Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Road to Nowhere - Education Department

Paleo-Future, a blog devoted to what the future used to look like, regulary runs clips from the CD-ROM that was packaged with The Road Ahead by Bill Gates back in the 90s. That was an attempt by Gates to show how information technology was going to change the way we live. Apart from the embarrassing hairstyles, overly chirpy tone, and endless product placements in the video clips, it's actually one of the more accurate looks at the future - but, as always happens when somebody predicts the future, there are funny anachronisms. (Such as a "future of police work" clip in which a detective says, "Can I record this conversation?" and then slams down some kind of digital sound recorder the size of a three ring-binder on a desk.)

There's one clip, however, that really struck me, because it hit on a pet peeve of mine. Whenever technology entrepreneur types start talking about education, their complaints with our education system mostly sound like, "They don't use enough of the high tech products that we sell."

I don't think they mean it as self-centered as that sounds - it just comes out that way. These are folks who've seen IT change the way we bank, buy things, plan travel, and so on, and they assume that a dose of technology will make education better.

I'm really skeptical of that; the most important part of education is learning how to think, and I don't believe that technologies that makes markets and transactions more efficient (by providing markets with better information, by reducing transaction costs and times, and so on) are likely to help students learn to think critically, analyze information, draw logical conclusions, and so on. In fact, I think there's a real risk of just the opposite: creating student ADD akin to that suffered by managers who can't focus for 10 minutes because they're checking their email.

Yes, there are some ways that technology is great: providing better access to information to do research, for example. But that's changing processes, not changing fundamentals.

And so here's the clip of the Bill Gates classroom of the future.


It's funny, but it's also horrifying; with technology, instead of sitting in a boring, 20th century library actually finding information about his topic, the student was able to make a video clip which inspired his class to shake their booties to that funky Incan beat while offering absolutely no information (other than "The Incans are dead now").

(And what's with all the kids giggling about an entire civilization being wiped out? Nice.)

If that's the classroom of the future, we're doomed.

More to the point, this is why when tech entrepreneurs start lecturing educators about how to teach, somebody should send them an email or IM to distract them and shut them up.

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