Saturday, December 16, 2017

Computers and Television

I'm going to spin off from this piece on Hackernoon, a blog sponsored by mabl, a tech conmpany based in Boston. The piece is written by Erik Vermeulen, a business and financial professor at Tilburg University, who bills himself as "professor, executive, entrepreneur." I picked this article, though there are plenty of others, because he doesn't have anything to say that lots of business-minded technophiles aren't also saying with increasing frequency. And they're all wrong.

Google search result for "computer disruption." Just sayin'

Professor Vermeulen will now demonstrate the standard features of this particular genre.

In "Education Disrupted (Finally!)" Vermeulen wants to argue about how education is being radically disrupted by technology. This, incidentally, is a realization he reached "last week." Welcome to the party, professor.

1) Writer is actually fairly uninformed about the field of education? Check:

And I have to admit that if you are active as a teacher or interested in education, you might think that education hasn’t changed much over the last few decades.

Nope. If you're active as a teacher, you're probably pretty tired of people who think education hasn't changed in the past decades, or century.

Of course, we are all making more use of digital technology. But many people think the “essence” of teaching (transferring knowledge, information and skills) hasn’t dramatically changed.

Nope. That's training, not education. If you think the essence of education is transferring knowledge, you may also believe the essence of music is just making the air vibrate, or the essence of kissing is just mashing your lips together.

2) Belief that education no longer needs to involve Knowing Stuff because we have technology to hold all the knowledge we'll ever need? Check.

In a digital age, education is less about students acquiring knowledge.  

Actually, here in the US we are living through a fairly striking example of what happens when a large number of citizens and nominal leaders decide that Knowing Stuff is really unnecessary. So far, it hasn't been pretty. Pick and choose your "facts," or just make some up, and argue incessantly about which sources are believable or unfake without considering the measure of whether the source presents things that are verifiably correct.

No, we're living through a pretty dramatic demonstration that a solid background of knowledge is fairly critical in navigating the world like a responsible human being.

Instead, the classroom of the future focuses on offering an experience that builds the capacity for living and working in a world of artificial intelligence, connected machines and automation. And such an experience can only be “successful” if it spurs curiosity, unleashes creativity, and demands teamwork

We'll come back to that bit about AI in a minute. For now, note that Vermeulen demonstrates his ignorance of the education world by suggesting that spurring curiosity, unleashing creativity, and demanding teamwork are somehow bold new ideas that teachers haven't been talking about for the last fifty years. Nor is it clear (I didn't cut anything out of the middle of this quote) how we leap from the need to get along with our computer overlords to the demands for these very human qualities.

Vermeulen refers to three events that spurred his epiphany last week.

First, he read an op-ed in a newspaper, which noted that new tech is being introduced not enough and in the wrong way, and we're preparing students for old jobs. "The fact that a rather conventional local newspaper pays attention to the tech makeover of the school curriculum convinces me that the way we are thinking about education has really changed. See #1 above. Vermeulen should probably read a few more articles.

Second, some teachers on a site got upset that students were uploading class materials without permission. "Napster," says Vermeulen, who encourages teachers to join the open-source world, where teachers are no longer authorities on their subject, but just motivators. In fact, in his third event, he attended a conference and realized that the best lectures are like TED talks. So maybe teachers should, you know, do that.

Vermeulen just doesn't get tired of flaunting his lack of knowledge:

If young people aren’t motivated they just lose interest. As educators, we need to think more about how to engage and inspire them.

BAM!!! That thunderclap is the sound of a million teachers whacking palm to forehead. "Motivate students?!" They are crying. "Gosh, we never thought of that!" But it's possible that many of the million never thought of Vermeulen's solution to the problem:

And no doubt this requires more disruption.

What kind of disruption, you ask? Well, it's already here. And that brings us to the third reliable trait of these pieces.

3) Magical thinking and childlike faith in the efficiency, clarity and correctness of anything that comes out of a computer.

Certainly, this change will put more pressure on teachers. They have to adapt materials more often and keep up to date with the latest trends in technology. New technological developments need to be addressed and incorporated into the curriculum. References to online resources have to be constantly reviewed and assignments renewed.

Or, as other writers have suggested, why teach all this knowledge stuff and write your own lesson plans when you can just Google it?

There is this notion that software, computers, and AI can deliver a better educational product, that computers can be the foundation of a perfectly personalized education.

But a computer is not like a God. In fact, I would say it's much more like a television.

The AI's we're being sold these days are not actual independent thinkers-- they're algorithms, collections of long, complex rules, and those rules were written by human beings. Even software that supposedly teaches itself does so by use of human-written rules.

Back in 1979, when I was learning to program in BASIC on punch cards, the first rule of computer work was already GIGO-- Garbage In, Garbage Out. There is nothing that comes out of a computer that is not soaked in the human biases and mistakes of the humans who created it. Khan Academy is lovely, but it's not always right. And if the CDC starts creating educational software tomorrow, how will it be affected by the administration's ban on Seven Naughty Words? And if Net Neutrality is really dead, just how trustworthy and useful will the results that may or may not come to us through the newly-throttled cyberscape?

A computer is like a television-- it is the delivery end of a long conduit, and what comes through that pipe could be anything. The fact that material has come to us through that pipeline does not confer any special status on that material. It does not arrive at the user end scrubbed clean. Turn on FOX and you get the twisted propaganda they fed into it; if some FOX News software arrives to help you "teach" politics, it will be just as trustworthy.

Nor does technology generate scholarship. Vermeulen can exhort teachers to just put their stuff out their on the net, but I'm betting that as an entrepreneur, he does not focus on how to give away products and services for free. Teachers need to eat, too, which means that, as is happening with all sorts of content, they will find ways to protect their rights and their material. That, in turn, means that the whole idea that you can just log on and find top notch stuff is doubtful. The easier it is to find and access, the less likely it is to be worth anyone's time, and the freer it is, the more likely it is to be a ploy to turn you, the user, into a product.

This is one of the mysteries at the heart of some peoples' conception of tech-centered or tech-driven learning-- that quality content will somehow just come into existence by magic, that someone will create these great lessons and materials that will flow out of the computer, even as the technophiles assure us that teachers won't have to create all that stuff anymore, because... well, wait. Where did it come from? 

Education is always being disrupted-- by the teachers who work in the field and who are always looking for ways to do a better job with the students in front of them. But technology, like television, is not a What-- it's a How, and the notion that a better How will somehow magically improve the What survives mostly among people who don't know much about either the How or What that's going on in schools right now. For my final exhibit, consider Vermeulen's closing lines:

Teachers need to become collaborators with the students. It spurs lifelong learning, which can only lead to more creativity and curiosity in the classroom.



  1. Such an excellent analysis once again!

    And yes, college professors evidently know nothing at all about actual teaching and learning.

    I would always incorporate new "developments" into my curriculum, but they were based on cognitive learning psychology, not technology. I mean, if your subject matter were technology, that would be one thing.

    Technology also doesn't help with the Why.

  2. I remember a college student who told me she didn't need to know stuff on the job because she could just Google it. I asked if sometimes one could find conflicting "facts" on the internet. She said yes. I asked what happens when she has to pick such a "fact" and it turns out to be false. She was silent. I then told her, that her employers would then fire her.

  3. At what point will know-nothings like Vermuelen realize just how clueless they are and just how ridiculously stupid they sound? Have they no shame - spewing the same worn-out tropes, misrepresentations, embarrassingly ignorant claims.
    Proponents of “Tech-Based-Disruption” seem to think that their ivory tower mumbo jumbo will translate into a classroom revolution while completely underestimating the scale of the change they think they can evoke and absolutely misunderstanding classroom dynamics, adolescent psychology, and the socially distracted and often jaded nature of most post elementary school students. On average, a child will experience about 18,000 classroom periods of instruction over the course of their K to 12 years. The fundamental nature of this grin is exactly why there can be no magic silicon-based elixir. Regardless of pedagogy, or standards, or curriculum, school will continue to be a generally mundane and boring experience for most students who seem happy following a path of least resistance while trying to have fun with their friends. Adults like Vermuelen imagine that their latest software program will produce vibrant classrooms full of excited, self-motivated children collaborating to solve real world problems like teams of Googlers. They couldn’t be more delusional.

  4. I refuse to use technology except as a resource for information my 7th Grade Science Classes. They must learn how to think and evaluate first, then use technology. Like I tell them, I can teach a monkey how to press a button, but he will not understand what the results are. A very simple example is the lack of basic math skills. Without a calculator they can't handle simple math problems.

  5. NYteacher for the win. Kids can't be disrupted the way technology can. Most students are NOT going to work for Google.