A recent post by Learning Without Frontiers front man Graham Brown-Martin rightly calls for the need to escape from the present trap of automating 19th Century education and use the new ways of doing things that emerging technologies provide to develop a totally different system, fit for the 21st Century. He uses Napster to effectively illustrate how a previously technically impossible file-sharing program proved to be the ‘killer-app’ that changed the music distribution system forever by removing the middlemen.
Now although education indeed urgently needs the equivalent of a Napster ‘killer-app’, I think we need to be clear that simply ‘removing the middlemen’ in education is not going to bring about the desirable changes we need and want. In the case of music, the ‘middlemen’ were simply the record company and record store. In terms of education that makes the ‘middlemen’ the school and the teachers, and that the learners become connected directly to the learning.
But what are the learners likely to find when they get there? At present, no more than a pile of on-line kentucky-fried learning information snacks in which the academic knowledge expert at the front of the class has been replaced by a video of an academic knowledge expert who probably doesn’t know very much about making videos.
And indeed the equivalent of the information snack we have now in the music industry is the music snack – currently typically three minutes of instantly forgettable bland, often offensive, tuneless techno-pop (!). And as such it’s not really about the aesthetic and intellectual appreciation of an art-form, it’s about reinforcing a generational identification with one’s contemporary celebrities, heroes, role-models, and forming tribal-type groupings.
Of course some of us might choose to take our music more seriously, and like to understand more about the context and process of its creation, its significance in the history of musical ideas, composition and technological development and social significance. To help us do that we read books and magazines about music, listen to the composers talking about their work and seek out recommendations of what might be interesting to listen to – ‘if you like this, you might also like…’ In other words we find our own direction through the discipline, guided by critics, reviewers and conversations with like-minded colleagues. Even a DJ helps extend our awareness of what there is to be consumed. Indeed, like the horse-rider, the disc jockey guides, steers and encourages the listener around the course. And remember the ‘Mobile DJ’ who ‘travels with portable sound systems and plays recorded music at a variety of events’?
If we are going to get rid of the middlemen we have to first create a new structure in which ‘teachers’ take on the role of critics, reviewers, DJ’s (or eejays? – or perhaps even meejays – mobile educational jockeys), rather than being the providers of knowledge and discipline. Without them, if we simply remove the institution, the majority of learners will surely simply end up with a sequence of three minutes of instantly-forgettable bland, tuneless YouTube videos that are selected mainly on the basis of being ‘cool’, or by virtue of ‘winning the public vote’ by having already been watched by X million other learners, ‘must be good’.
Until we find a way of completely re-casting the role of the teacher as guide, mentor and monitor, and the institution as a real-world meeting place and creator of high-quality learning pathways and resources, then any technological intervention is likely to continue to, quite rightly, simply fall on deaf ears.
With Graham’s reference to the red and blue pills from the Matrix in mind, perhaps the ‘killer app’ we’re all waiting for is the Sim card full of facts that can be inserted directly into the brain!