Tuesday, April 29, 2014

'Futureducation': What Technology Does To Education

Technology changes education. If it sounds some kind of obvious, it is not: There are people who will argue that there is unchanging, unchangeable, soul of education. But this besides, there is a huge gap between the claims about how technology could change education and how it actually changes. The point of this post is have a closer look at this argument.

To think about how technology can change education, one must think of not just technology in education, but technology in context. So, this discussion should not be just limited to how Fiber Optic connections make education through video ubiquitous, but about such technology creating new expectations, jobs and careers as well. So, it is not just that one should use video because it has become possible to do so, but because it will be a normal feature of the workplace or professions that the learner may go into. 

This is something like saying that one needed to read books in college when jobs and careers were dominated by reading from and writing on paper. But this is more than that: Because technology not only gives but also takes and destroys. Besides, that reading from a book would have been revolutionary in Jan Comenius' time: We are experiencing a similar media revolution now.

Once we start thinking this way, we see a strange dynamic in action. Technology makes possible a kind of education that we were doing physically before, at a massive scale; but, on the other hand, technology shifts the game and makes, at the same time, that kind of education redundant. Our debates are so much focused on the first kind of possibility and so little on the second kind of problem, that we miss the point very often.

This is my central contention: Technologies don't just make possible the old education in a new way, it demands a new education. It is not just a passive force serving the educators', or policy-makers', needs; it is an active agent which reshapes the trade. Medium is the message, indeed: Technology is the engine and the navigation system built into one.

There is a temptation to use technology to do things better, cheaper and more efficiently: We can give our students 24x7 access to learning, connect to them over a great distance, communicate to them almost instantaneously. The 'search' for knowledge, the central point of education, may have acquired a different connotation today compared to what it would have meant only a decade ago (before Google). All kinds of database systems can be designed to record the student behaviour and performance at an industrial scale. However, all these new abilities tempt us to build a new kind of education, where knowledge is codified and connected to 'learning outcomes', which are carefully designed and measured, content is clearly signposted and even collaboration is sequenced ("see this week's forum") and managed. The methods are so effective that we can even predict student preferences and personalise the content for them. 

However, at the same time, the technology outside makes the same conception of education that it creates somewhat redundant. We talk about human beings not needing knowledge, because it is so easily searchable, but mastery of context, which is not so well served in a technology-mediated communication. We talk about expert knowledge based on pattern recognition growing out of recurrent practice and deep commitment, because everything else can be done by technologies more efficiently than the humans, which runs in face of 'bite-sized' education that we so merrily construct with technology. We create accurate models of professional skills, but at the same time, professional identities become blurred from the assault of the amateur. 

In the end, software eating the world, as Marc Andreessen will see it, is true, but it is, by definition, eating itself too. So, the technologists claim that they will change education may be correct, but they may not have an idea what they will change it to. We may get excited about using the abilities of the future to become good at jobs of the present, but future is an one-way ticket. So, at the time of breaking of education, re-imagine: It is not just about what technologies could do, but what kind of society we are going to live into. It is not just about the computer code, but code of everything. Ignoring this complexity is just denial, just as the one those claiming education can't change live with.

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