Digitization is the foundation of educational reform. All we have to do is figure out how to harness it.
Beginning in 1948 with the publication of Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication”, digitization has become a practical method of storing and transmitting information. After some brilliant engineering progress over the next 40 years, the age of mass digitization was on the horizon. With the advent of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s, digitization went mainstream and within the next seven years, the amount of information stored digitally surpassed the amount of information stored in a non-digital format. In the fifteen or so years since almost anything and everything has become available in a digital format. Certainly, everything that higher education has created can be presented in a digital format through text, sound, video, and augmented reality. The hands-on experience of laboratories, fieldwork, and performances can be shown and demonstrated digitally, but this digitization is the only form or information transmission that cannot be fully appreciated except through a face-to-face experience.
Not only has the storage of information become primarily digital but the transmission of information has also become digital. Beginning with mainframe computers, desktop computers, and now with truly mobile computers, the transmission of digital information has become ubiquitous. Virtually any information from anywhere for anyone with a device. The world has changed.
From the beginnings of formal scholarship, scholars have dreamed of a world where information is available. Although collections of information were available prior to 300 BC, The Library of Alexandria created in the 3rd century BC by Ptolemy is the traditional representation of the beginning of the gathering of information together as a place for scholars to gather to try to understand the world. That is 23 centuries ago. Imagine the paradise that those ancient scholars would be living in if they could be transported ahead these 23 centuries to see what we have available today. Not that the jump from there to here has not seen the advent of numerous milestones in moving information (and its availability) from The Library of Alexandria to having the amount of information stored digitally, easily transmitted and available, surpass the amount of non-digitally stored information in 2002.
As far as scholars and information are concerned, the drive has always been to make information more widely available, and these milestones mark some of the history of that drive. The world has moved from a state of information scarcity, which has been the norm for almost all of human history, to a state of information abundance.
Information is now virtually free to access from anywhere in the world to anyone with a device that can encode and decode digital information. Even the massive firewalls that have been erected to guard information and keep it away from others have not been effective in keeping information scarce. More scholars use Sci-Hub (because of the user-friendly ease of access and simplicity of the interface) than any other source for scholarly material that publishing houses have worked (and are still working) to keep information a valuable commodity by keeping it scarce. Almost as soon as it is produced, information is available on the Internet.
We live in a paradise of information abundance and what does this have to do with learning?
With the approach of the world of information abundance came some fundamental changes in higher education.
In a world of information scarcity, information was simply not available. The purpose of schooling was, first to introduce a new scholar (student) to a subject area, for whom many of them, this would have been the first time they had ever heard of some areas of scholarly pursuit. The students were gathered to a place of learning and had to be introduced to an area of study. After an introduction, scholars then selected, from a bewildering array of possible choices, most of which were novel and exciting, to pursue one of these areas for further study. Early on in education, more advanced scholars told the novice scholars (students) the information orally and the students made their own store of the information as the only way to access it in the future. The process was the transmission of information with real dialog between the teacher and student to ensure that the student actually understood the information that was being transmitted.
With the invention of the printing press and the gradual acceptance by scholars of this new way of storing and transmitting knowledge (I can just hear it now – oral transmission is best and that is real education), less time could be spent transmitting information and more time could be spent in dialog to help students understand the information and learn higher order thinking skills in the process. A huge leap forward came with a method of producing a cheap paper which made books much less expensive. Beginning in the 1840s, when the cheap paper began to be made available, mass education began to be introduced at a primary level. Because books were made cheaper (still expensive by today’s standards) millions of commoners began to learn to read, write, and become numerate.
In higher education where information became ever more specialized, this information was becoming less and less accessible, simply because of its complexity. The model of education remained the same though, with specialized scholars guiding students through the complexities of learning through discursive dialog and learning to think. Liberal arts education was born in an attempt to overcome the problem that learning to think was confined to the specialty within which it was learned (the age-old problem of transference). In those days, students were expected to actually read and be prepared for dialog before coming to classes where an effort was made to help students understand the information that was being transmitted to them through reading.
Somewhere along the way, something changed. A higher education qualification became seen as a doorway to middle-classdom. Businesses began to value a higher education qualification because the qualification told them things about the holder. Works independently, reads well, can produce well-written work, has advanced problem-solving skills, and on and on. As a result, everyone wanted to massively expand higher education. More highly qualified people would increase productivity and move society forward, and it worked – kind of.
The massification of higher education came at a cost. The first noticeable change was in the preparation of the incoming students. With a wider variety of students coming in, a wider variety of preparation and motivation came with it. As the classes became more diversified in every way, the class sizes became ever greater in size. Along with the class sizes becoming larger and more diverse, institutions began to gain prestige, not from their teaching but from the quality and quantity of the research that they produced. These changes were the catalyst for a perfect storm that would drive a change in the method of teaching.
Higher research expectations, larger class sizes, and diversified preparation and motivation gave a teacher a reason to minimize the time spent in dialog with their students. Many students began to come to classes unprepared for dialog (they didn’t read), and because of the dollar value on every head, it began (and is) to become increasingly difficult to simply expel them. To solve the problems that had arisen as a result of the massification of higher education, instead of having discursive discussions with their students, teachers found that the transmission of basic information about their subject was easiest when they simply told the students what they needed to know (as in the beginning, oral transmission is best and that is real education). Since this was an easy way to teach and freed up valuable research time, lectures became the order of the day. The time spent in lectures has increased as the pressure to produce research has been ratcheted up, and now accounts for well over 75% of the teaching done in higher education.
So, what happened when information became abundant and ubiquitous?
Nothing changed. If a teacher doesn’t tell a student what they need to learn, they can’t possibly learn it (as in the beginning, oral transmission is best and that is real education). As knowledge transmission became the purpose of teaching, thinking disappeared. Classes have become all about finding the right answer – which the teacher feels duty-bound to tell the students. Education has evolved to find the right answers to questions that we already understand with the disappearance of thinking as one of the side effects. Even sitting in a room having a discussion about a paper with eleven students has become an exercise in finding the right answer – what is the paper(s) telling us.
Why, when information is not scarce, do we still insist on telling our students everything that they have to know in order to tell it back to us in some form or another - exam, paper, quiz, whatever – they are all looking for the right answer. We treat our students as though they still come to college or university knowing nothing about a subject and require them all to take an “Introduction to…” class before they are able to figure out what they want to study. We act as though we are the only place where “real” information is available. We gather them together, in the time-honored fashion, to where the information is dispensed by the knowledge guardians. We pretend to tell them things that are not available anywhere else, and then we ask them to regurgitate what we told them some time after we tell it to them. Many students don’t even remember the name of the class they took a year earlier let alone any of the information that they were transmitted. The qualifications that unlocked the doorway to middle-classdom has become meaningless. And the answer has been to teach them which buttons and the required sequence they need to press in order for them to get a job that will be automated in five years.
All we have done with digitization is to move the worst evolved practices from a face-to-face event to a digital event. We can now record (and recycle) lectures for overall information transmission (as in the beginning, oral transmission is best and that is real education) or class preparation. Test their recall of the information they have been transmitted. And carefully guard the information that is valuable and keep it safe behind firewalls. Flipped classrooms represent a kind of a change, but the information still has to be told to the students (pre-recorded lectures - as in the beginning, oral transmission is best and that is real education) before they are deemed capable of doing anything with it.
How could this have happened? Digitization means information abundance and ubiquity and yet we refuse, as a community, to consider changing what we do or how we do it.
The information is there – all of it for all of them. Instead of telling them, why aren’t we asking them? Why don’t we spend our time re-engaging in dialog with our students? I know a few teachers are doing it, but they are dwarfed by the numbers who insist that the methods that they learned with are sacred and holy and cannot be changed (as in the beginning, oral transmission is best and that is real education).
Fundamental educational reform must involve a fundamental shift in mindset. We have decades of scientific research that tells us the way we are doing things is one of the least effective ways that people can learn. When there were no alternatives, it was the best there was. When we didn’t understand how people learned, it was excusable to carry on the way things have always been done.
This is no longer the case. Information is abundant and ubiquitous. Science has told us, in detail, the conditions that maximize learning and potential. And yet, for most people, someone told them that switching from white chalk to yellow chalk (or some other teaching tip) will unleash the latent potential of his or her students and fundamentally change education. For others, completely overhauling the highest form of digitization widely used in higher education today (the Learning Management System) by changing all the buttons from blue to green is the fundamental education reform we have all been dreaming of. Another group of educational reformers is waiting for the immersive glasses with quantum infused crystals in the arms that will transmit information, in the form of knowledge and understanding, directly into the brain. And, what about the universal adoption of personal learning systems that cater to the exact style, dimension, and preference of the individual students? The final group is looking for the rest of us to realize that learning takes place in the heart (or lungs, or cells, or liver) and knowledge and understanding can naturally and organically be infused through an alignment of the inner self with the universe.
I’m old fashioned enough to believe that we should use science to direct us so that we can align our teaching with how people actually learn, and with that, allow them to begin to realize their true potential. I have seen it happen and you can too.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.