It is important to place computers in the context of education as wherever else they are used. They are tools. Initially they were developed as calculators, then they became information processors, and now they are used for communication. And in many ways with this communication they have made writing obsolete. It is these aspects of using the computer as a tool which needs to be reflected in teaching. But using the computer should be understood in the same way as learning how to use any tool.
Unfortunately quite simply we don’t know how to use the computer as a tool, and in many ways through this ignorance in society we become the slave of the computer. How often are we told that the computer wants it this way, and we agree and obey. But what this actually means is that the operator or the programmer has not designed the software interface to be responsive enough to how the human would like to interact. When teaching computing I always stressed this, but of course it is not true that business wants this – that teaching was just a con. It is easier to force people to fit in with the computer than it is to design software properly.
We have become used to fitting in with the computer and thinking that the computer is far more than the tool it is. This is a problem education should address, but first of all has to get its act together and properly fund the use of the computer as a tool in schools. Education needs to recognise that computing needs proper support if it is going to be relied. Even at Microsoft’s School of the Future the support was not properly funded and the portal became a major source of failure within the school.
However as a tool the computer can be used for great educational benefit, and it is this I want to focus on. However I would like to consider the use of the computer as a tool first. There is now virtually immediate access to information via the internet. Certainly at school level this amount of free information can be a great advantage, but do we use it sufficiently? I would contend no. What is the major direction of our school curriculum? Examinations. What is the main mental attribute that we test in exams? Recall, our exams are basically a test of memory. Why do we need memory when we have the internet and a proliferation of databases etc. It is completely outmoded to be testing our memories as a means of measuring intelligence – even if it ever was a good measure. We should embrace this change in information gathering, and move from books to computers. I will consider this further later.
The other important tool which has become a recent change is the use of computer as a means of communication. The technologies with regards to this are continually changing, but for education to be current accepting that the computer is the main communication device should be reflected in the classroom. Whilst there is a need to teach writing, this skill might now be considered the second communication skill. There will always be a need to take written notes where technology is not available – we cannot ever assume there will be global technology available. That is unless we become one world where wealthy countries accept that the money they have accumulated belongs to the poorest people as well. Pipedream!
Is there any reason that exams cannot be written in a computer?
Is there any reason that the internet cannot be used in writing exams?
To address the issue of the capabilities of the computer as a tool in communication completely eschews some of the current education practices as outmoded. Examinations particularly become less and less viable. Apart from the appalling social consequences of our inadequate examination system they also become less and less a means of measuring what are useful human attributes. And this brings me to an important consequence of recognising computers for the tools that they are:-
WE SHOULD BE EDUCATING FOR HUMAN POTENTIAL AND THIS IS PRIMARILY WHAT A COMPUTER CANNOT DO.
Can a computer be creative? Does the computer have the ability of critical thinking? Can the computer be independent? Does it have insight or intuition?
And this brings me to autonomous mastery. I first came across these terms in a talk on motivation by Dan Pink. There are his talks available from TED and RSA but I liked the RSAnimate best:-
Embed and download
One significant factor about Dan Pink is that he is not educating for schools but he is trying to advise business, and he discusses motivation. Summarising he sees money as motivation for mechanical tasks, but he sees purpose, autonomy and mastery as motivations for other tasks.
This dichotomy is an important niche for education because I also interpret that business is seeking employees who possess purpose, autonomy and mastery. And these three a computer cannot provide.
How does this apply to schools? What if a classroom was wifi? Then the breadth of educational ideas the students could be exposed to is phenomenal, akin to the world of work. If within this wifi classroom students could be encouraged to develop a project-based approach to learning where they direct their own learning through the internet, how much would this show autonomy and purpose? And with the teacher’s help would they not be in a position to develop mastery?
Is this far-fetched? Maybe. But what about the approach in Finland? Firstly Finland is considered #1 by the OECD, checkout this blog article and maybe follow the links?
“In a Finnish classroom, it is rare to see a teacher standing at the front of a classroom lecturing students for 50 minutes. Instead, students are likely to determine their own weekly targets with their teachers in specific subject areas and choose the tasks they will work on at their own pace. In a typical classroom, students are likely to be walking around, rotating through workshops or gathering information, asking questions of their teacher, and working with other students in small groups. They may be completing independent or group projects or writing articles for their own magazine. The cultivation of independence and active learning allows students to develop metacognitive skills that help them to frame, tackle, and solve problems; evaluate and improve their own work; and guide their learning processes in productive ways.”
This is a PR paper produced by the Finland education ministry on their approach to learning.
Whilst in Finland they don’t go as far as I suggest, the successful work there clearly indicates that a wifi classroom of autonomous mastery is not that far-fetched.
If worked through properly such a classroom would provide an education that deals with the motivation and engagement issues that are currently a problem in our classrooms. When integrated with the other 3 aspects that Matriellez puts forward the system does appear to have merit.