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The technology of education

Isaac Asimov’s short story “The Fun They Had” imagines a future where children are surprised to learn that classes were once taught by humans, rather than by computers. Technology hasn’t yet succeeded in replacing the human teacher, but it isn’t for lack of trying.

Thomas Edison believed his film projectors would make schools “so attractive that a big army with swords and guns couldn’t keep boys and girls out of it. You’ll have to lick ‘em to keep ‘em away.” Edison’s views on corporal punishment of students notwithstanding, his optimism has proven unfounded.

Edison wasn’t alone in believing that new communication technology would elevate the masses. A surprising number of technological breakthroughs have been heralded as the dawn of a new golden age of education.

As early as 1855 education reformers were gushing over the potential of a new device which “appeals at once to the eye and ear and naturally forms the habit of attention, which is so difficult to form by the study of books.” The tech in question was a blackboard and chalk.

The dawn of the radio age featured such programs as “School of the Air” and “College of the Air.” Advocates for educational radio promised it would “help students to be intelligent about important events … it will ultimately be used as a substitute for certain teacher instruction.”

Similarly, early television advocates were convinced that it would “not be simply a luxury entertainment service. Its educational potential is unlimited. It will be the most powerful communication tools of them all.”

Broadcasting was seen as the key to elevating the masses by bringing culture into the living room. Of course, it turned out that what the masses really wanted in their living room was car chases and gunfights. It turns out that you can lead a horse to culture, but you can’t make it think.

Today, we believe the computer will revolutionize education. Computing pioneer Seymour Papert predicted that computer technology “will enable us to so modify the learning environment outside the classrooms that much if not all the knowledge schools presently try to teach with such pain and expense and such limited success will be learned, as the child learns to talk, painlessly, successfully, and without organized instruction.”

We haven’t reached Papert’s dream of an effortless learning environment that surrounds us each day. But computers are boosting education in a variety of ways. Today’s online tools supplement the traditional classroom, offering opportunities for instruction and interaction between scheduled meetings. Computers in classrooms make it easy for students to take notes and work on assignments (when they can tear themselves away from Facebook). For some, face-to-face classes are being replaced with online classes, and while this is often done for reasons that center on convenience and cost, research suggests that online learning can be just as effective for motivated students.

Of course, online learning comes in many flavors, and the most effective online education still includes plenty of individual interaction with a teacher. Sure, some schools are experimenting with “Massive Open Online Courses” which let students take a course with no cost – and no teacher interaction. But so far the results are not encouraging. (For starters, about 90 percent of students who sign up for a MOOC never finish it.)

The first truly powerful educational technology may have been Gutenberg’s printing press, which led to rising literacy, educational reform and widespread sharing of knowledge, eventually fueling the Renaissance and Reformation. And I suppose the last powerful educational technology would theoretically involve neuroscientists realizing the sci-fi dream of hacking the brain, and learning a language or skill becomes as easy as downloading a file.

Until then, effective learning is likely to involve a human teacher. Perhaps that’s how we’re designed. After all, God could have sent his son during the golden age of broadcasting. Christ’s message could have been shared over radio and television. Or Jesus could have come during the digital age, and asked his disciples to “follow” him on Twitter. But the teacher who brought us the most important lessons of all did it in an age of speaking, reading and writing. All the technology in the world can’t replace the power of a human teacher investing in the lives of students.

Doug Trouten


— by Dr. Doug Trouten

Trouten teaches in the communication department at the University of Northwestern – St. Paul.