Unbundling the Lies in the Branding of Education

In a recent article a BBC writer Tom Chatfield, posed the question ‘Can schools survive in the age of the web?’  It’s a naive question insofar as it isn’t a matter of survival it’s more about any institution’s willingness to transform itself from an organisation which lays claim to being a conveyor of official knowledge to an establishment which acts as a conduit for learning and understanding in an age of competing ideologies and powerful vested interest groups.

Education in the general sense has always been contentious. Questions about what we are taught and how we are taught have been (and still are) at the forefront of teaching and learning.  Paulo Friere’s Critical Pedagogy and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society  are two approaches to teaching and learning which challenge us to critically appraise our knowledge and information societies and cultures and the processes through which they enable us to learn and have free unfettered access to knowledge and information.

The 2011 movie Detachment, portrays the aimless and depressing life of a substitute teacher who seems to drift from one  teaching post to another, aware to a degree of the cycle of success and failure within traditional forms of education, yet seemingly incapable of doing anything about it-the film is a kind of nihilist response to Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society. One of the key terms used in Detachment is ubiquitous assimilation; the idea that if we are flooded with constant, repetitive information and knowledge on a subject we will eventually accept it without any kind of critical appraisal.  Chatfield’s article embodies this term in its understanding of the debate or lack thereof about the assimilation of education into the corporate sector in general and the technology sector in particular.

His analysis of the impact that technology is having on education is limited to its capacity to deliver educational programmes, not in its ability to help people learn.  His examination of the issues is padded with examples and opinions but no depth in the argument. For instance the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are reported to have invested a million dollars into edX, claimed to be the world’s largest online learning initiative. Udacity has over 160,000 students in its online courses. The Khan Academy delivers online learning to tens of millions of autodidacts, and Ted talks have billions of views. (Chatfield, 2012). He continues citing Wikipedia, and the arguments put forward by Clay Shirky and others that contemporary education is being disrupted by “a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible.” (Chatfield, 2012). Attractive claims to make, but we could easily say that tens of millions of women throughout the world read The Women’s Weekly or Vogue, but where’s the evidence that the status of women throughout the world has been improved through reading these glossy covered gossip sheets?

What is not revealed or highlighted in the gushing positive support for this disruption is the lack of credible researched evidence that we are learning better and that what we are learning is creating better societies and a better world.  I have seen the work of Sugata Mitra and understand the aims and objectives of the One Laptop per Child Organisation. Yes, they are innovative, but only up to a point. Neither example provide us with any evidence that children who have access to knowledge and information via a laptop or a screen embedded in a concrete block in a New  Delhi slum are learning and retaining knowledge. Leaving aside the ethics of Mitra’s approach to educational research and the claims which have emanated from it, it is disingenuous to assert that initial intrigue and interest in a piece of new technology to the uninitiated is going to enable them to gain access to a place in their respective highly competitive and class driven literate societies, let alone teach themselves any kind of curriculum. Moreover,  further claims which have arisen from Mitra’s “experiments” are as equally insidious. Chatfield cites an MIT review which asserted that “if kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?” (Chatfield, 2012). The answer to that question is of a sociological nature not an educative one. It’s about the quality of life afforded to certain classes and cultures of city kids in New York, not what kinds of resources they lack (which is many) or have access to in their day-to-day lives.

Furthermore the spectacular claims being made about autodidactic (self-taught) learning and educational technologies are a part of the bundle of lies being propagated by the Corporate IT sector in promoting their products. Microsoft and Apple Inc. are at the forefront of the push to technologize education at the expense of understanding the specialisation of how we learn.  For example, the audacious claim that children in rural Ethiopia were able to move from rudimentary literacy skills in a second language to being able to hack the operating system indicates the failure of that project from both an ethical and pedagogical perspective, and undermines any credibility in the autodidactic argument..

Education has always been an uncomfortable place to inhabit-its very essence is to question and to debate what is of benefit to itself and to future generations of learners. With regard to technologies, mobile learning devices and access to online information there just isn’t the evidence that the quality of learning, the building on our current extensive bodies of knowledge, and the quality of life on the planet is going to substantially improve in the near future, no matter how many laptops, iPads, iPhones or other mobile learning devices are distributed to the poor and disenfranchised, or what MOOCs offer; especially when there’s anecdotal evidence  along with research which suggests that online learning and the use of technology in teaching and learning to the privileged  hasn’t significantly improved their educational success.

Chatfield, T. (2012). Can Schools Survive in the Age of the Web? London: BBC World Service.

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