Like most areas of life in the information age education is being profoundly impacted by new technology. One only need look at a gang of teenagers sitting silently staring down into their mobile phone to know that today’s students are very comfortable at interacting with technology. Perhaps even a little too comfortable, truth be told. Like the rest of us they have many new ways of consuming information even if the fundamental information itself has not changed. When I say consume I mean that in its most literal sense. We have become a society where the largest product is information it is various forms designed and packaged for easy consumption. Marshall McLuhan’s well known adage that the “medium is the message” and that technology itself changes not just the way that people interact with information but in subtle ways changes how we interact with each other and slowly changes our culture has been proved to be true.
Blackboards have been changed for whiteboards, overhead projectors for digital screens and the classroom itself is being replaced with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s), but are these changes actually delivering a better education for our young people. Student today have more educational resources available to them today than ever before with a massive internet containing the entire knowledge of humankind only as far away as their ubiquitous smartphone. Given the changing nature of work and the accelerating pace of technological change they will need all those resources to stay current in a changing world and will have to develop the habits of lifelong study if they wish to remain competitive in the job market.
Billions are now spent on the latest technologies by not just schools but also families that are concerned about their child being at a disadvantage in the increasingly competitive market for school places as well as the later job market. Whether it is being spent on hardware like laptops and ipads or on the latest online certification software or online management software. There is a constant push for newer faster and cheaper ways of funneling reams of information into students heads and testing the resulting output, but are these students actually getting the most useful education? Are we too focused on academic rigour that we are neglect other areas of education that are just as important in creating the well rounded individuals we all want our children to be. As the old project management triangle teaches us you can have it good, fast or cheap but you can only have 2 of the 3 at the same time as every choice will lead to compromise in the third area.
Yes, we live in a society where the ability to work with and use technology has become necessary to be considered employable and yes, this technology is changing at such a massive pace that being able to access education informally will be fundamental to remaining current. Online services like Codecademy and Khan Academy have been hugely democratising, making world class learning available to everyone no matter where they live or their social background. There is a danger however that this over emphasis on technological education will lead to neglecting the soft or social skills that schools in the past have allowed students to develop. It is rare that people reach the C suite without developing the ability to speak in public and persuade their audience. It is difficult to develop leadership skills and even emotional intelligence when you spend all your time interacting with technology and not with other humans.
There is a reason why the educational institutions of the elites such as private schools continue to provide the kind of education that even your grandparents would recognize. This classic liberal education with an emphasis on sports, music and the arts, subject that seem to be the first things abandoned by public education systems struggling for funding. Instead they place more emphasis on STEM subjects where tomorrows jobs will supposedly come from. There is a great danger however that rather than training people for the jobs of the future they are inculcating their students with the skills that are most likely to be replaced by artificial intelligence. Rather than giving them the on ramp of the information highway they are sending them down a technological cul de sac leading to a “replaced by robots” dead end. It seems counterintuitive but isn’t a machine going to have a much easier time writing code than it would in trying to persuade people to follow a course of action? It is precisely those soft human skills that it will be almost impossible for technology to do better. So the question must be asked, which two sides of the triangle are being emphasised in this drive to implement more technology into the education process. Are we trying for good, or just fast and cheap? The danger is that if we get it wrong it will lead to an even more stratified society with less social mobility.