Software developers and user interface designers often use storytelling techniques to help them make sense of different features of their system and to help them communicate and explain their work to others. Software developers, for example, write “user stories”: descriptions of system features written from the perspective of an end user of the system. User interface designers often develop “personas” – a written description of a fictional character who represents a particular type of end user.

Jisc, in trying to understand what Education 4.0 might mean, have adopted a similar approach. They have created a fictional character, called Natalie_4.0, who represents a student taking a university course in geography in October 2029. What might a typical study day look like for Natalie_4.0? What opportunities will technology open up for her? By writing a story – “A day in the life of Natalie_4.0” – we can try to get a feel for what the future of educational might be like. Our story would not say that is is how education will turn out; but it can say how education might turn out.    

The twist here is that Jisc have written Natalie’s story not in the form of a written story, as is usual in the software development and UI world, but in the form of a virtual reality experience. I checked out the Natalie_4.0 VR experience at the recent Digifest conference. So – what was it like?

Well, the first thing to say is that the VR technology itself is improving at a rapid rate. Increasing numbers of VR content developers are entering the market and the hardware is getting cheaper and better. The Natalie_4.0 VR experience itself builds on this foundation: it is immersive, and while you are sharing Natalie’s day it is easy to imagine how VR technology could have real educational benefits. (Personally, I don’t believe that those benefits extend to all subject areas. Indeed, in many cases I believe the introduction of VR would be detrimental – it would be a gimmick. Nevertheless, in some niche areas I can see how VR could deliver tremendous benefits.)   

But what about the story itself? Does Natalie_4.0 provide a reasonable guess as to what the student of 2029 might experience? Well, of course we won’t know definitively for another ten years. But for what it’s worth I believe that some guesses will likely prove accurate; others won’t.

The influence of AI on daily life is one aspect of Natalie_4.0 that will, I think, come to pass. The story suggests that Natalie will have access to a personal AI that will help her throughout her day – in her learning as well as in her everyday life. But other aspects of the story seemed to me less convincing. For example, Natalie’s AI organises a live feedback session with her (human) tutor. Well, it will be terrific if turns out that every student has access to a personal tutor; if every student can sit down with a teacher and have a one-on-one session to discuss a piece of work. But how is such a thing possible in a mass education system? Most universities can’t offer that luxury now – why should that change in the future? (It might be that Jisc have underestimated the rate of progress of artificial intelligence; perhaps Natalie’s personal AI will be able to play the role of tutor as well as general assistant?)  

Another AI-related thought struck me as I sat through Natalie_4.0. In the feedback session mentioned above, the tutor uses some gee-whiz technology to provide feedback on … a written essay. Well, technology has already reached the stage where an AI can generate reasonable text in a variety of styles; in ten years time I’m sure Natalie would be able to get an AI system to write an essay for her. (Who knows. Perhaps AI systems will be able to mark essays. Why not cut out the middle-man and have an AI write an essay and a different AI mark it! All untouched by human hands!) In such a world, authentic forms of assessment will become crucial: tutors will need to assess skills that are uniquely human – judgement, creativity, leadership, teamwork, communication. That is the main thing I took from the Natalie_4.0 experience.

Image credits: Photo by JESHOOTS.COM on Unsplash