The Relationship Between Learning and Technology

When someone asks what I do, I like to say I work on Education Innovation. This sounds vague enough to give me two advantages: Most conversations end there, and only the interested, and interesting, progress. I get an opportunity to make the point that I am in Education, but play no part in the current multi-billion dollar 'industry', that gigantic factory of human processing; rather, I slog in the twilight zone of impossible transformation, hoping that another, fairer and better, way is possible. And, then, I am hit with the question: 'So, EdTech, eh?'

At this point, it becomes a choice how boring I want to be. Imagine this moment as one when the Party gets going and other people are already engaged in more interesting conversations about money, cars, holidays and other things that fascinate men. I am about to hide in the quiet corner where no one can find me to pull me to the Dance Floor. This is usually the worst sort of moment to try make my point that Education Innovation is not about Technology. It outs me as the bore I am and encourages my friends to start insisting I drink and dance and have a 'good time'. And, yet, I try, in the irrational hope that I can indeed make the point - that Education Innovation can be, and is, more than Education Technology - and that such pedantry might just start an interesting conversation.

This is the precise point I wish to make here, that Education Innovation can be, and must be, something more than Education Technology. And yet, this relationship must not be defined as an oppositional one, and we must not indulge ourselves in culture wars - with one camp insisting that Software would eat the world and the other invoking a Robotic dystopia - but just a larger and inclusive possibility, one in which the educational ideas, rather than technological ones, drive the agenda. And, to illustrate where I stand, I should perhaps tell what I learnt in the last three years while working for one of those 'disruptive' Education start-ups.

The idea of this start-up was simple: That people learn best when they learn through application. The idea is old and has a hundred year old history, tracing its lineage to Dewey and others. However, this start-up wanted to use technology to scale and reach out globally. Once you accept its starting premise, as I do, the proposition is irresistible. Experience-based Learning has not become mainstream primarily because of the practical challenges of making it scaleable, and here was a company aiming to tackle all the problems at one go, withe the magic wand of technology. 

But, as it happens, the technology-first approach turned out to be limiting in itself, because, from the technology vantage point, the whole jigsaw looked like a matchmaking problem. The challenge was framed not as one of motivation, preparedness and engagement of the learner, but as one of being able to match right projects with right learners. This is indeed one of the many challenges of delivering a practicum, but not the only one, as any teacher would know. And, yet, technology chooses the problems it wants to solve, and defines the whole problem as the one that can be solved by technology. This led to an inversion of priorities and of conversations, and had an ironic consequence in this particular case : Notwithstanding the importance of practical knowledge, the organisation privileged Technical ideas over on-ground knowledge, maintaining a superficial engagement with the learners and their cultures, and devoting its energies to build a better algorithm instead.

Besides, there were some other practical lessons for me to take away. For example, I realised that all the disruptive Ed-Tech innovation works with an automatic assumption of availability of Internet and personal space. This is based on our own experiences, where both network downtime and grandma coming to visit are occasional exceptions. But it is not, in Asia and Africa: These are permanent realities, and rather, the opposites - a fast download and a quiet home - are unimaginable exceptions. This creates another important paradox. EdTech exerts itself to solve the Global Education Challenge, aiming for the 'Global Middle Class', but operate in perfect oblivion of the realities of the last mile. Most, therefore, build a solution in search of a problem.

However, this is not to say that there are no problems to be solved. Global Middle Class, their aspirations and demand for education, is indeed a challenge and an opportunity, which will need Education Innovation. My point is that this would need more than just Technology. My current thinking is focused on solving the last mile challenge, and I wish to do this not by dropping iPads in the middle of nowhere but rather creating a chain of outlets, campuses which look like offices and does real work, where the learners can come, congregate and collaborate in solving real life problems. Technology is the enabler of this model, which can aggregate learning opportunities and indeed allocate them appropriately, but it will do so to enable, rather than making redundant, the schools in my plan.

I think this is a sort of general principle about the relationship between learning and technology that I draw. For me, the situation is somewhat analogous to health-care, where technology is everywhere and has enabled tremendous advances in many areas. But the technology, at least so far, have rarely aimed at getting rid of hospitals and care homes, and for that matter, of making Doctors and Nurses redundant. I think learning is a human enterprise, and it needs to remain as such: The technologists' crusade to get rid of schools and make the teachers redundant is misdirected. My efforts are headed to a completely different direction, and starting with the question - to find the things that we can't do without technology, rather than figuring out what we can do without teachers and schools.



 

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