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Technology and the Myth of Education’s Golden Past

Posted in Ed Tech on January 31, 2012 by

In Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, education professors Allan Collins and Richard Halverson tackle the fraught issue of what it means to be an educated person in today’s society: “Deeply embedded in the culture of schooling is the notion that students should read, listen to, and absorb a large body of facts, concepts, procedures, theories, beliefs, and works of art and science that have accumulated over the centuries. An educated person is one who understands and appreciates these great intellectual products of human history.”

Why exactly is this so important? One of the hallmarks of an educated person is the ability to “think independently”; and how can one do this without access to a broad repository of skills and knowledge? This is why, when tests are given, students are generally not permitted to use outside resources. We test to make sure students are indeed accumulating and retaining knowledge as they progress from grade to grade. All this has economic ramifications as well. As a society, we tend to pay people well if they can be trusted to exercise independent judgment derived from a broad perspective and knowledge base. To some extent, one can only do this if he rises “above” his immediate environment and possesses some abstract understanding of the world (a grasp of patterns and structures) that transcends the day-to-day, tangible reality of his life.

Just-in-case vs. just-in-time learning. In contrast, the kind of learning that is typically associated with technology is a much more informal, hands-on sort with a more immediate application. Need to learn how to do something on your computer? Look it up on Google or tap into the right social media networks. Need to send an email to several hundred people? Find a service that handles it efficiently and that allows you to do A/B testing on the subject line. In other words, as Collins and Halverson encapsulate it, school fosters “just-in-case learning” while technology fosters “just-in-time learning.”

One of the biggest misconceptions today is that the new emphasis on technology in schools and popular culture will erode the traditional liberal arts education and reorient school so that it favors vocational, practical training (“just-in-time” knowledge) instead. In other words, some fear that technology integration will have students learning the latest trends and techniques instead of studying the classics and deep disciplinary knowledge.

The truth? There is no golden past. It is true that today’s schools face a number of contemporary problems (financial pressure, increased diversity of students, a peer and pop culture that undervalues school, just to name a few), but notions of a “golden past” of liberal arts education are generally false. Whether we realize it or not, many of us believe that one or two centuries ago, students were smarter, more disciplined, and better versed in the classics. In her groundbreaking book DIY: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, Anya Kamenetz investigates the myth and asserts that there is “no vanished tradition of serious scholarship.” In fact, classes in pre-Civil War era colleges were often no more than bland, inaccurate, and cursory treatments of the achievements of Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle.

If you are passionate about serious intellectual inquiry, there has never been a better time in which to live. Technology has the potential to completely revitalize traditional liberal arts education. In the years to come, “just in case” and “just in time” learning will fuse and transform each other.

Here are just a few of the ways technology can make students more intellectual:

1. As technology grows more and more sophisticated, we can bring intellectual products of human history to life.

For a literary example (albeit not an entirely successful one), check out Arden’s interpretation of the life and times of William Shakespeare. For examples of computer games that are both entertaining and analytically challenging and can be used to supplement traditional lecture style classes, check out games like Civilization and Pirates. Both games allow students to tinker with variables in different historical systems and continuously observe the outcomes of their decisions. Because computers can provide instantaneous feedback, they lend themselves naturally to helping students develop systemic understanding of different subjects. Why are systems so important? Because no matter what the subject (whether it’s English, math or science), real mastery depends on understanding how details fit into the whole.

For more on how games can be introduced in classrooms as sophisticated texts to critique, check out my post on how to design an educational game.

2. Reading, writing, and research will be enhanced in dazzling ways.

Read an article three years ago that you only vaguely remember and suddenly have use for? Wrote a paper in college and want to recall your research process? In the future, students will be able to read, process, and share information like never before. Applications such as Diigo and Evernote already allow us to bookmark, annotate, and archive websites and share our findings with followers.

With these and other new services, students will be able to track their work over the years and build continuously on their existing scholarship. Gone will be the days when students feel like work is arbitrary and there is no continuity from year to year.

For more on the importance of instilling in students a sense of continuity, check out my series on why students don’t like school.

3. Using an adaptive learning engine, students can ramp up quickly to expert work.

The faster students see their efforts pay off, the more invested they will be in school work. Using big data and personalized recommendations, an adaptive learning engine will help students experience academic breakthroughs and epiphanies swiftly. It will provide challenges at a well-calibrated pace that hooks students on learning for life.

4. Using personalized systems and online communities, students can develop tastes for intellectual products and explore niche interests like never before.

Develop a taste for an obscure poet? Want to access out-of-print books? Or explore a thesis on an indie filmmaker? With companies like Amazon and Netflix, students can now take their most personal intellectual interests to unprecedented heights. And, as big data and personalization become increasingly important, we will see more ways in which people can explore their interests. Imagine, for instance, a Pandora-type system for poetry and visual art.

In what other ways do you envision technology changing education?