Whenever a radically different and powerful new technology emerges, we first use it to create things that look very similar to those made with the technology that it has replaced. Only later, when more confidence in the new technology has developed, do we give the new technology its own shape and form. And only then can we fully realise the potential of the new technology.
Here are three examples:
- The first railway carriages looked just like horse-drawn stagecoaches (but with different wheels). A few years later we saw the development of much longer bogie carriages that looked nothing like stagecoaches and enabled trains to travel at much higher speeds.
- The first concrete viaduct (at Glenfinnan on the West Highland Railway) had the same shape as a brick or stone viaduct. Only later did engineers develop new 'archless' shapes that made much bigger and lighter bridges possible.
- The first mobile phones looked like conventional phones without a cable. Today's mobile phones look nothing at all like traditional phones and have far more capabilities.
It is the same with education. Digital technology, in particular the Internet, represents a radical and powerful step forward in the tools available for learning. But we are still at the stage of using digital technology to do something that looks very similar to traditional classroom education. We have yet to develop or implement digitally enhanced education that has its own shape and form, and can therefore realise its huge potential.
This issue was touched on in a 'big idea' article Should we leave the classroom behind? by Laura Spinney in last Saturday's Guardian newspaper. The starting point for the article was an exploration of how education has changed during the pandemic. Spinney acknowledges that "education was adapting to the digital world long before Covid" but makes the point that "the pandemic has given learning a huge shove towards the virtual." She points out, though, that in spite of learning going online "it tended to stick to pre-existing timetables", a classic example of a new technology that has not yet developed its own shape and form, but is just trying to imitate the look of the old technology it is replacing. One of the most depressing educational stories I heard during the pandemic was of a school that insisted that its pupils wore their school uniform while they were at home taking part in Zoom-based lessons. Surely that's rather like insisting that the carriages for trains going through the Channel Tunnel have to look like stagecoaches!
In the Guardian article Spinney quotes Professor Yong Zhao of the University of Kansas: "This is a time for schools and systems to reimagine education without schooling or classrooms." Professor Zhao and Dr Jim Watterston have co-authored a paper that emphasises the importance of creativity, critical thinking and entrepreneurship rather than information retention. And they call for giving students more control of what and how they learn.
Of course it will take time for the new form and shape of education to develop, but I feel certain that future generations will look back on the disruption of the pandemic as being a turning point, a key event in bringing about systems of learning suitable for the digital world. And the yet to emerge world of fully functional digital education will not, of course, just involve individuals sitting in front of computers. On the contrary there will be an increased appreciation of the importance of the social aspect of human learning. And we will see a synthesis of technological innovation with social learning environments that are much more effective than conventional classrooms. We may be sure that, to quote from the final paragraph of Spinney's article "it seems unlikely that the classroom will ever look the same again".