I was re-reading John Dewey’s 1938 book Experience & Education at the weekend, when I came across this quote which I found particularly, almost presciently, relevant to today’s discussions about the role of technology in education:
“We may reject knowledge of the past as the end of education and thereby only emphasise its importance as a means. When we do that we have a serious problem that is the new story of education: How shall the young become acquainted with the past in such a way that the acquaintance is a potent agent in appreciation of the living present?”
The internet has given students across the world instant access to almost any information that they might want to learn. This has been heralded as a great transformation in education. Of course it is… to an extent. No longer need students rely on the information in the heads of their teachers and the pages of their limited supply of books.
Looked at through the lens of Dewey’s quote however, that advance loses some of its glister: once we reject the attainment of knowledge as the end of education, the ability to access limitless amounts of it seems… rather less exciting. Furthermore, there’s a danger that because technology solves the problem of information accessibility so well, we are fooled into thinking that that was the big problem that needed to be solved. It wasn’t.
The big problem – I agree with Dewey on this – was how to create meaningful learning experiences that let students ‘become acquainted’ with new information in a way that helps them to better appreciate their present and future. If you believe that that remains the big problem today, then the exciting challenge becomes working out how technology can help to create those experiences: by creating new social dynamics between people, by empowering people to learn new skills more easily than they thought possible… or in any other way that you can imagine!
There is another view, of course. The view that the traditional modes of education are – more or less – ok. That view rejects the dreams of Dewey in mid 20th century, and countless others today who plan wholesale disruption of the way that we are educated. If you believe in that view, then access to the traditional learning materials was the big problem, and technology has already mostly solved it. All that remains is to make sure that as many people as possible can get online and get access to the materials, and a way to judge which materials are the very best.
But I think that aims too low. Universal access to information is a good start. But only when we re-invent the moment-by-moment experience of learning will we achieve changes that are worthy of the astonishing potential of technology.