Law in the Internet Society
-- NigelMustapha - 05 Oct 2014

This essay is intended to underscore the importance of revolutionizing traditional educational practices in light of potential technological developments.

Cat Videos and Unused Library Cards

There’s a fairly facile joke that goes something like this: Imagine you went back in time and you told someone, John Dewey or whoever, that in the future, people carry around small electronic devices in their pants pockets, which contain every book ever written, every piece of information ever learned, and which allow them to communicate with people all over the world. He’ll eagerly ask: “What do you people do with these amazing inventions?” And you’ll have to tell him: “We use them to watch cat videos.”

We all know that the typical American smartphone and laptop owner doesn’t effectively use his resources to increase his intelligence—and if we forget, we can remind ourselves by sitting in the back of any freshman-year college lecture and watch the oscillation between fantasy football, Facebook, and fall fashion catalogues. But it’s also important to point out that except for some poor black kids, for a variety of reasons, most other people don’t use their resources all that effectively either. It’s hard to get an unmotivated, underprivileged 3rd grader to visit her local library, even if she is able to go every once in a while. Even though that library is freely offering her an impressive percentage of all the books ever written and of all the songs ever recorded. Using resources effectively is a skill and like every other skill, it must be effectively developed. If it isn’t, those untapped resources just don’t amount to all that much.

Imagine Unchanged Power Dynamics

Now imagine you can skip a few steps and live in a world where every book, every song, and every educational program is freely available on a device that every individual personally owns. You may be imagining an intellectual meritocracy and at first blush, that may seem like a wonderful thing. Even without any guiding infrastructure in place, a world of abundant access to resources will allow millions of geniuses and other self-motivated learners to realize their potential. Some geniuses will make some major beneficial contributions and plenty of people will be able to positively change their individual circumstances. But in an intellectual meritocracy, will power dynamics have fundamentally changed?

When intelligence is freely available, the lottery of birth isn’t won by those who are born rich, it’s won by those who are born inquisitive, or to a circumstance where inquisitiveness is cultivated. The rules of the lottery change because now in more instances, personal attributes will be able to overcome circumstance, but importantly, it’s still a lottery and it still depends on chance. And even more importantly, the winners can still invest their winnings and accrue interest.

Alvin Einstein was born an inquisitive genius and raised himself up by his bootstraps. He helped a few people along the way and ascended in the intellectual meritocracy. Then he taught his son Alfred Einstein everything he knew—not just about what he learned, but about how he went about learning—and because of this (ignoring even, any contribution from genetics) Alfred was able to ascend even higher. Thus the Einsteins proceed to rise in the intellectual meritocracy, and though we may hope that concepts of ethics and beneficence are inseparable from genius, we are a little too familiar with the secondary effects of accrued power and influence. In this world we’ve been imagining, the Einsteins begin to look a lot like the Rockefellers and power dynamics appear essentially unchanged.

Enter Education, Leave the Old Classroom Behind

Guiding infrastructure is necessary to bridge the gap between an intellectual meritocracy with unchanged power dynamics and an intellectual meritocracy that minimizes the compounded accrual of advantage. This guiding infrastructure is education. Not the type of content-based education that is freely accessible in the imagined hypothetical, enter the type of education that enables the poor, uninquisitive child in that world to access the resources available to him. The type of education that enables him to learn once he’s left the classroom.

Steps toward this new pedagogical model have already been taken. One of these steps can be described as the backwards (or “flipped”) classroom, where students access content at home and practice working with the content under an instructor’s supervision in school. Another step can be described as the blended classroom, where the school experience is essentially re-characterized around facilitating students’ independent access to content. These classroom models are steps en route to the necessary future of effective education: where students learn content at home and are taught content acquisition techniques, including information literacy, in school (though it’s worth noting that unless or until independently accessible interfaces become useable for all types/ages of learners, some content remediation should also be offered in school).

While the current condition of students’ ability to access information and the cost of improving that condition remain the primary obstacles preventing a transition to this model, it is worth noting that the implementation of this model would also substantially decrease educational administrative costs. Teacher staffing and training becomes cheaper and easier when all teachers essentially teach one skill: how to effectively use resources. But this leads to an important question regarding the future of educational standards: will we continue to measure teachers’ effectiveness by their students’ ability to know that 2+2=4, or will we begin to measure teachers’ effectiveness by their students’ ability to access resources in order to find out how to put two and two together? While discussion of current learning standards usually uses the language of “measuring outcomes,” the nomenclature is partially misleading. The skills currently measured in school do not represent desired final outcomes, but rather, outcomes of basic skill mastery desired for their potential contribution to future outcomes. This analysis suggests that in a world with unlimited resources, an optimistic view of the inevitable technological future, there should be only one learning standard and generally, only one purpose for education: to teach students how to use their resources.



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r3 - 05 Oct 2014 - 23:44:16 - NigelMustapha
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