In any area, when we think of advancement, we also immediately see all those who hold us back from making sufficient progress.

And in the world of education, these people are the educators themselves. For often being stigmatized as the worst kind of progressive elite, and full disclosure, of this I am guilty myself, educators can also be the most conservative people eager to keep us in the stone ages.

This contradiction is not what I would like to explore today.

Rather, we need to talk about the result of educators’ conservatism and what should be done to remedy the situation.

We do not know why small children are attracted to screens, phones and tablets. But the speed at which they pick up on how to use them clearly highlights that those are very natural platforms of interaction and learning.

So, in the 21st century, we seize this opportunity to better develop learning platforms for our children, right? We make sure our education system is focused on the future, rather than on the past.

Clearly, we have also discovered that (according to Sugata Mitra and Negroponte’s One Laptop per Child research) access to a net-connected computer allows illiterate children to learn how to use the machine, surf the Web, and eventually learn reading, writing, all the way to customizing their desktop and hacking systems!

So what do we do with all that abundance of knowledge and results of numerous studies?! Absolutely nothing. We keep using books, paper worksheets, standardized tests and, in more advanced and well off classrooms, also glorified typewriters.

How much did we miss the mark? In wealthier communities, personal computing devices are assigned to the schoolchildren. But most such systems expressed preferences for Chromebooks, and not tablets, not just because they are cheaper but also because they have keyboards. Yes. You heard it right. The glorified typewriter nature of Chromebooks, endowed with the same keyboard designed to make typing as difficult as possible so the typewriters’ mechanics do not accidentally jam, is what makes these devices desirable in small children’s classrooms.

The keyboard is fine, but when we account for the fact that our thinking is hundreds of times faster than our typing, we probably could use a better keyboard layout than the one designed to slow us down. (Many exist. We just never switched from the typewriter days.) But we might as well start questioning where is all that research into BMIs (brain-machine interfaces)? Where are the VR headsets, AR lenses and holograms? At minimum, could we please have a speech to text platform that allows for quick and efficient recomposition and rearrangement of sentence structures?

It is 2020 and we are still stubbornly devoted to our keyboards and mouses (aka back to the days before most of us were born).

Keyboard, in my opinion, is the platform that probably most inhibits the natural interaction between man and machine. Don’t get me wrong. I am typing this contribution on a Chromebook on the same horrible keyboard. And I sure was an early QWERTY adopter. I must have been four years old when someone taught me what to type (more like which keys to press) to load games on my Commodore 64. It was certainly before I knew the alphabet but certainly twice the age of the 2 year old today who knows how to use smartphones and tablets without a glitch.

And the older the kids get, the worse the educators’ conservatism becomes. College students are fully capable of personal device use, maybe even time management and self-motivation, on occasion.

Yet the greatest universities still insist on packing hundreds, and I have heard of even thousands of scholars into a single room to listen to someone, usually someone who is clearly not the best person around for the job, talk at them. And they call this an education.

Chinese lecture halls with thousands of students

I am an educator and I am, once again, guilty as charged with my own conservatism. If you ask me what I need to teach, for most of my classes I will ask for chalk and a black board well before a projector. Smart boards are nice, and being fortunate enough to teach at a Central European University, a school that did not skimp on technology, I have used these beasts regularly for years now. But the only real advantage I found in their use is the ability to save the board, record the board and project the board for an unreasonably large audience.

For the main subject I teach (and it is one that brings terror to most social scientists’ hearts: statistics) is normally delivered in a monologue lecture style with slides or (if the instructor knows how to keep the students awake) a board. But I have learnt that to keep the audience alive and attentive, interaction in the classroom is a must. In groups of 20-30, my normal class size, over half the class manages to hide from such interactions, but communication with the rest can keep the atmosphere fresh without the staleness of a boring lecture.

One year, I decided to test how far I can push the limits of this set up. The University had an incredibly well laid out classroom for 76 people. And I was happy to find out that the in-class interaction felt same as it did with the 20-30 people (in a much less well laid out room). The interaction was natural. The same proportion of people were hiding, but the classroom interaction was not dimmed by the increased size of the group or room! The push out worked!

But had the room been poorly laid out, the barrier between the instructor at the front of the room and the audience would have solidified even with 40-50 people. If the layout is 100% ideal, the limit is probably still under 100. There is no more interaction beyond this point.

If this is a case, what’s the point of teaching in such places: in lecture halls of hundreds, theaters and cinemas of thousands? Answer is – there is no point.

You might as well record a lecture in a studio and broadcast it to thousands of students. This is at a time when 263 million (!) children lack access to any type of education. If you need to put hundreds of people into a room to have a lecture, you might as well just out the lecture on their phones and have the ability to train even more. The interaction between the audience and the instructor will be identical. (Identically non-existent.)

Listen to Elon!

The difference between watching that recorded movie and the sub-par puppet behind the invisible barrier in a huge lecture hall is probably only that the puppet standing there is usually not the best person for the job.

Why should we send people into auditoriums who are most often not the best person to do a lecture but whose time is a precious resource? That, and the time wasted of students going to the auditorium, the inefficiencies of not learning when your mind works the best, the inefficiencies of making more people teach these horrible lectures year after year produces horribly sub-optimal outcomes.

Of course, the lecturers who stand in front of an army of students year after year want to keep the system going. This system is what keeps them employed! Any switch needs to come with a consensus that with a reduction of regular teaching other responsibilities will increase. Most people do not understand this, but university professors do more than teach and we do not want them to need to rely on their influencer skills to put food on the table.

I would be the last to argue for laying professors off, but wouldn’t a global reduction of teaching hours and increase of time devoted to purpose-filled research or service make the world a better place?

Students could learn whenever they can learn the best, which is not necessarily the large lecture at 8:15 AM in the morning.

Sure, some students believe the existence of a specific schedule made them more likely to show up. But nothing precludes organizing electronic or even physical communities to go watch these podcast lessons together at any and all times of the week.

Students could discuss virtually or in person. Pause the session if and as needed. We could even assign teaching assistants (or some of those current teachers who are certainly fearing for their jobs reading this) to be part of these smaller learning communities guiding them to better learning than it was possible with the old lectures. They could help the students learn in more flexible ways.

Sure, there are ways of making large lecture style teaching more effective. I have heard of buttons students can press to vote about something, or to signal that they are not understanding something which may lead the lecturer to stop and clarify. I know professors who spent a lot of time in these settings and they swear by these technologies. But focus grouping the scripts of a lecture about to be recorded is simply better. Deliver the best product.

These technologies seem like an afterthought designed to convince students that this incredibly nonsensical setting of these lecture halls is actually something that offers them value. Well, it doesn’t. Let’s not even pretend. But the flexibility offered by the alternative with the freed up time to increase research or service activities would certainly have tangible benefits at the university level.

Maybe the problem is a fear that moving to podcasts and TED talk style videos as a way of knowledge gathering might as well signal the end our education system as we know it.

Universities do not want to admit that whatever is worth learning is already on the Internet anyway and the curation of it isn’t exactly a difficult task.

Any expert with an entrepreneurial mind could do it. Many already have. But most likely, the problem is just the educators of our times, these horribly progressive liberal elites that are too confident in their ways to progress.

One good that will come out of the fact that I am writing this for an open source learning platform under quarantine rules in Italy is that online and distance education will be taken more seriously from this day forward.

Italy during COVID19 quarantine

At minimum, educators will learn how to use distance learning tools. At last in 2020 among researchers, educators and event organizers, countless conversations are taking place on how to move our classes online and how to make our events virtual. Beyond writing this, the other thing I did today was send tutorials to my colleagues on how to best move their courses online on a whim. We found out, today, that starting in a few days they will all have to do this.

The platforms available now and which we hear so much in this time of the virus and universities closures – Zoom, Adobe Connect and Teams (or what used to be called Skype for Business) – are unfortunately not created with education in mind. They try to sell them as such, but those functionalities are, at best, an afterthought.

Very few platforms are thought through and implemented with education in mind. Nobody has technology like the Active Learning Forum at Minerva Schools at KGI, the only school that in my opinion managed to completely transcend borders and physical space in education, built for this exact purpose. But with this platform, we are back to a small seminar setting, but without the physical space. It is certainly an example to follow for the future of effective education even beyond pandemics.

All in all, I believe it is high time we start thinking what is best for our students rather than what keeps our schooling establishment running as is.


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