"this will revolutionize education"

I picked up on this from Nick Carbone here. It’s a video by physics educator Derek Muller (who I think I’ve written about before here but I can’t seem to find it if I did).  Here’s actually two videos.

The share a common there. The first deals with the long history of claims that various technologies will “revolutionize education.” In debunking those claims, Muller argues for the important role of the teacher as a facilitator of the social experience of education and an understanding of learning as a dialogic experience, though he doesn’t quite put it in those terms. The second video discusses research he has done with using video to instruct students in physics (he has a YouTube channel now with around 1M subscribers). Similar to the first video, he finds that a video that enacts a dialogue and works through common misconceptions, while being more confusing and demanding more attention of the viewer, ultimately results in more learning.

As he points out, students have a lot of direct experience with the physical world, but it turns out the knowledge they derive from those experiences is an obstacle rather than an aid in their understanding physics. As such, a dialogic approach that works through those misconceptions and leads to an understanding of physical laws proves most effective. I would suggest composition encounters an analogous challenge in that students have a lot of experience with writing and language before entering the classroom, but the understanding of writing that comes from those experiences can be counter-productive.

That said, I don’t entirely agree with Muller’s characterization of the role of technology in education. (It’s probably just a simplification that is the inevitable result of a short video.) Yes, technology is not revolutionary in the way people claim it to be. I agree that education is a social, even institutional process (as opposed to learning, which is an activity that need not be social or even human). I even agree that it makes sense to characterize the role of technology in learning as evolutionary rather than revolutionary. However, if societies themselves can undergo technological revolutions, and if education is a social process, then education can be subject to technological revolutions, right?

For example, can we compare US education in 1800 with US education in 1900? During that century, the country underwent two industrial revolutions. We saw a rapid expansion of the number of public schools and colleges. Industrialization transformed our capacity to build schools and educational materials. It demanded entirely new literacies and skills from the workforce in a standardized way that schools would now need to provide. The marks of industrialization on education are obvious. Could you really argue that education was not revolutionized during this period?

Muller’s emphasis on social dialogue though would point to a far more ancient pedagogical method, that of Socrates. Despite the fact that Socrates didn’t write, it would be hard to deny that the Socratic method, and then later Plato’s academy, were not products of alphabetic writing technologies. Wasn’t that a technological-educational revolution? Literacy has shaped what we imagine learning to be.

Perhaps these are just semantic differences over revolution and evolution. I certainly agree that education is a socially mediated process that involves human interaction. Since we can imagine fantastical technologies like Data, the all-too-human android in Star Trek: Next Generation, I’m sure we can imagine machines that could replace teachers, but it’s little more than imagination at this point.

I think, in part, our problem is confusing learning with education. I can learn a lot from watching YouTube videos or reading books. I can also forget a lot. And, just as I can learn things about the physical motion of objects from life experience that works perfectly well in aiding my interaction with the world but does me a disservice in physics class, many of the things I learn from videos or books or whatever might not coincide with some educational project. So learning has been revolutionized by books, movies, radio, TV, videodiscs (love that example), video games, and now the Internet and YouTube. But that’s not the same as education.

Education relies on learning (of course) and it relies on mediation, even if its “only” the mediation of speech. It also relies more broadly on the social structures of which it is a part. Revolutions in media (which we certainly have had) can lead to revolutions in learning (which I would argue we are encountering with digital media), but all that might only register as an evolutionary change in education (which we have also seen). What would revolutionize education, what has revolutionized it in the past, are broader socio-technological revolutions (e.g. the Industrial revolution). That’s the “this” in “this will revolutionize education.” So the question is, is “this” happening now?#plaa{display:none;visibility:hidden;}

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