education.

The HeadStarter Network’s first-ever Tech and Early Ed Incubator, a two-day ideation challenge, took place in Austin last weekend. I joined 50 participants for an event that was part conference, part hackathon (without the coding part), with a panel of expert judges selecting a winning idea to be developed further with support from the HeadStarter Network and its partners.

The task at hand was two-fold: first, to generate ideas for incorporating exponential technologies in the classroom; and second, to examine how AR/VR, blockchain, AI, and the like can improve the effectiveness of early childhood education program management.

Read: [What science says about your kids’ tech habits]

Kids learn best from active engagement rather than the passive consumption of text and visuals. Augmented Reality (AR), which uses technology to inspire cognitive and physical activity, link virtual and real worlds, and stimulate play, can be combined with educational content to create an engaging immersive experience for kids.

The Incubator’s winning team developed an idea for an AR product, “Project Saf-AR-i”, which uses AR to make experiential learning accessible to more children. Saf-AR-I takes virtual visitors on a tour of Africa’s wildlife, using low-tech QR codes (which are cheaply available) as cues for overlaying the physical world with virtual objects and associated information. In a fun and tangible way, the app teaches lessons on math, literacy, and empathy.

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