Sunday, 6 January 2013

Why IT is bad for education

For my work, I make it my responsibility to know the drawbacks and downsides of IT, as well as its benefits and advantages. Since reading a magazine article by Marcus du Sautoy two years ago, I've been aware of a particularly insidious side-effect of IT's use in education, which has the potential to degrade and undermine the educational enterprise. That side-effect wasn't mentioned or discussed in the article: it was visible only in one particular phrase, the implications of which Marcus du Sautoy seemed only dimly aware.

That phrase was his summary statement of “what it is that I do as a mathematician and a writer”:
My job is, as the jargon goes, to “deliver content” in as many different forms and to as many different people as possible.
What he was doing was explaining how his venture into e-books and smartphone apps was simply an extension of  his work as a professional mathematician (“I prove theorems”), his formal teaching (lecturing in universities, schools and prisons), his informal teaching through books and programmes on television and radio, his collaboration with theatre companies and musicians on art pieces to explore mathematical themes, and his work on internet maths games. He was showing how all this work formed part of a single domain. But to do so, he used a phrase  - "deliver content" - which (as the scare quotes and the distancing "as the jargon goes" showed he was aware) came from quite a different and specialist domain: that of IT.

Now the word "content" sounds quite innocuous. Teachers or academics may use it and suppose that it means "course content" or "teaching content", roughly equivalent to "subject matter" or "subject knowledge". "Delivering content" sounds very like delivering a lecture, a class or a training course. Academics may also understand “content” as being opposed to “form, or perhaps to “structure”, allowing them to think of how essentially the same subject matter can be presented in different ways.

In IT, however, “content” has a different meaning. It means the information contained in a website, a database, or a computer file – as in the expression “content management system”. Delivering content means moving information from one place to another, irrespective of what that information, that content, actually represents. If you're emailing a digital photograph to a friend, it may matter to the IT system what format the file is in and how big it is, but the system does not know and does not care what the photograph shows. If you want to put some learning materials on a website, the IT people will want to know how many words there are, and whether you’ve got audio or video, but they won’t care what the words say or what’s in the audio and video or what students are supposed to do with it in order to learn.

Delivering content is what the IT industry does. It is the practical and commercial application of the central premise of information theory: that complex problems can be solved by reducing them to issues of signal, channel, noise and gain. The IT industry’s strength and success rests on the extraordinary degree to which real-world problems really are susceptible of treatment in terms of information flow: of not knowing and not caring what the information or content actually is, and focusing solely on whether it is delivered correctly. Just like postal services or courier companies, IT people's responsibility is limited to delivery on time and in good condition, and their relationship with sender or receiver need go no further than that. (You may be lucky enough to have a web developer who is actually interested in what you are trying to say and do with your web content, just as you may be lucky enough to have a courier or postal worker who is actually interested in you as a person, but this is not something which you should expect.)

The consequence of this is that when IT people approach the subject of education, they tend to see it in terms of transmission of information, because that's what they're good at. The technology which they design and build, therefore, tends to focus on the flow of information between teacher and student - and also, in these days of social media, between students - rather than any other aspect of teaching and learning. For example, when “virtual learning environments” or VLEs were first created for university teaching, they were designed on the assumption that their purpose was to get information - lecture notes, PowerPoints, articles to read - from teachers to students, and so that was the way in which university teachers found it easiest to use them (Britain and Liber, 2004, p. 4).

And this is the problem: that information theoretical thinking does not stay within the domain of IT, but through the widespread use of the technology and the surrounding vocabulary it bleeds out into the language and thinking of teachers, so that they too start conceiving their work in terms of information transmission instead of teaching. So even a good teacher such as Marcus du Sautoy can come to believe that his job is to "deliver content".

Why is it a problem to conceive of teaching as the transmission of information? Three reasons.

The first is that it’s bad teaching. Learning, even memorisation or assimilation, is an active process, and to treat students as though they're a passive receiver of information like a radio set or a hard disk is to encourage them to work at too low a level, not trying to do anything more than remember and repeat it.

The second is that it widens social divisions. If teaching only delivers information, it favours those with the educational experience and intellectual capital to make good use of it, disadvantaging those with less privileged backgrounds. This may not be a problem if you are happy to focus on the education of elites, but if you have a mission for social justice, as we do at the Open University, this most definitely is a problem.

The third problem with seeing teaching as the delivery of information - a problem for universities and other educational institutions at least - is that it threatens their existence. Information is cheap, or thought of as such thanks to the internet; there are no fees for the MOOCs or Massive Online Open Courses which a few leading institutions have started to provide (see here, here and here). If all universities do is provide access to information, they have no economic or moral basis for continuing in their present form.

But of course, even focusing solely on their teaching function, that is not all that universities do.
Those of us who work in such institutions and believe that we do have a social role to play may need to remind ourselves, and keep reminding others, that the business of a university is not the delivery of content but the transformation of lives.

No comments:

Post a Comment