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Schooling Stanstill

January 15, 2015

Last week, from around the 6th to the 9th of January, Las Vegas hosted CES, the International Consumer Electronics Show. In short, literally thousands of companies and technology journalists gather in one of the hottest cities* in the country during the coldest time of the year to look at what the coming year has to offer in bleeding-edge technology. From 120-inch TVs to self-driving BMWs with laser headlights to pet drones, this year's show was everything high-tech. But while that was going on, I also found a video online of a polar opposite -- the 1990s Apple's vision of the future of the Internet.

It's 2015, and according to Marty McFly, that means hoverboards, self-lacing shoes, and accurate-to-the-second weather forecasts. But the old Apple looked at a slightly different side of the society for its predictions. Specifically, schools. The short movie talks about video conferencing, sharing files online, collaborative editing, using large displays and tablets in classrooms, and imagines a revolution in how schools work. And that's not just Apple being hopeful. Every once in a while, a company or an individual comes out with a "revolutionary technology" that will change how education works at a fundamental level. Online video was one, and so were cheap, affordable laptop, iPads, classroom projectors, Google Docs... and the list goes on and on and on. And yet, despite the billions of dollars spent in trying to "revolutionize" education, the way high school students learn hasn't really changed in any fundamental way. Sure, we're turning in assignments online. Sure, we can get updates on our grades sooner. Sure, we look at videos and interactive media and websites instead of just textbooks for information. But that doesn't really change how we learn in any meaningful way; it just changes where we get the information, and how we take tests and complete assessments. In other words, it doesn't change what we do, just that we can do it faster. The culture of learning in classroom through lectures and homework, and then going through performance measurements in the way of standardized testing hasn't really changed with the times, or with the developing technology.

There's a wealth of resources available for learning on all sorts of tech, but can education innovate in a more fundamental way?

In fact, education is remarkably one of the few remaining markets in the United States that hasn't seen a fundamental paradigm shift in how we approach it as technology changed our lives. A good example is the commerce and retail industry. The old experience of going to a store with hardly any knowledge on what you'll see, or the reviews of others on the products you'll buy, are being superseded by online shopping experiences -- thousands and thousands of user reviews, recommendations, and ratings. Even more impactful and rising in popularity is the fact that retailers are now able to literally predict what you'll want to buy and present them to you before you even search for it, or realize that you needed it**. This kind of preemptive recommendation and near-instant online purchases, along with the primarily online nature of digital shopping and browsing, is a radical change from the way we purchased products before. Ideas like "pre-orders" could never have been possible without these technologies. But an even stronger example of technology fundamentally changing an industry's identity has to be journalism. The Internet has done more to change the face of journalism than any other single invention, because it gives independent individuals not tied to a publisher or a company the ability to write and share their thoughts and information freely, with everyone else. In the new landscape of online journalism, The New York Times is on equal footing as an independent blogger or a solo video producer, and Vogue's articles are no more accessible than a much smaller fashion blogger's editorials. The meaning of what it means to be a journalist, to tell a story to the world, changed fundamentally with the Internet, and that trend is still continuing with the growing presence smartphones, constantly growing the number of voices that each want to tell their own stories.

Because we're trying to take new technology and fit it into our old traditions, it's not working. Our current mix of tech and education is comparable to a newspaper offering scanned copies of their morning paper online -- there's some tech, and it may be slightly better, but nothing's really changed, and technology is not really being used for what it can do.

And yet, education has seen no such revolutionary change. Why is that? It's not that schools and teachers reject technology: just look at the number of laptops and tablets being distributed to schools around the country. It's not that teachers don't have the right tools, either: in fact, I'd argue that one of the most abundant things on the Internet are tutorials, how-tos, and lessons about literally anything anyone could possibly be interested in. So the technology is there, and the pool of resource is there, but why is there no fundamental change in how we learn? Like many questions on education, I don't think anyone has a definite solution. But I think it has to do with how we approach integrating technology and learning. While we were very flexible in changing what journalism and shopping meant, we're still fixated on an outdated image of what learning should be. When tech entered the retail industry, people didn't stop at changing the minor details of the traditional shopping experience. In other words, they didn't slap a faster computer to the back of a cash register and called it a technological revolution. They created new ways by which people could discover products, and changed what it meant to shop for things with technology. The same logic applied to journalism. Publishers didn't just copy/paste their newspaper articles into the web and quit. Rather, they found new ways to deliver content and information faster to the audience, using videos, rich picture collections, live streaming, audio, and interactive infographics, for example -- all things that were not at all possible before the technology was there. Contrary to those revolutions, I think we're stuck in the mindset that learning needs to take place in a brick-and-mortar school building with real-life teachers addressing a class of twenty or so students, taking tests once in a while and regularly doing homework. And because we're trying to take new technologies and fit it into our old traditions, it's not working. Our current mix of tech and education is comparable to a newspaper offering scanned copies of their morning paper online -- there's some tech, and it may be slightly better, but nothing's really changed. The tools that we have are merely being used to improve on what was already possible; technology is not really being used for what it can do best.

Education is a messy subject, and technology is just a tiny section of a much larger discussion. But while we're at it, I think we negatively limit ourselves to a very narrow set of things we can do when we discuss technology and education. We dismiss online learning as somehow lesser than learning in an actual, concrete school at just first glance, and it's rare to find people who think the Internet is can be a positive tool for learning more than it is a source of distraction. But it's precisely those misconceptions that are blocking our technologies from revolutionizing what it means to learn and go to school in the twenty-first century. Sure, those iPads in classrooms are nice. Okay, videos used to teach science are cool. But what we're looking at right now is not even scratching the surface of what's possible when we open our mindsets to a broader definition of learning, as more than just a period of instruction. And if we want to really see benefits of innovation in education, I think we need to start by opening up to new, radical ideas.


* Metaphorically and literally

** In fact, Amazon is working on a technology that will enable it to look through your shopping style and deliver products that you'll need to your doorsteps before you even order them. Talk about a paradigm shift.