Tuesday, February 04, 2003

New Technology and Education

You can't win in this technology race. I introduced a new weblog assignment this term, thinking that I was, if not cutting edge, at least near the front of the pack. Yesterday Holly Gunn, frontline correspondent of the technology wars, sent me an alert on the NEW BIG THING, swikis:
Swiki Swiki

Trying to predict the long term consequences of these emergent technologies on education, learning, and schooling is challenging. But one thing is clear. The Internet has now entered the second phase of technological innovation: in the first stage of any new technology, the new form tries to fill the existing niches; in the second phase it stops trying to pretend that it was another version of some existing technology, and comes into its own. For example, when metalurgy first appeared, people tried to make metal pots look like pottery ones or faked wood finishes etc. It took awhile for people to value metal AS unapologetically metal. Same thing for plastic. Early plastic stuff had to pretend to be metal or wood paneling -- no one wanted a plastic dashboard in their car, they wanted the wood paneling so we get plastic wood. Eventually, plastic stops trying to pretend to be wood or metal and we get the IMac.

Same thing with new communication technology. Up until now, all the on-line courses I have seen have tried to duplicate classroom conditions as closely as possible. There has been a lot of nonsense spouted about creating virtual classrooms, about how listserves and chat rooms can recreate classroom discussion for on-line courses, how using video conferencing can create classroom like conditions for distance learners and so on. This was largely wrong-headed. The technology never REALLY recreated the classroom, because touching a screen is NOT like touching a person. But more importantly, one has to ask what was so great about classrooms we'd want to recreate them? Classrooms weren't doing the job for large segments of the population. There is not a lot of concrete evidence that people learned best in classrooms. classrooms were the industrial era's response to the need for mass education, and as a factory, classrooms worked adequately but may not be the best format for post industrial age. So why all this energy expended to recreate classrooms? I have argued (not that many technology in education conferences wanted to listen) that by trying to recreate the old forms in the new, we were limiting the real potential of these technologies, though I admit I wasn't clear on what that potential might be. But we begin to see in Blogs, and even more with Swikis, how students could work collaboratively to create a community of learners without the need for classrooms, classroom teachers, or schools. What that means for our world in the long run is something for my SF writer colleagues to digest, but it is pretty obvious that the world is changing.