Thursday, August 13, 2015

Technologies That Changed Education

In"15 Technologies That Were Supposed to Change Education Forever" (Gizmodo., January 2014), Matt Novak took a lighthearted but insightful look at the waves of technology which were supposed to change the way we learn. As he points out it can be hard to tell the hype from the real advances (MOOCs are, in my view, the latest hype).

Mr. Novak's 15 technologies include various forms of audio book and audio-visual lecture, sent by wire, radio, TV, LP record, or film. Also there are various teaching machines based on the computer technology of the time. In addition there are mobile classrooms (by airship) and forms of high speed transport (such as gyroscopic tram cars).

With the old illustrations this all looks very quaint. However, many of these technologies were introduced and are still used where there is a specific need. Audio and audio-visual materials have been used routinely for training, particularly in the military, for decades. These have also been used for various "open" universities (the Open University of China is, in Chinese, literally the "Radio and TV University"). Australia has its "School of the Air" for outback students to learn via radio (now using the Internet).

Forms of computer based instruction have also been used routinely for training in industry (also pioneered by the military).

The Queensland Education Department for decades provided a mobile "School for Travelling Show Children", transported by truck, with teachers who would follow carnivals around Eastern Australia (now replaced with e-learning).

While not glamorous, provision of public transport so students can get to school quickly and safely, has been important in many parts of the world (and is always a hot political topic).

What perhaps sorts the technological hype from realty is a need. If students are isolated in outback areas far from a school, then there is a need for a school of the air. Similarly if you need to train millions of soldiers quickly, then audio visual materials and training machines make sense. If you need to study while holding down a job and looking after a family, then distance education may be your only option.

However, if you are in an urban area and can afford to attend class (or send your kids to class) and can afford to pay for a teacher, then the technology makes less sense, except as a supplement.

What happens is the physical structure of the educational institution remains, with classrooms and teachers, but this is supplemented with technology. Most students will still go to class, but will get course materials and submit assessment on-line. Also much of the administration can be done on-line. This is not very visible, or glamorous, as hover-cars, but can improve education and provide flexibility.

An example is the National University of Singapore's  annual "e-Learning Week". The university rehearses the procedures needed for the university to continue to operate if staff and students are unable to attend due to a pandemic, or other emergency. A severe hail storm on 27 February 2007 damaged 70 buildings at the Australian National University and closed much of the campus for almost week. Staff and students used on-line facilities during this period.

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