Saturday, 5 August 2017

Education? There's an App for that!

There is no doubt that digital and modern technologies have disrupted our modes of teaching. The resources and inputs into teaching have changed to incorporate computer aided approaches, flipped classrooms, mobile phone enabled interactions, video capturing of lectures, digital whiteboards and enhanced realities. The old "Sage on the Stage" has been pushed into becoming the "Guide on the Side" or possibly even further out of the picture by the technology revolution. And yet, the national scores in NAPLAN and our competitive education ranking against other countries are slipping. First responders to this comparative crisis are calling for the return of traditional teachers with their "3R's", or the importation of the world's elite teachers to up skill our home grown teachers, or maybe just a return to the pre-disruption days.

But rather than mourning the disruption of the inputs, perhaps we should be disrupting the outputs from our academic systems. Schools, as places where children were collected and taught by a teacher, evolved as farming communities developed. Children could be taught en masse because those farming communities needed numbers of people to do the same activities again and again to maintain the crops or the live stock. If all the graduates from the school were the same each year, the farms, and subsequently the factories after the industrial revolution, could use them as interchangeable inputs to keep the economy going.

Things have changed though. Certainly, the inputs to schools have improved: from slates to pen and paper and now to iPads and Tablets. The schools are bigger and air conditioned and the teachers are professionally trained. But the outputs may not have fundamentally changed over the decades - successful schools still produce young men and women who can follow instructions; read, write and do arithmetic; and hopefully be ready to enter the workplace.  Our new teaching technologies might help these students to achieve all these things even better, but maybe, given all the other disruption caused by our technology, they may not need to do them any more.

Take "spelling" as a point - obviously still one of those fundamental skills our young men and women need. In my own primary school days, I regularly got an "A" for spelling. But my "A" was for absent! I was a terrible speller - so bad I literally made myself sick. Every Friday morning I had an asthma attack and sat fighting for breath while the others in my class spelled the lists of 20 words memorised for that week. Wouldn't happen today. Today, 2 year olds just have fun while learning to spell on their digital devices - catching monkeys or whatever while typing out words and being rewarded with exciting sounds. Don't get me wrong, I worked hard at spelling and my parents and teachers were hard working hands on too, drilling me regularly and using both carrots and sticks. Didn't work though, and I don't think monkeys or iPads when I was 2 would have worked for me either. But I can write now - and the spelling works - but this is due to other digital tools that are available. I can usually get close enough to a word for the predictive text to list a few relevant options for me to click and/or check with the online thesaurus to ensure I have the right one. But when I cannot get that close, I simply and literally say "Hey Siri, define sigh-cology" and back comes "Define psychology: the scientific study of the human mind and its functions, especially those affecting behaviour in a given context..." A quick bit of copying and pasting and there you are: spelling skills unnecessary. Just think of all that time I could have saved and all those panic episodes I could have avoided if only I had known that I would not need to try (and fail) to memorise all those words when I was in primary school!

Despite the spelling I could read well. But some of my school colleagues were not so fortunate and went though similar reading-oriented wasted efforts and panic. Now "...there's an app for that!" Seriously. You can point your iPhone at all a sign, some text or a book and your device will read it for you, complete with definitions if you want. Auto translations from hundreds of languages are also available if you ask. Similarly, mathematics and science, history and geography apps abound - if it is data-based then there is likely an App that can extract it. Does NAPLAN still score primary school children on their memorisation of spelling, their reading, ability to recall names of long rivers, or even shortcuts to integrate a mathematical function,  in the absence of any technology more advanced than a pen? Why? Do we need that sort of "output" from our schools any more?

"But what if the technology fails" I hear the traditionalists cry. Well frankly, if our computer networks collapse badly enough that the above technology becomes permanently unavailable then I don't think we need to worry about NAPLAN scores. Our commercial, retail and of course social systems are becoming so reliant on these digital technologies that society is simply assuming they must be there to build on. WiFi and cheap Internet devices may soon become a basic right for all - already free WiFi is commonly available over entire city areas and many schools provide or require all students to have a device. So what sort of graduates do we need for the future? We don't need large numbers who can all do the same thing adequately- the farms and factories now only need a relatively small number of people to supervise the machines. We don't need large numbers of humans to follow instructions well- even present day robots are good at following instructions meticulously.

We need graduates who are good at one thing or passionate about one thing. Basic economics suggests that even if you are good at several things, it is best to focus on your best even if your best is not as good as some one else's second best. Graduating classes, with each individual having a passion or just 1 thing they are good at, supported by technology that allows them to communicate and access the vast historical wealth of human knowledge, may be all we need from our schools. A massive diversity of passionate individuals, supported by the technology, cannot help but create new services and new opportunities that will not be subject to automation or replacement by robots. As a society, we don't need thousands of pure mathematicians or thousands of historians. Just a few passionate ones may do for the country. But we may need thousands of new options and opportunities for the future generations whose old jobs and services have been disrupted by the digital world. That is what we need from our schools

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