The problem with most educational responses to the pressures of the Digital Age is that they have been of the first-order variety. Janet Murray described this as “new technologies are extending our powers faster than we can assimilate the change.”
She goes on to say, in Hamlet on the Holodeck: “Even when we are engaged in enterprises that cry out for the help of a computer, many of us still see the machine as a threat rather than an ally. We cling to books as if we believed that coherent human thought is only possible in bound, numbered pages.
I think we all know at some level that she is right. I hear my colleagues saying “We need to change” all the time.” However, what we define as “change” often revolves around adding new technologies to existing sets of stories.
Murray realized early on that we cling to notions of the prior technological and systemic world and this impedes our ability to see, and shape, new stories. We learn to fail faster but do not understand the roots of those failures because we never critically examine the underlying stories that may or may no longer make sense in the current context.
Much of the effort of the last two decades has been centered around technology platforms that enhance what we are able to do in the classroom. Much of this this effort revolves around “enhancing” old narratives with new technology. Around the edges there has been discussion of approaches such as active learning and empowered learning but, at the end of the day, most classes still resemble those of 1950 or even 1920.
One of my frustrations as an educational innovator has been my inability to fundamentally break through some of the basic assumptions that underlie the activity in most learning environments. Distance education has merely transferred the anachronisms of the physical classroom to the digital world (and created an inferior product in most instances). The only solution to these fundamental issues is to get people to step back and think about what they’re really doing as they’re trying to teach, assess, and, hopefully, connect with their students.
Supposedly “digital” learning environments are far from it because they never question the paradigmatic assumptions from the analog classrooms they are trying to mimic. The digital world allows us to reconfigure everything, even the physical world. It allows us to question the very nature of the term “classroom” and yet we still use that metaphor to describe an environment where learning begins—and often ends. Are grades an anachronistic vestige of mass production model of education, where students resemble widgets more than they do minds?