Being Out of Touch Hurts Your Credibility: A Note About Ed. Tech Coverage

A while back, I read Buckminster Fuller’s little 1962 book Education Automation. It’s a collection of presentations that he gave to scholars and administrators at Southern Illinois University about the future of education.  It is pretty interesting, and includes a neat little prediction about a spherical, visual data stream machine that sounds a lot like the internet.  Fuller had high hopes for the way we could innovate education using science.  But his approach didn’t take off, perhaps because it reads like a treatise on widget production instead of human education.

Of course, the education automation dreams of yesteryear are still around.   Unfortunately, some of today’s education technology pundits seem to be having as hard a time as Fuller understanding the thing they want to transform.

Case in point.  Andy Rachleff had a piece at Pando on how hard it has been for Silicon Valley to instigate disruptive change in them. Jon Mitchell had a piece at ReadWriteWeb on new approaches to online learning. Both make interesting points, but also miss some things, owing, perhaps, because they are written by folks who spend time doing work as journalists, not in the education setting.  I’m not sure they entirely understand the culture or its dynamics.

For instance, Rachleff wonders why education—along with finance and healthcare—hasn’t shifted to being run on software.  His puzzlement is the result, I think, of overlooking a couple of basic features that these industries share.

First, unlike tech startups these industries live under profound oversight.  In order for a group of people to give a degree—and hence be recognized as a college or university—they have to be given degree granting power by the state.  In some states, schools have to submit all new programs for approval before running them.  Likewise, doctors, hospitals, and many financial experts are licensed by the government.  This is done as a way of ensuring that minimal peer review is done in order to minimally protect consumers and, more broadly, the standards of the common good.  How software fits into this—like course management systems, automated grading, patient records, and automated diagnosis—is complex, different from state to state, and takes a while to go through the approval process.  It isn’t just a red tape issue; it is also about due diligence.  These industries are so critical to the proper functioning of society that we want to have a handle on the implications before we make radical changes.  Having someone say  “well, I guess that new way of doing your major/surgery/taxes didn’t work after all.  Sorry about that” would be a bad, bad thing.

Second, Rachleff also overlooks institutional culture.  Whereas journalism and technology are all about moving quickly, these institution—at least education and medicine—have cultures that are grounded in longer time scales.  It often takes nearly a decade to receive a doctorate, be it in philosophy, engineering, or medicine.  Research into effective treatments for diseases can take longer.  As a result, members of these sectors have a built in patience when exploring new options.  We know that it takes a while to figure out if an idea is really a good one.  Journalists move on from a story in a week or a month.  Startups may be gone in a year.  But a good idea needs to last forever.  It’s not about intransigence; its about prudence.  We like to wait until the data is actually in.

In a similar vein, there’s Mitchell’s piece about the Coursera learning system.   While I found it intriguing (anything that could pull us out of the vortex that is Blackboard is a good thing in my book), he totally lost me because he failed to note the real differences in types of educational contexts.  For instance, he says:

College is stuck in the past, and tech is always trying to tow it out of the mud.

Hmmm.  What exactly does he mean by “college”?  There are lots of models of eduction, sizes of schools, online and offline; to which is he referring.  He doesn’t ever say.  One clue is his note that:

In the medieval university, the professor read the only copy of the book aloud, and students took notes. That basic format persists today, even though the technological constraints seem absurd in today’s classroom.

Ah.  From comments like that, it seems that he is talking about large institutions with big class sizes, entirely lecture methods, and lots of TAs that do the grading.

The problem is, I don’t teach at a school like that.  In fact, I don’t know anyone who does.  I teach at a mid-sized school.  I have anywhere from 20 to 35 students per class.  I don’t lecture.  At home, students read stuff, work on cases to connect theory to practice, reflect on ideas as they have experienced it in their own lives.  In class, we work together to make sure everyone understand the readings, but spend lots of time discussing how the ideas play out in the world.  And I do all my own grading.

And I’m not unique.  Indeed, what I do is pretty standard stuff among profs in liberal arts programs these days.  While the tech component is different, the basic pedagogical model I use is the same as the one that Coursera uses: a modified constructivist approach.

But it’s when he says

As for the on-campus experience, hopefully this new online classroom model will free up departments, instructors and students for more face-to-face work. The Internet is always present. Maybe the real value to being on campus, the one worth paying for, is the part that happens offline.

when he loses me.  It reads like a revelation.  Yet is so basic.  Of course the value of being on campus is the part that happens offline.  Face to face—whether students and faculty or students and students—is where learning occurs.  But those of us in liberal arts settings have known since medieval times.  When Aquinas taught, like Aristotle, he taught in conversation.

So, is college really broken?  Or is it just one type of college, with one class size, one pedagogical style, and one grading mechanism?  I mean, I’m a fan of technology in education.  I really am.  Even wrote some software that is on the market.  So why insult the good work of tech loving, liberal arts profs like myself by saying that everyone in higher ed. needs to change?

Educational tech writers do themselves a disservice by missing basic factors in educational culture and lumping us all into one basket.  They lose credibility and alienate potential allies/markets.  And that won’t advance the  use technology within education.

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