How Should Education Work in the Information Age?

It’s clear that classroom time no longer needs to be taken up by relaying information. It was always meant to be so much more.

I was 12 years old in 1984 when I saw Star Trek III, The Search for Spock. After the crew finds Spock’s regenerated body on Genesis, they go to Vulcan, where Spock’s soul is put back in his body. Spock then undergoes a kind of rehabilitation—including rapid re-education.

We get only a brief glimpse of Spock’s accelerated re-education program, but that brief glimpse made my 12-year-old heart leap. Spock stood in front of a screen with images and audio rapidly cascading over him. I wished I could learn like that. Faster.

Today, when I watch videos—like talks at Google or TED—it’s at a minimum of 1.5x speed (often higher). Same for nonfiction audiobooks. I don’t speed up fiction because that’s all about rhythm, but non-fiction? Warp Factor 9, Sulu.

As I watch or listen to things sped up, I fantasize about traveling back in time to adjust the speed of every lecture I listened to in high school. How much time would I have saved? Not necessarily to cross the finish line faster, but to spend the surplus time lighting the fires of my passions instead of slowly filling my mental bucket.

Should it really take 13 years to learn the foundational material we’re presented between the ages of 5 and 18? The K through 6 years obviously require a much more in-depth, hands-on, one-on-one approach to teaching and learning, but as we move into the upper grades, more and more of our classes are taught in a lecture and discussion and/or workshop format. It’s that format in particular that seems most ripe for a formal overhaul that takes full advantage of the information age.

When I worked as an adjunct college instructor, one day I substituted for a geology teacher. She left me instructions: Play an audio cassette of her giving a lecture. As I stood there, a few things became obvious to me.

First, this format of the teacher merely speaking and the students merely listening was the default mode of 90% of that course, and many others. If a student had access to the audio (or video) of all these lectures, not only would she be able to learn 90% of the course material, but she would also be able to listen (or watch) at the pace of her choosing, perhaps getting through that foundational material in half the time. And, as Velvet Jones would say, “All from the comfort of your own bed.”

Today, several online learning platforms allow you to do just that. Instead of a teacher delivering the same lecture over and over again, a lecture can be delivered once and learned over and over again. The teacher and students can then devote class time to discussion, project-based learning, deepening of knowledge, and making additional connections.

For many subjects—even physical ones—there exists a foundational level of information that can be absorbed via audio or video, then deepened in a classroom.

Coursera offers university courses in many subjects. Lynda offers courses in software, creative arts, and business. The Khan Academy lets students go as deep as they want to go in math, science, engineering, computing, history, and economics, at their own pace. Jamie Oliver’s Food Tube gives people one-minute cooking tips, foundational knife skills, and hundreds of recipes. Jiu-jitsu is probably the last subject you would think could be taught online, but the Gracie Academy gives students videos of over 800 techniques, expertly broken down. In class, the instructor helps students refine their technique and put it all together. After class, students can review the material again and see it anew based on their direct experience.

With all these platforms, there is a clear distinction between the presentation of material by a teacher (the videos) and the necessary time in the classroom (or dojo or kitchen) without which there can be no real mastery. The public is expected to do that part on their own, but in a high school setting, classroom time could dovetail with the foundational material, which could be delivered by a mix of off- and onsite teachers.

Think of it: No longer would any of us have to suffer a teacher who is horrible at lecturing, because we would have access to the best lectures on that subject. Truth is, we already do have access, but that access has yet to become a formal part of the education process.

In any case, the bulk of our classroom time no longer needs to be eaten up by lectures and the relaying of information. It can be a place where students use that foundation to construct, express, and collaborate, where information gets further contextualized and deepened.

Progressive and constructivist educators have said for years that a classroom shouldn’t be an environment where “I talk, you listen.” The widespread availability of information has made their arguments even stronger.

Teachers don’t have a less vital role to play, they have a more vital and dynamic one—especially when it comes to sparking, directing, and nurturing the intrinsic motivations that make students want to soak up everything.

Instead of separating areas of knowledge for easier dissemination, imagine an environment that’s focused on helping students weave together disparate areas of knowledge. Imagine an environment where students can more efficiently acquire foundational knowledge or skills—in order to collaborate with classmates on designing or building something.

However it takes shape, we need to re-approach education to take full advantage of everything the information age offers, especially in the upper grades. Ideally, we’ll all be freer to acquire and deliver a wide breadth of foundational knowledge more efficiently—not merely to fill mental buckets faster, but to light the fires of imagination and passion.

You know, like Spock and crew in Star Trek IV, The Voyage Home, where they had to rescue civilization by traveling back in time to barbaric 20th Century San Francisco? Ah, but that’s another story.

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