The Future of Digital Education


Today I have two reading suggestions for you about Digital Education. These are two very important readings and they well relate to the considerations on online education I talked about the last time I wrote you. Since the readings are long, I’ll be brief. I suggest you to read them two times: the first one thinking of the specific topic they are about (online education delivered or provided by computers and algorithms) and the second one trying to abstract the topic from its context and generalise (since algorithms are increasingly becoming part of our everyday life).

Who does “Professor Computer” work for?

Kids in class learning with computers

The first reading is a keynote in which Audrey Watters, a researcher in the education field, discusses the use of the computer in class. According to her research, education delivered by computers doesn’t seem to be that super dooper cool thing that was announced to be in 2012, year during which MOOCs, online courses accessible by anyone who has an internet connection, came to the fore as the future of education and made the world discover a reality that was already on track by a long time: backing up a teacher with a digital tutor. Not only Professor “Computer” does not seem to give a better education to students, although in theory it could give a tailored education pathway according to personal skills and improvements, but it is poorly stimulating critical thinking as it focuses only on the result by following a prescheduled process. A different process to achieve the same result is considered wrong so that students are practically put in hands of the computer that becomes a grim master, training and restraining them to become tests solvers instead of being a revolutionary and freedom oriented tool at their service. This just benefits “ the schools” that need to measure their reliability in terms of number of students who passed the test with a certain overall score rather than benefit the student itself.

The limits of algorithmic education on digital education

The second reading, that also interrogates itself on Watters’ concerns, is an article by Will Oremus on blog “Slate” that points out great deal of clarity on algorithmic education. A course held by a computer sets the single lessons and exercises to the learning capability demonstrated by the single students, Oremus also continues analysing in depth by measuring its effectiveness and results pointing out an overview that doesn’t seem to have a happy setting, but just confirms Audrey Watters’ considerations.

Berlin’s nightlife can surprisingly tell you more about online education.

For instance the description of the class of kids lined up In front of monitors, similar to the one represented in the picture here above, reminds me of my trip to Berlin in 2004. Wandering around the streets at night with my friends we crushed in a bar called “Automation”. A big room left out of any form of decoration, with a long counter running along three of the four walls surrounding the bar and stools set at regular intervals. Regulars spent time shoving 1 euro coins in a slot to select music videos – the preferred genres were punk, post-industrial, metal and electronic music – to watch on screen and listen with headphones. The music video consumption was perfectly isolated creating an unreal silence, interrupted only by the squeaking of the stools on which the regulars followed their favourite rhythm, or the creak of customers’ steps to break another bill into more coins, reaching the little counter behind which there was just one girl, the only member of the staff, or again to buy another beer at the vending machine. It is useless to say it wasn’t a cheerful place. It was sad and it failed in providing the main objective of a bar, socialising. The few available seats were occupied, thus this surely satisfied the need of that bunch of regulars.

Well, the photograph used by Watters in that slide and the description of the class for the algorithmic learning by Oremus reminded me of “The Automation”. It is not a nice image.

An Educational Science Fact

Sticking to the education topic, but changing point of view, you surely have heard of or read about an American teacher who gave a bad mark to a student because in a test he answered that 5 x 3 was equal to 5+5+5, while the correct answer was 3+3+3+3+3. You must have seen it, it was on every Facebook newsfeed and every possible daily newspaper. All internet raised against the teacher that was guilty A) of being an ignorant, because according to the commutative property 5 x 3 = 3 x 5 = 5 + 5 +5 = 3 + 3 + 3 +3 + 3 = 15 and most of all B) of blocking the student’s potential and critical thinking because he found another way to solve the problem.

This article on Medium explains that maybe not…Internet calm down! Maybe the teacher is right and the kid’s answer is wrong. The fact the result is the same one doesn’t mean that was the answer to give.

The Method

It makes me think at when I teach fencing: often, maybe because they figure it out, maybe because they already saw how to do it somewhere else, students realise how to execute a certain move, a certain counterattack way before I get to explain it. When it happens, I block them. Realising that from passage A you can jump to passage C can be counterproductive it they don’t understand how B works which is in the middle and that after they will have to expect D. Thus, one thing at the time, a passage per time: at the end everything will be clear, understanding everything step by step grasping each passage at the right moment.

So what do these three articles mean all together, what is the point?
I still don’t know, but there is something they have in common that makes a lot of sense to me: a class works better firstly if there is a real teacher, that follows the students individually and as a group, and secondly if the student are not left alone with there exercises and activities determined by the algorithm but they help each other in their studies.

How education is delivered now has limits, for instance the capability of the teacher to do his work. If the number of the students in a class is too high the teacher is not capable to follow each of them properly. There is a spatial and temporal bind: if you want to benefit from the teaching (especially from the teaching of a good teacher) you have to be “there and in that moment”, the fact that the system cannot grow implies that a teacher can only give no more than a certain amount of lessons a day.

These are all starting points, pillars on which we can start building the answer to the question: “ what is the future of digital education”?