Monday, January 18, 2016

The Duet Between Education and Technology

One way of seeing the relationship between Education and Technology, the most popular way, is to see it a race. The original observation - that the Civilisation is a race between Education and Catastrophe - made by H G Wells, was alluded to in the title of scholarly and insightful book, "The Race Between Education and Technology" (Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, 2007) - and it stuck. The essential idea is quite simple, that technology is advancing and education is the way for the society to keep up, and we need ever more education to get the benefits of advance technology.

This is a compelling metaphor. And, also a useful one, as this positions Education at the centre of technological development, clearly establishing a link. Important one too, as we are reaching an inflection point in technological development, where many of the jobs previously done by human workers can now be done by machines or algorithms. It is important to argue, now more than ever, that the benefits of technology do not translate into social benefits and economic gains without good education enabling the transformation. 

However, there is more to the story than education being a continuous catch-up as technology drives the agenda. First, education shapes technology. The advancements we make are not manna from heaven, but a result of education and receptive cultural environments. We have decisively moved beyond the 'Lone Inventor' myths, and from the stories of invention and innovation, we know that technological progress is mostly a story of complex collaboration, between people with ideas, people with practical insights, people who find the use, people who accept new ideas and people who popularise them. In a way, education creates the ecosystem for technological advancement, and make it possible.

Second, technology changes education from the inside. It is not just about compulsory education finding broad support as industrialists seek to find educated workers to handle advance machinery, or the current cry for STEM education, but also that Printing Press enabled that most durable of EdTech, the Textbook. One may scoff at various attempts at introducing courses through TV, and there was an element an overreach, but who could deny that video has transformed our ways of knowing. The student today is not expecting an education that a student a couple of generations ago would have, who would have differed significantly from the past themselves. 

Third, the relationship between Education and Technology is more of a duet than a race, because technology, more usually than not, come into being not in a single moment of epiphany, but in a series of baby-steps, small improvements and deployment of technologies in use, with the growth of practitioner knowledge and serendipity gained through practise. James Bessen makes this point in his "Learning By Doing: The Real Connection between Innovation, Wages and Wealth" (2015), his central point being that it takes a long time for a technological leap to produce economic gains, as only the growth of practitioner knowledge makes this possible. Successful 'socialisation' of new technology therefore creates its own form of education, and this technology and education together creates the ecosystem that makes the social developments and economic gains possible.

This duet of Education and Technology, hand in hand progress, should be the basis of our policy-making today. The limited argument, that we need more educated workers because of the technological development, should be replaced with an understanding that these are not two autonomous processes but one interrelated development. The current system of IP protection and countries importing technology create one more level of complexity - as all of this is done on the basis of education catching up with technology - rather than education and technology being an interrelated process of progress. But this, the duet, is an useful perspective for a time of globalisation and technological progress, not just to inform what and how we should learn, but also to define the shape and scope of our education systems.




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