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.

In short writing, don't tell people what you are intending to do: make them feel they are participating with you in doing it. The effect of this as your first impression on the reader is apologetic, as though you feel you need to say what the essay intends to do before it starts doing something the reader is likely to think is something else. You have 1,000 words to convey an idea, which is teaching, and to strengthen the enjoyment of learning, which is good teaching. To begin by intending to underscore the importance of revolutionizing is the opposite of causing a revolution.

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: “Well, we mostly use them to watch cat videos.”

Who is "we"? The point of your imagining is that you know John Dewey would be doing no such thing, nor am I, nor are any of the young people I know in the Indian street making their way in a world that intends only to profit from their ignorance. Perhaps the "we"-ification here could be informatively replaced by an analysis that decomposed "we" into masses of people differently situated with respect to the cognitive and material production systems. I needn't use such an unacceptable word as "class," nor need you, but I don't know why it doesn't help.

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 an impassioned exploration of fantasy football rosters, Facebook pages, 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. To be sure, ease of access makes her situation categorically different, and improved ease of access may lead to different results in many cases. But it likely will not lead to the desired result in all cases. This is because using resources effectively is a skill, and like every other skill, it must be effectively developed. If it isn’t, those untapped resources just won’t amount to all that much.

Ask yourself if you believe your own argument here. Do you think that the proportion of cognitively exceptionable people not using the knowledge resources made available to them is the same as the proportion in the general population? You are not surprised that the proportion of superlatively gifted athletes who don't play anything is smaller than the proportion of sedentary people in the population overall. When you make self-education free by destroying the rules against sharing and universalizing access to knowledge, a tiny proportion of the extraordinarily talented learners fails to take advantage of access somehow. The proposition you are putting forward, while only a stepping-stone to your ultimately correct and desirable egalitarian aim, is just wrong.

An unimportant example: my father's father came to North America by himself, as a child of sixteen running away. No family, no friends, no English, no job: a homeless boy in the street. When he married, at 22, the first household purchase he made was a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The next day he went out in the general strike of 1919, and earned no income for many months. He educated himself very broadly in the Brooklyn Public library. His youngest son, my father, went to Harvard when there was still a Jew limit. His middle son went to high school at 12, started City College at 15, spoke twelve languages, and died homeless in the street. I am whoever I am. All the rest of my lineage, my grandfather's six siblings and all their descendents---more than 50 people---were murdered during the course of the Second World War.

Almost every lineage like that on earth lives and dies without a single literate or educated member. The sole reason is the imposition of ignorance on the poor. To say that they are "we" will be distracted by cat videos, or for some other reason won't learn, and won't improve the lot of the entire human race in consequence, is to misunderstand who "we" are.

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?

No. Not some geniuses. A very substantial fraction of the human race, always present in every population, rarely acknowledged, mostly destroyed.

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.

Not for any other reason than because you happened to imagine them that way. Hadn't you better tie your argument down somewhere?

My point about the Einsteins and my own patriline was clearer to Albert Einstein, I think, than to you. "If the theory of general relativity is right," he said once, "the Germans will say I'm a German, and the French will say I'm a citizen of the world. If it is wrong, the French will say I am a German and the Germans will say I am a Jew." You have not, I think, quite enough of either Darwin or Marx here, and I'm not sure what the replacement components of your social theory are.

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 delivery 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 technological future, there should be only one learning standard and generally, only one purpose for education: to teach students how to use their resources.

The second half of this essay is really not contiguous with the first. The proposition that only one skill is taught by human beings when access is universally available is transparently false, as any teacher, including you, knows who works where access is available to everyone in the small wealthy part of humanity. That reinforces the very incorrect ideas about the nature of learning that are fueling the MOOC bullshit on the other side. What we need here is a hard conceptual edit for the piece before going back to working on the writing. Let's start from what you know, from your own experience and work outward. What does teaching teach you?



Webs Webs

r7 - 11 Oct 2014 - 16:57:46 - EbenMoglen
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