This Will Revolutionize Education

This will revolutionize education. No prediction
has been made as often or as incorrectly as that one. In 1922, it was Thomas Edison who
declared that, “The motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and
that in a few years, it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”
Yeah. And you know how that worked out? By the 1930s it was radio. The idea was you could
beam experts directly into classrooms, improving the quality of education for more students
at lower cost. And that would mean you require fewer skilled teachers, a theme common to
all of the proposed education revolutions, like that of educational television in the
1950s and 60s. Studies were conducted to determine whether students preferred watching a lecture
live, or sitting in an adjacent room where the same lecture was broadcast via closed
circuit TV. What would you prefer? In the 80s there was no debating. Computers
were the revolutionary solution to our education woes. They were audiovisual, interactive,
and could be programmed to do almost anything you like. Well at the time, they could run
Oregon Trail. But their potential was obvious. Researches suspected that if they could teach
kids to program, say how to move a turtle around a screen, then their procedural reasoning
skills would also improve. So how did it go? Well the students got better at programming
the turtle, but their reasoning skills were unaffected. Even by the 1990s we had not learned
from the failure of our past predictions and I quote, “The use of videodiscs in classroom
instruction is increasing every year and promises to revolutionize what will happen in the classroom
of tomorrow.” Videodiscs? Yeah, those giant oversized CD things. Remember when they revolutionized
education? Nowadays plenty of things are poised to revolutionize
education like, smartboards, smartphones, tables, and M.O.O.C.s. Those are massive open
online courses. And some belief we’re getting close to universal teaching machine, a computer
so quick and well-programmed that it’s basically like having your own personal tutor in a machine.
A student could work through well-structured lessons at their own pace receiving immediate
and personally-tailored feedback, and all without the interference of a meddlesome and
expensive teacher. Do these claims sound familiar? Over the past 100 years, a lot of areas of
life have been revolutionized, but education is not one of them. By in large, students
are still taught in groups by a single teacher. And that is not what a revolution looks like.
Some might blame this state of affairs on the inertia of our educational institutions.
It’s just too hard to get a huge bureaucracy to change. But I think the reason technology
hasn’t revolutionized education is something else, something that goes to the very heart
of what education is. Let’s consider the process of learning.
Say you want to teach someone how a human heart pumps blood. Which learning aid do you
think would be more effective, this animation with narration or this set of static picture
with text? Obviously the animation is better. I mean for one thing it shows exactly what
the heart does. For decades, educational research focused on questions like this. Does a video
promote learning better than a book? Are live lectures more effective than televised lectures?
Is animation better than static graphics? In all well-controlled studies, the result
is no significant difference. That is, so long as the content is equivalent between
the two treatments, the learning outcomes are the same with all different media. How
is this possible? How can something which seems so powerful, like animation, be no more
effective than static graphics? Well for one thing, animations are fleeting and so you
might miss something as they go by. Plus, since the parts are animated for you, you
don’t have to mentally envision how the parts are moving. And so you don’t have
to invest as much mental effort which would make it more memorable. In fact, sometimes
static graphics perform better than animations. And I think this points to a really fundamental
aspect of education which is, it doesn’t matter what happens around the learner. We
are not limited by the experiences we can give to students. What limits learning is
what can happen inside the student’s head. That is where the important part of learning
takes place. No technology is inherently superior to any other. Researchers spent so much time
investigating whether one medium or technology was more effective than another that they
failed to investigate exactly how to use the technology to promote meaningful thought processes.
So the question really is what experiences promote the kind of thinking that is required
for learning? Recently, that research is being conducted and we’re finding out some pretty
important stuff. I mean it may seem obvious, but it turns out learning with words and pictures
together, whether they’re animation and narration or static pictures and text, works
better than words alone. Also, we see that anything which is extraneous needs to be eliminated
from a lesson. For example, on-screen text competes with visuals, so learners perform
better when it is omitted than when it is present. Now that we know how best to make educational
videos, and any experience can be simulated in the video setting, YouTube must be the
platform that will revolutionize education. I mean the number of educational videos on
YouTube is increasing every day. So why do we need teachers? Well, if you think that
the fundamental job of a teacher is to transmit information from their head to their students’,
then you’re right, they are obsolete. I mean, you probably imagine a classroom where
this teacher is spewing out facts at a pace which is appropriate for one student, too
fast for half, and too slow for the rest. Luckily the fundamental role of a teachers
is not to deliver information. It is to guide the social process of learning. The job of
a teacher is to inspire, to challenge, to excite their students to want to learn. Yes,
they also do explain and demonstrate and show things, but fundamentally that is beside the
point. The most important thing a teacher does is make every student feel like they
are important, to make them feel accountable for doing the work of learning. All of this is not to say technology has had
no impact on education. Students and teachers work and communicate via computers. And videos
are used both inside and outside of classrooms. But all of this is best characterized as an
evolution, not a revolution. The foundation of education is still based on the social
interaction between teachers and students. For as transformative as each new technology
seems to be, like motion pictures or computer or smartboards, what really matters is what
happens inside the learner’s head. And making a learner think seems best achieved in a social
environment with other learners and a caring teacher.

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