The great ideas in edtech are old. And that’s an opportunity.

by P

I’ve been participating in the edtech reading group here at MIT, which brings together people from the Media Lab and CSAIL (Computer Science and Artifical Intelligence Lab). We have mainly looked at technology as a way to increase quality, efficiency, or measurability of learning – similar to a lot of the discussion in the education / technology / policy space these days.

Given that I am a visiting researcher at the Media Lab I thought it would be nice to dig into the treasure trove of past work done right here at the Lab and some of the thinkers that have influenced the way that learning happens at the Lab.

I chose two articles:

Seymour Papert, who was one of the founding academics of the Lab, published A Critique of Technocentrism in Thinking About the School of the Future in 1990. Many of his concerns and insights still apply today as hopes spiral once again that technology will save the education system, asking what the computer can do to our learning. But as Papert writes, “The question is not ‘What will the computer do to us?’ The question is ‘What will we make of the computer?’ The point is not to predict the computer future. The point is to make it.”

And reading Illich’s description of learning webs (published in 1971) I am equal part excited, because of the possibilities to build many of the things he imagined, and deflated because of the slow progress we have made towards his vision. What have we been doing in the 40 years that have passed?

I believe that no more than four — possibly even three — distinct “channels” or learning exchanges could contain all the resources needed for real learning. The child grows up in a world of things, surrounded by people who serve as models for skills and values. He finds peers who challenge him to argue, to compete, to cooperate, and to understand; and if the child is lucky, he is exposed to confrontation or criticism by an experienced elder who really cares. Things, models, peers, and elders are four resources each of which requires a different type of arrangement to ensure that everybody has ample access to it.

His challenge to us still stands: “Technology is available to develop either independence and learning or bureaucracy and teaching.” Which brings me to the title of this post. Let’s look for the the ideas that will read as fresh and insightful in 2050 as Illich sounds today, and let’s execute on bringing his vision to live with technology that didn’t exist when he wrote, rather than focus on increasing efficiency of the industrial education.