What education can learn from the technological revolution in healthcare

Blog, Education Sector, Ethics

The technological revolution that has swept the healthcare sector in the past two decades is now being felt in education. Carmel Kent, senior research fellow on the UCL EDUCATE programme, examines the parallels.

The healthcare sector has undergone a revolution in the last 20 years following the pace of technological advances and the introduction of the Internet into our lives. Personalised medicine, patient empowerment, the quantified-self, and the transfer of decision-making from the hands of experts to individual patients and to algorithms, are just a few of the results from that revolution.

This phenomenon, known as “Medicine 2.0”, which shook the ground under the feet of policymakers, organisations, medical staff and all of us as patients, certainly has parallels in  an education sector that, in many aspects, follows a very similar evolutionary path – not least as both have their roots in a mostly conservative and hierarchical tradition, and are managed primarily by public bodies.

What were the conditions that allowed the change in the healthcare sector?

The increase in the average life expectancy, along with medical science advances have led to a significant increase in the amount of data generated from a variety of digital systems (from medical record management systems to wearable sensors, smartphones and cell phones). This data is now generated in the context of more known medical phenomena, treated by a wider range of treatments, in people living longer and, as a consequence, suffering from a wider array of medical conditions and drug interactions.

All of this makes medical decisions more complex and reliant on a growing number of considerations, derived from multiple and diverse data including clinical, demographic, genetic, environmental, cultural, and emotional. The medical systems, which were traditionally based on a limited number of experts (surprisingly human), could no longer withstand the loads, forcing the medical sector to rethink information management and decision-making mechanisms.

Indeed, we are witnessing challenging but impressive results, of the transfer of information management and decision-making loads into the hands of other stakeholders, whom we have become accustomed to finding at the bottom of the traditional medical pyramid: patients and their families, the community around them, complete strangers and no less – computerised decision-making support systems.

The parallels between healthcare and education 

On the whole, diagnostics in education are not that different from those used to determine medical interventions. Identifying students at risk of dropping out of the system or deciding which learning intervention they require for optimal learning, for example, require a quantity and quality of information that is just beginning to challenge the educational sector.

Will the educational sector also be required to shake the pyramid? Questions about the “student-centred” approach, parental involvement, independence of teachers and students in curriculum design, and the autonomy of AI systems for adaptive or personalised learning already concern educators and policymakers. Will the educational sector really follow in the footsteps of its medical colleague? Will we see movements of students’ empowerment? Will learning communities succeed in reforming the curriculum? Will we soon see many crowdsourcing platforms for learning?

The answers to these questions will probably only appear after injury time. Anyone following the advances in the medical field for at least the last 10 years is all too familiar with anxiety about privacy breaches and ethical codes. Challenging as it is, the change is happening. Who would have believed 10 years ago that today’s public would be open to sharing medical information or that commercial products would be based on sharing the most personal information?

At the same time, the shaking of the medical hierarchy was and still is accompanied by a traumatic change in policy and the implementation of data sharing (between institutions and countries, but even between the patient and the physician). The anxiety behind using student data is similar to the anxiety you see in the eyes of hospital advocates. As in healthcare, ethics, fairness and leaving the human in the loop will probably be the gatekeeper discussions into the educational revolution, and there seems to be no other way than to place them at the front of the discussion table.

Another challenge for the education sector is the professional learning gap, which has not been easy in the medical sector. Both rely on highly educated professionals, whose role is based on expertise and knowledge. However, the difference is substantial. While physicians are educated on evidence-based medicine, and have been exposed for years to expert systems, clinical guidelines and decision support systems, teachers’ education is not traditionally based on evidence-based culture, and the challenging adoption process is still in its infancy.

Technologically, too, we are witnessing similar trends. The excitement that gripped the education community when it started talking about adaptive learning is reminiscent of the excitement that gripped the medical community when the term “personalised medicine” emerged. In practice, both cases are still work in progress, and the lessons are not yet evident. As in other areas, the field of medical decision-making has shifted from the traditional rules-based AI systems to machine learning-based AI systems, based on the systematic collection of huge amounts of data and statistical analysis. We start to witness the same trend in educational decision-making systems shifting from Intelligent Tutoring and rule-based Adaptive Learning to modern AI-based systems.

Another indicator of maturity in information management and sharing challenges is the adoption of industrial standards for information sharing. The medical sector has been managing industry standards by strong bodies for over two decades, while in education, promising but young standards are emerging, which are still fumbling their way into industry adoption.

Medicine 2.0 has led through technological developments to deep cultural change. The transition from “medicine” to “health” is sometimes reminiscent of the transition from “education” to “learning”, and perhaps it is worthwhile studying the successes and challenges of the health revolution to examine what lessons can these teach us about the educational revolution happening around us.

*This blog is based on an earlier article written by the author and published in Haaretz, in August 2017

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