Please give a warm welcome to your MeeJay for the evening…

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on-line kentucky-fried learning information snacks in which the academic knowledge expert at the front of the class has been replaced by a video of an academic knowledge expert who probably doesn’t know very much about making videos.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!

4 comments on “Please give a warm welcome to your MeeJay for the evening…

  1. Record companies, radio stations, gigs and record Shops were the medium by which we often found out about and obtained music. Nowadays music can be published, publicised, distributed and obtained over a variety of electronic gadgets, sometimes all for free. Vast jukeboxes of music can be stored and played on devices as small as a wristwatch.

    Where does that leave teaching and education? Schools and teachers are the medium we use to help the kids learn what we think they need to know. Can the school or teacher be usurped or replaced by the Internet/Digital Age? Do they really need to be replaced, upgraded or bypassed? Is analogue teaching a thing of the past and does it need to go digital?

    A school seems to be a well recognised place to go and learn, whatever your age. It’s also a handy place to send kids to stop them getting bored at home and getting into trouble whilst Mummy and Daddy go to work to earn a living, pay taxes and keep things like schools running and teachers paid. Kids will be taught (and may learn!) what is on the curriculum whether it’s relevant or not, the ‘Powers That Be’ decide what that curriculum is whether it’s useful or not.

    Some things on that curriculum are recognised as basic needs such as Maths and English. Some other things help the kids appreciate the finer/creative points of life like Literature, Drama, Music, Art, Design, etc. Then there are the other interest subjects such as Languages, Geography, History and RE. However, there are many other basic life skills things aren’t given enough attention or are not appreciated enough such as Fitness, Health, First Aid, Nursing, Caring, Diet, Food, Cooking, Tax Forms, Driving, Cycling, Pride, Appreciation, Honour, Respect, Gardening, Farming, Irrigation, Waste Management, Energy Production, Recycling, Sustainability, Decision Making, Cooperation, Politics, Discussion, Argument, Critique, Debate, etc., etc.

    So what should a school be and what should happen there…? Perhaps it should be a fun vibrant place that interests people (kids) in aspects of real like, sparks their interest, helps them find out about stuff, teaches them stuff, lectures them with stuff. A place that gets them motivated to understand the interactions of friendship, cooperation and the common good. A place to rationally argue their points and control anger, understand their emotions and develop a motivated, caring and well-rounded individual. Can schools do this now? Not when there are the current problems of attitude and discipline along with poverty of knowledge and the bullying greed of neighbours, society and cultures that seems to pervade this modern (all in the name of profit) society.

    Can e-learning and the Digital Age make a difference? Maybe. If those that are more concerned with what is happening on their electronic gadgets than with real life, then perhaps it’s a way of making them notice and pay attention. Certainly the digital world via the internet puts a whole array of information at our finger-tips, but it’s not really learning or teaching as we understand it or really want it. I wouldn’t have passed my various exams if I hadn’t had exercise books to flick through, paper and drawing instruments, along with knowledgeable teachers available to demonstrate by example and to answer questions as they came up. Somehow, a digital resource for all that just isn’t the same as scratching marks on paper with a pencil, ruler and rubber, or mixing powder paints, or reading a play from a book together as a group. Sure, add in calculators, computers, phones, pads, etc., these can enhance things at times and create and present more complex situations to ask, answer and find out with, but are we really supposed to looking to bypass good, fun teaching and schooling in a quest for a digital replacement/nirvana?

    • Ah – if only the teachers were creative musicians / artists / choreographers, etc.. The trouble is that now they just play the notes on the score. The suggestion is that once all students have direct access to online learning materials they will take charge of their own learning.

      • Once you remove all the middlemen though, maybe then there is a chance for teachers to get back to studying the core subjects that got them into teaching in the first place. After all they were at one stage at least creative musicians / artists / choreographers, etc..

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