Keeping Tech People-Focused

What do floating highways, destination travel stops, and quality vending machine coffee have in to do with independent schools and the learners they serve? Creativity, choice, and user-centric customization. As part of the NWAIS IT Summit on January 25-26, in Seattle, Washington, Joey Tanaka, Edtech and Robotics Specialist at Bertschi School (WA), offered a vision of the future for independent schools based on his recent experiences with human-centered design while traveling in Japan. This blog post is adapted from that talk. -- SD  [15-minute read]

What if you could travel into the future, but you could only bring back whatever was in your head?  What would you bring? Insights? A new vision?

Over winter break, I traveled to Japan.  I’ve been going there since I was 16 years old, more times than I can recall.  Until now, I have never been so struck by seeing the future right before my eyes.  

What this vision gave me was new insight into how we approach learning and view educational technology in our schools.

Floating Freeways

In Japan, I saw so many things around me -- advances big and small -- ones that made the quality of life better for regular people.  That’s what the future is supposed to be all about, right? Utopia!

Recently in Seattle many of us have been stuck in what I call some of the best traffic I’ve ever seen. Our traffic slows to a halt amidst beautiful scenery.

In Japan, I saw freeways floating high in the clouds above rural villages, far from where they could cause transportation snarls or noise for the people living their lives below.

Sound barriers on freeways were built with transparent panels to see out -- an improvement over the solid metal panels of the past, which blocked the scenery, detaching travelers from their surroundings and causing drivers to be disoriented about where they were or where they were headed.  Now you could go back to enjoying the scenery, traveling place to place.

Multi-level bridges connected island to island, an innovation we really need in Seattle. Even the massive challenge created by being separated by islands had been overcome!

Destination Travel Stops and Innovative Vending 

Car TechnologyIn my travels, I watched TV ads for cars with HUD technology, which projects a holographic image directly on the windshield, a technology that came from military jets.  Without the need to glance down at dials, it seemed to make driving so much easier and safer. No matter where I went, I saw clear signs of design thinking at the heart of innovation, creating things that are best from a very human standpoint.

When we stopped for snacks, I was simply overwhelmed by the choices. Take the techie’s snack food of choice, Cup of Noodles!  The flavor variety was staggering. Cheese curry, anyone? Taco-flavored? Bacon and potato? Wild or Mild? Masala? What about Pringles-flavored? There was something for everyone!


Even the rest areas in Japan reminded me about human-centered design -- from warmed toilet seats, with auto flush fragrance spritzes, to amazing vending machine coffee!  Some rest areas in Japan are so over the top, they have become destinations instead of merely stops.

Vending Machine CoffeeIf you are a coffee snob, you might think twice about vending machine coffee.  However, coffee tasting in Paris, Rome, and Tokyo has shown me that rest area vending machine coffee is actually awesome.  As the coffee is made, screens show you the bean grinding process and the vending machine very purposefully puffs out coffee aroma as you wait for your cup to fill.  You really feel like this one cup was made just for you.

And what about vending machine PIZZA developed by a pizza maker from Italy specifically for rural areas without pizza restaurants?  This vending machine was designed to toast the pizza dough perfectly crisp so the cheese gets stringy in all the right ways.  Customers stand in line for this!

So Why Not Here?

Not that we need vending machine pizza, but we do need but more human-centric design.  The cumulative impact on me from all of these innovations was startling, a bit like Blade Runner.  So how does all of this connect to educating kids in schools?  

At private schools we value a focus on creativity and open-ended thinking.  Most people immediately acknowledge the value in these two concepts. So when I brought this up with a senior researcher at a very prominent software firm, I was taken aback by his response.  Why even spend time on creativity and inquiry? he said. At first I thought he was joking. However, he believes depth of knowledge is what counts. That is, knowing something so well that you can then improve on it in ways no one else has thought of.  

My response is that perhaps it's a balance between depth of knowledge and creative inquiry.

What if we focused on creativity, depth of understanding, AND thoughtful human-centric design to guide the use of technology in schools?  If we can make a future with transportation that is more customizable, more personal, and safer, why can’t we do that with education?  Imagine what schools could be with human-centric design, making them more customizable, more personal, and even safer.

I know AI, robotics, and automation are supposed to make our future better for each of us, but I'd argue it's people who will make the future better for other people.  Technology will continue to augment and change what we do, but provided we always keep our students at the heart of how  we do things in schools, I feel hope for a better, brighter, human-centric school of tomorrow.

Joey Tanaka has been a classroom teacher for 13 years in a highly impacted, Title 1 school in Washington state.  Joey led his elementary class to help relocate political refugees and received an award from the governor and mayor.  More recently Joey was an invited presenter at LEGO headquarters in Denmark with an international contingent of educators and has received numerous titles and awards from most major tech companies.  This is Joey’s 8th year inspiring innovative uses of technology and robotics in an NWAIS independent school in Seattle. Twitter: @tanakajoey

All photos by Joey Tanaka. Used with permission.


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