Raphael's painting of Plato teaching is a popular PowerPoint item for Higher Education conferences these days. This is to be seen in the context of today's classroom, somewhat like the MIT's in the other picture here. The point is not the architectural contrast and the drab predictability of today's windowless classrooms, but rather the similarities between the two - indeed, the speakers use these pictures to emphasise that education has changed very little - and the fact that it is still the students in conversation with each other and with the teacher that make education. That, announces the PowerPoint crusaders armed with incontrovertible visual evidence, needs to change.
However, one may indeed be able to point out several differences in the two spaces, which directly points to the changes happening in education. To start with, the humble table must not be overlooked, as well as the pen and paper, all pointing to a writing culture to replace the Oral tradition that reigned supreme in Plato's days. The blackboard is the teacher's response to the tradition of written knowledge. The setting of the modern classroom suggests that it is acoustically optimised, as well as its various lighting, computing and projection technologies demonstrate that the room here is indeed fittingly equipped for the elite standard of the MIT. Further, there are things not present in the photo, but can be safely assumed to exist - such as books in libraries not just of this venerable institution but also in various free public facilities, existence of a recommended textbook for the subject taught, private access to computers, mobile phones and tablet computers capable of accessing information on the go and to send information (this photo might have been taken with one) - all of which add to the educational experience and change what could happen in this room. The other, almost invisible, difference is the windowless partition at the end of the classroom, suggesting not just a deliberate attempt to keep away distraction but the existence of an industrial facility for education, with the possibility of another identical classroom next door. And for those who would claim that education remained unchanged, one should be reminded how big a fight it was to get women into universities.
So what are the change evangelists of education trying to change? Apparently the teacher and the students in the same place is the bugbear of these change agents, which they see as the central 'inefficiency' of the educational enterprise. Notwithstanding the fact that this teacher-student interaction proved remarkably resilient, if we accept their very logic that nothing has really changed despite the massive changes in the classroom environment as we just described, the crusade for change rests its case on the twin issues of access and cost. Once the two pictures are shown side by side on PowerPoint and all the finer points glossed over, the evangelists of new education would immediately state (rather than establish) that this model of education can't possibly be workable when millions more are trying to get a Higher Education, and the fact that this form of education suffers from a 'cost disease'. It is worth examining both these statements in greater detail.
It is true that hundreds of millions today are coming to Higher Education and it is pretty obvious that it would be impossible to squeeze them into the MIT classroom (or for that matter, in the classrooms of elite universities in any of the countries). However, it is logically imperceptible how this proves that the current model is inefficient. The fact that we don't have enough capacity to educate is more down to the fact that we don't have enough teachers, and enough good teachers, which, in turn, is due to the carefully cultivated social attitude that teaching is not the best of the professions. No one in India goes to the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to become a teacher; nor the profession pays well. For all their enthusiasm about access, the gurus of change in Education do not talk about making the profession of teaching rewarding: Paradoxically, they talk about making teachers redundant as far as possible. So, while the problem of access to Higher Education may be real, it may be down to the fact that we are building our societies based a certain self-obsessed, competitive, money-focused model of success, which does not fit the teaching profession.
Similarly, the costs of Higher Education has risen, and it has been cleverly ascribed to a 'cost disease', based on William Baumol's model of 'String Quartet'. Baumol's thesis was that it would still take the ensemble of four very skilled musicians to play Beethoven's late String Quartets, but the wages of these four musicians will be many times more today than they used to be, say, a hundred years ago: However, they can only entertain a certain number of people at a time sitting in an auditorium, and this, therefore, will result in a 'cost disease', people having to pay many times more to attend a live concert. One can understand the temptations of Educational Change gurus to adopt this model: One clear extrapolation of Baumol's model is the attractiveness of recording technology and music distribution business, which help reach out to a wider audience and may effectively subsidise the costs of a live concert. But the parallels between music performance, which is temporal in performance and arguably temporary in terms of impact, and Higher Education, which is all about enhancing knowledge and ability of its attendees and should result in enhancement of his/her 'productivity'. It is only if we see Higher Education just as a credential machine, an activity which does not enhance a person's life chances in other way except just certifying his/her attendance, the costs issues become applicable.
The point of this post is not to claim that technologies do not change education: As illustrated in the tale of contrasting classrooms, it has indeed fundamentally changed education already. This is also not to say that we don't need to change our education system any more: There are many issues with what we teach, who gets access to what we teach and whether our system of education is focused on maintaining social positions rather than creating opportunities, which need to be explored. However, this is not the focus of the arguments about the change in education as narrated by the current band of education revolutionaries. Their case, often presented as blindingly obvious, of replacing the classrooms with teachers with educational technology is based, if we bother to understand, on a deeper agenda: A quest for 'Scale'.
'Scale', which can be seen as a combination of Access, the ability to reach out to millions, with lower Cost of delivery, is what investors love: This is the way to make money go a long way and earn a spectacular return. These are the lessons modern investing has learnt from technology companies, and which they see as obvious. The case for change in education through automation of the classrooms is not the change one seeks for the sake of better education, but in the context of 'financialisation' of education, a mandate from the City Boys how education must be structured. It is, as it must be, coated in the language of expanding access and reduction of costs, a language designed to appeal to unthinking politicians hungry for soundbites, but at the heart of it, this is - if you care to think - about creating a vast system of credentialling with as little human contamination as possible.
The problem with this approach should be obvious: That it may strip away all that has been valuable in education, the community, the slow process of learning something, the ability to change oneself through deliberate interactions with texts and with others, the gradual flowering of wisdom leading to the membership of a community, and replace it with a dumbed down process of consumption and certification, is a clear and present danger. The poor education, in turn, would undermine social stability and the very process that creates it in the first place, is only an obscure point for its champions who are pathologically unable to see beyond their next bonus cycle. But the rest of us need to stand our guard. This is not about software eating the world, not at all. Instead, this is rather about finance eating the world, and in the end, eating itself.
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