In this postcard from a series beginning in the late 19th century, Jean-Marc Côté, a French artist, depicts a classroom in the year 2000. Rather than lecturing, the instructor drops texts into a hand-cranked device that delivers information straight to the pupils' ears.
A century later our perspective on where learning is headed is obviously different but perhaps no less remarkable to us. That future is also closer than ever: just as digital technology has led to transformations in many areas of our lives—from instantly finding information online to harnessing big data for managing society's needs—it is now sweeping through education.
We face a confluence of changes. Because basic research is increasingly recognized as the engine of innovation and prosperity, the U.S. and others are placing a greater emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Those efforts require shifts in policy (such as the new Next Generation Science Standards) and in teaching (an initiative of the Obama administration seeks to add 100,000 STEM teachers in the next decade), as well as public-private collaborations, such as Scientific American's own initiatives with the nonprofit Change the Equation (part of the administration's Educate to Innovate program).
At the same time, classroom opportunities are not uniformly distributed, and quality can be uneven. Broadband transmission of instruction, combined with the kind of adaptive techniques that allow shopping sites to learn what you prefer, promise to offer access on a scale never before possible. Downsides include possibly hindering teachers' mentoring role—traditionally built through direct interaction—and privacy and efficacy concerns.
For all these reasons, we decided to create this issue's special report, “Learning in the Digital Age.” In the section, award-winning foreign correspondent Jeffrey Bartholet takes a close look at using massive open online courses (MOOCs) to broaden access to education in “Hype and Hope,” starting on page 53. In “Machine Learning,” on page 62, senior editor Seth Fletcher delves into the promise of adaptive learning, in which software tailors the questions and lessons based on a student's performance. Rounding out the report are essays from experts who provide unique viewpoints, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. On page 73, we end with the results of a student poll about participants' experiences with MOOCs, conducted with Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)