Education: The Past, The Present and The Future #2

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You know you’ve read a good post when it makes you have several different thoughts about something important.  While this post begins like another, it has a totally different ending… Re…

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Audrey Watters: Education Technology as Content Delivery

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  “Technology, so the argument goes, will make education scalable, replicable, accessible, distributable and simultaneously both standardized and personalized. With technology, information is more easily transmissible – through a series of tubes, right into your brain.”

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And Tomorrow?

Where are we going with all of the various challenges facing HE today.

When we are faced with a disruptive technology or a paradigm shift, as we are today in HE, Christensen has shown us that it is difficult for established institutions to adapt to the changes, and many of them fail as a result. I think that the magnitude of the changes facing education are societal rather than institutional.

If you think about the buy-in that our society has for the factory model of education, virtually everyone (at least 99%), at every level, knows how a good HE educational experience is defined. Although presented from a students perspective below, this model is expected by students, parents, employers, lecturers, educational managers, and educational administers. Politicians espouse the importance of student contact time (along with everyone else), and are always in the front for a photo-op when the newest 30,000 seat lecture theatre is opened and the latest technology is showcased (a better way to amplify your voice, and a bigger projector for your powerpoint).

You start with a good, entertaining lecture that stimulates the students. You follow this up with an opportunity to write an essay about a topic the lecturer chooses for you. If you are in luck, you have a multiple choice mid-term (so everything doesn’t ride on a single exam), and then finish off with a written final (choose one question from section A and two questions from section B). This is education at its finest. Students expect it, parents expect it, lecturers deliver to it, administers administer it, and society holds it up as an ideal. I call this the memorisation model of learning, I will tell you what you need to know, you memorise it and regurgitate it (with a little bit more), and you receive some reward for having done so. If you think people are looking for something different, read the comments following this article.

I believe that our western society, with its rich heritage of universities, will, as Christensen suggests, put so much effort into propping up the current HE system, that we will wake up one day and find that the world has moved on and left us behind.

The University of Cambridge is an institute of...

The reason I say this is because the disruptive innovations that are facing education today aren’t just about the ability to deliver digital information at a negligible cost. Certainly digitisation is a big one, however, the educational models and what we know about learning are just as important. As an example, Jones’ MUSIC model of student engagement, based on years of research by dozens of psychologists, tells us exactly how we can get slightly interested students to engage in their studies. Other principles of psychology speak directly to how we should be presenting information to effect the most change in our students (e.g. behaviourism). In addition, the constructivist approach, once adequate background has been attained, leads to a qualitatively different learning experience and outcome for the student.

Focusing on skills to acquire and problems to be solved rather than content to be memorised, leads to a different kind of learner. In my experience using some of these techniques, in Steve Wheeler’s innovative approach to learning, in the approach of hundreds of others who are experimenting with better ways to teach and learn, we (I say we, although I can only speak authoritatively about my own students) are seeing students who leave our programmes and classes who are excited about learning, who are disappointed that the experience is over, and who are qualitatively different in the way they think and approach problems. These students have tasted what it means to have their abilities, as a person, tapped, and they embrace it. I sometimes wonder, when they leave so excited about what life has to offer them, where they will end up, and what they will be doing.

I’m afraid that the impact we (those of us trying to change and improve the system) are having on teaching and learning in general is too small, and the conservative forces trying to keep things the same as they have always been are too powerful. At least in our western society.

English: Students in Kalaymyo, Myanmar
English: Students in Kalaymyo, Myanmar (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think that a large, developing nation, with visionary leadership is going to notice what is happening on the fringes of education, and build a new educational model embracing some of these changes. They will bypass the multi-billion dollar investment needed for the bricks and mortar institutions we hold so dear, and adopt better ways to develop their human resources. I believe that when we see this happen, we will watch a miracle unfold in a generation.


This kind of vision is already apparent in the countries pursuing the one laptop per child programme. If they are willing to do this in Uruguay (or wherever) in order to change their society (while we are unwilling to do it for our own children in Britain, Canada, the USA or almost anywhere else in the Western World), I have faith that they will skip over our idealised, factory model of education, and develop an educational system that will allow large numbers of their students to reach potentials we see in only a few of our brightest and most resilient students.

I was talking to a colleague about this the other day, and he said that this outlook is so dark and gloomy that it verges on depressing. I couldn’t disagree more. This is exciting and wonderful. We have laboured for thousands of years to reach the point of real information abundance. We have funded thousands of research hours to find the best models for learning. We have tried thousands of permutations on a theme to get just the right mix for teaching. If our present society is too addicted to their mass opiates (not religion any longer, but consumerism and celebrities) to care, other societies are poised to replace us. It has happened before, and it will happen again. It is going to happen, and I hope to play some small and peripheral part in it.

Teacher Centred Pontification

I had a chat with a friend of mine who loves to lecture – and does a great job of it. We were discussing the merits of a lecture, and I found myself wondering what is the biggest single problem with lecturing as a form of teaching.

It is the perspective.

When I (or anyone else) stands up and lectures, they are presenting information from their own perspective. The examples are from their own perspective. The interpretation is from their own perspective. The thinking is from their own perspective.

Is this, necessarily, a bad thing. I don’t think so, if you are talking about the auditory transference of information. When I go to a keynote (a form of lecture), I expect to get a point of view. It is presented to make me think about something in (usually) a different way.

If I go to a talk at a conference (usually about 20 minutes), I am learning something new that a researcher has done, and can ask questions to gain understanding.

This is not the case with university lecturing. Everything about a university lecture is teacher centred. The perspective, the experiences, the understanding. A university lecture is rarely a one-off event (like a keynote), but is a series of talks to transmit information. The students are passive participants in the process. They look forward and take notes on what is said. And they do this over and over again.

The roots of lectures lie in the days before printing when you had to listen to an (or the) expert, and write down everything they said – because that was the only way to find out. Until recently (in the last 150 years or so), lectures were not given to hundreds at a time, and the atmosphere made it more like a seminar.

The model for lectures is based on religious sermons. Gather together and listen to the authoritative, infallible word. We still (in the UK) cling to the notion that academic judgment is final. When we are lecturing, we are ministers of the word, and what we say is unassailable by the congregation.

What a pathetic way to learn. Especially when there are alternatives.