File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

Old education is dead, long live the new (virtual) education

By Wesley Diphoko Time of article published May 20, 2020

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“What is this thing that has happened to us? It’s a virus, yes. In and of itself it holds no moral brief. But it is definitely more than a virus….. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

This is an excerpt of a poem by Arundhati Roy, published in the Financial Times. 

In the context of education and schools, what is the “carcass” and “dead idea of education” mentioned by Roy? A quick review of the history of education tells us that the current education (school) system is in many ways a dead idea. This is clear when one looks at historical review of the education and schooling system. 

According to Sir Ken Robinson, industrialism needed armies of manual workers for the repetitive and exhausting labour in the mines, factories,railways and shipyards. It needed more skilled technical workers in engineering and all the associated trades and crafts of mining, manufacturing, and construction. It needed cohorts of clerical and administrative workers to manage the new bureaucracies of trade and manufacturing. It needed a smaller professional class of lawyers, doctors, scientists, and academics to provide expert services to those who could afford them. 

Some industrial countries - especially Britain - had extensive colonial interests for which they needed an even smaller ruling class of diplomats, ambassadors, and civil servants to run the business empire at home and overseas.

The purpose of industrial manufacturing is to produce identical versions of the same products. Items that don’t conform are thrown away. In the same way, systems of mass education which are still present today were designed to mold students  in line with certain requirements. Because of that, not everyone makes it through the system, and some are even rejected by it, as evident in many schools in South Africa.

Industrial processes demand compliance with specific rules and standards, a principle that is still applied to education. The standard movement is based on compliance curriculum, teaching and assessment. As in typical factories, high schools and higher education in particular are organised around the division of labour. In high schools, the day is usually segmented into regular chunks of time. When the bell rings, everyone changes tasks and starts doing something else instead. Teachers specialise in particular subjects and move through the day from class to class in separate segments. While these principles may work well in manufacturing products, they can cause all kinds of problems in educating people, argues Sir Robinson.

Industrial processes are linear. Raw materials are turned into products through sequential stages, each with some form of testing as a gateway to the next. Mass education was designed as a series of stages , from elementary school to high school to higher education. Students are typically organised into separate year groups and progress through the system in batches that are defined by date of birth. 

In most cases, periodic tests determine who goes down which route and when.

Industrial production is related to market demand. If it rises or falls, manufacturers adjust production to meet it. Because of industry, economies needed comparatively few administrative and professional workers, thus the number of students admitted to universities was tightly controlled. In our times, the demand for intellectual labour has grown, and the doors to universities have flung open to increase the flow of graduates into the economy.

If we follow the line of reasoning by Roy, to persist on maintaining this type of education and insisting on going back to school in this form, society is, in a way, dragging the carcasses and dead idea of the old industrial system of education into the new world or post Covid-19 world.

What would it mean to “walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world”, as Roy puts it? 

It would mean to accept that schools need to adapt to the new normal, which partly means adopting virtual education. If we cast our eyes into the future, futurists and technologists tell us that the future is virtual and that it will be enabled by Spatial Computing. They also tell us that Spatial Computing is the most important learning technology humans have ever invented. This is due to the fact that it goes back to how the human brain learns. We learn a lot faster when we are engaged and when we can visualize. Spatial Computing brings both of those ingredients in big doses. Today, learning something out of a book, such as a chemistry equation, might take an hour.

Using Spatial Computing, it might take a minute to grasp the same knowledge―not to mention we will probably understand the concepts much better. In Virtual Reality, you become embodied in someone or something else. 

You can experience life through the eyes of another, which, in studies done in Stanford and other schools, builds not only empathy for those others, but as deep a memory as if you experienced the learning in the real world. You can also slow down time and take a different view; walk around a chemical molecule, for instance, or look at the results of a math equation in a way that would be impossible with any other method. That shift is also joined by another one: The learning can be delivered in real time on top of things we need to learn to manipulate. 

Let's say you need to learn how to take an oil pump out of a tractor. In the old world, you would have needed to either read an instruction manual and do it step-by-step or sit in a classroom where you would have memorized the steps. With Augmented Reality, the steps can be shown to you right on top of the real tractor. 

In some instances, it can even watch you work and warn you that you are about to do something wrong. Our understanding of this future reality should inspire a creation of  virtual classrooms where learners can  learn from each other―all without having to travel to a school.

Many would argue that this form of education would be difficult to implement due to affordability and access to resources and other digital divide related issues. These concerns are understandable, however it’s important that society finds a way to move forward and prepare learners for the new world of work. Part of doing this is to not continue to offer education under the old industrial framework. The key questions that need to be foremost on our minds are the following: 

What will it take to allow learners to have access to these new tools of learning? What practical steps can be taken now to ensure that all have access to the necessary tools to learn virtually?

These are some of the few issues that will be discussed at the upcoming Fast Company Talks virtual event on the 22nd May 2020. Prof Mmaki Jantjies from the University of the Western Cape, Information Systems department will share insights on the current state of e-learning in South Africa.

You can register to attend here: https://www.fastcompany.co.za/webinar

This article was originally published in Fast Company

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