ELTM11: Who Wields the Power? What of “Purpose and Audience?”

How about a “Who’s Who” of education? Suppose you were asked to name the twenty most influential people in education today. Who would you come up with? In the first milliseconds you might be foolish enough to think of some of the more effective educators you have encountered in your life. A great teacher from your past, perhaps? A truly inspiring and effective fellow-educator? No doubt that person would embody your notion of a great teacher: a bit tough, knew her/his material and, most importantly, truly cared about students and whether they succeeded. Nailed it, right? No, I am not clairvoyant—those traits, especially the third, are widely known to be the ones associated with what most people consider to be great teachers. People like that do exist. In fact a healthy fraction of professional educators have one or more of these traits to a significant degree, some more than others, of course.

Unfortunately you immediately dismissed those from the list, didn’t you? Despite being great teachers, despite the effect they had not only on you, but also on the many, many people they have worked with through their career they probably would not be considered–in this context–as great. Their reach was just not wide enough. They touched many people, sure, but not enough. They likely influenced their peers but, again, not enough.

Great teachers didn’t make the cut. Sad, is it not?

How about politicians? While we all enjoy pointing out the many, easy-to-find faults in many elected officials, it must also be said, in al sincerity, that a huge number of them are honest, hardworking, intelligent, and, most importantly, effective. They also have significant effects on education—both good and bad. Consider state/provincial deputy ministers/ education secretaries or whatever you call them. Education policy, budgets, and therefore, to a large extent, practice, come right under their jurisdiction. School district directors/superintendents/CEOs or whatever you want to call them too; same for principals. See the pattern: getting smaller and smaller? Again, the reach is not sufficient for any of them to be truly considered all that influential on a broad scale. The fact is most of those functionaries have precious little room for discretion. Budgets are set at higher levels than theirs so they can only work with what they have. After salaries, utilities, maintenance, bussing and supplies are paid for there’s generally nothing much left to fuel growth and innovation. The decisions that would have the needed effect to create change almost never happen. What’s more, those people are generally so busy just looking after the routine stuff and fighting fires there’s no opportunity to really plan for and create positive change.

So who makes the list? Anyone?

Sure. You just have to look.

Let me throw out three names: Daphne Koller, Andrew Ng and Sebastian Thrun. The first two founded Coursera and the latter, Udacity. All three have a similar vision: create massive online courses and allow everyone to enroll, for free. In their vision, expensive, no, worse exclusive, university educations will soon become a thing of the past as people all over the world throw themselves into the wondrous world of higher education. Free higher education, that is.

Here’s another: Salman Kahn. Perhaps you’ve heard of Kahn Academy? A few years after CDLI (my previous employer) put a massive amount of free multimedia online learning resources online for students, Kahn invented the concept in parallel, only he was more successful. Today, thanks to generous donations from many (including the next person who’ll be mentioned) Kahn academy has thousands upon thousands of useful multimedia resources of all kinds. All for free too. Kahn Academy shares a similar vision as does the one just mentioned: free, high quality public education.

One more name: Bill Gates. Yes, THAT Bill Gates. As you probably know he’s by no means Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons.” Far from it; he has pledged to give away his huge fortune and, what’s more he has successfully convinced many others, including the almost-as-rich Warren Buffet to do the same. Yes, he’s a major funder of many educational projects, including the already-mentioned Kahn Academy.

These four, and people like them—connected and well financed types whose vision is based on non-exclusive education for all through self-directed online courses—are, in all likelihood the kinds of people who wield the most influence in education today.

Great stuff, right? It’s heartening to see that smart, powerful, effective and well-intentioned people such as the ones just mentioned can be counted as global-scaled movers and shakers in eLearning. Given, the best teachers didn’t make the list, senior politicians didn’t make it, senior civil servants didn’t cut it, along with the many “lesser” administrators. But these guys made it and they’re pretty good, aren’t they?

Well, yes and no. Their vision is a good one so let’s assume that the “yes” is pretty much self-explanatory and just leave it at that. We’ll just work on the “no.” What could possibly be the problem?

First, they don’t serve (i.e. “answer to”) the public. Face it—they all serve themselves to varying degrees. The vision is not “The” vision but rather “Their” (“MY” from their point of view—the one that counts) vision. Sure they have good ideas but society is a big place, with a huge number of competing values. A single vision and a single point of decision-making just won’t cut it.

They may have other interests. The goal of education is not nearly as straightforward as it appears: better achievement, right? But better achievement in exactly what? See—there’s the complication.  Here’s the answer, in as simple terms as possible: Better achievement in areas selected through a slow, rancorous, messy but mostly inclusive public process.

As for those mentioned and those like them? That’s not their interest. Frankly they probably haven’t bothered to think it sufficiently through. Perhaps “Get them (the students) through their science and math” is the vision. You can bet it is for some of them. But—hang on here! Sure, science and math are important (I majored in Physics and Math, by the way) but so are first Language, second languages, social studies, the Arts, etc. Who gave one individual the right to decide? Nobody!

Here are the two biggies: (1) these guys are too clever for OUR own good. What? Yes—too clever and that’s a major problem when you couple it with (2) they just don’t understand the audience at all. Let me state this clearly: learning came FRIGHTFULLY easily to most of these high-fliers and they figure that’s the case for everyone.

So what?

So this: the vision they have for education is just plain WRONG. They truly believe that most students value the kind of knowledge-based learning that many people believe (incorrectly) is true math and science. They believe that most students are just held back; bored and busting to get out of the classroom and that these online materials will be the best thing ever. People will all of a sudden value the math and science, grab on to it and just plain start to fly, academically.

The truth is something different. Let’s summarize the truths they are missing:

  • Education is more about absorbing knowledge about math and science. Think about it—math and science is much more about absorbing knowledge about math and science! …and that’s just two out of eight or nine subject areas. …and, when you think about it education is much more than subject areas. Talk about off-base!
  • Most people find learning difficult in many different ways. It’s not a matter of “quickly show me and I’ll get it.”
  • Far too many people do not have the time to work through the content. Not only is education hard but so, too, is life in general.
  • Even fewer value the content sufficiently that they will stick to it enough. Learning much of the things that matter is, after all, truly difficult—not necessarily fun at all.
  • Finally, the people who could benefit the most from this stuff may lack the resources to get to it.

Too bad.

So here’s the first consideration: The movers and shakers are not subject to the complex set of influences that public education should be and are thus not necessarily guided in exactly the right direction. Significant time and resources may, therefore, be devoted in pursuit of the wrong goals as people just play “me too,” “follow the leader,” “join the bandwagon,” or whatever name you wish to ascribe to whatever goal they deem to be worthwhile..

Next: This is not to say that the use of technology in education is not useful. It truly is but one must realize that (a) you can’t pretend that it makes things easy and effective “just because” and (b) mostly gains are small but still significant. The zealots hurt the enterprise, but those at the other extreme do just as much damage. How many don’t even bother to consider educational technology? Closed minds are not helpful either.

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17 thoughts on “ELTM11: Who Wields the Power? What of “Purpose and Audience?”

    1. What I did was admittedly confusing. I created a new blog and moved the old title to it. That’s because I didn’t want to move the one that had the eLearning posts on it as I’ve been conditioned from work to never mess with business processes…and yes that is definitely reaching as both blogs are a hobby.

  1. The singular and immediate conclusion that I draw from this flies in the face of your conclusion that teachers are NOT the most influential folks in education. If the collective vision of the ‘big guys’ is wrong then that leaves fulfillment of your bulleted ‘truths’ up to those of us in the trenches. No? And, if so … we’ve gone full circle … individual teachers are, in fact, most influential. D

    1. Yes and no as I see it. In practical terms for students you are most certainly right. Ineffective technology has the same effect as does a dud bomb–little more than an annoyance. Teachers then pick up the pieces and carry on as they did before and students are not much the worse, save for a little lost time. You are right at the larger level too. Perhaps Vygotsky is most well-know for pointing out the criticality of the student-teacher interaction but the fact is that effective teachers and students have known this since…forever. Effective teaching and learning hinges on social interaction. Now–that doesn’t make it simple as interactions themselves are rather complex but it does steer us in more or less the right direction.
      There’s still the sense in which the original point remains. These powerful figures may not have a direct effect n students but they do have a powerful, and often negative effect on teachers who feel obligated to fall in-line with whatever’s in the offing and with administrators who must do essentially the same or face budget cuts because they are not “apparently” keeping up. Even if it’s just wasting time putting up enough window dressing to make it look good, time and resources get wasted due to misguided efforts.

    1. And that, unfortunately is where things get unpleasant for everyone. The general answer is that all hands (students, teachers, admins and visionaries) put up with as much as they can. I have to admit that while 90+% of my professional experiences were pleasant and fulfilling there were trying times too. Same for everyone and, I suppose the thing is to deal with the negative as best as we can while not getting too tainted in the process.

  2. Not being in education, I couldn’t think of anyone, nor had I heard of the names you mentioned. I’ll come onto Gates later. You did make me think of my own teachers though. Firstly I thought of my Ancient History teachers and my classical archaeology tutor. I compared them with my medieval history tutors. How odd, I can’t think of a good medieval tutor or a bad ancient history one. Perhaps I just did the wrong degree, but I don’t think that’s the case. We did have a discussion about what drew both tutors and students to a particular aspect of a subject. My wonderfully sarcastic classical tutor said on graduation to my parents (they loved him!) she’s got a degree that’s no use for anything 😀 I think he is still on the Uni payroll as an occasional tutor.

    Then I went right back to Junior School and my very influential head teacher. Strict but kind. Came to see me in hospital when I had appendicitis and brought me her tiny china pig to look after.

    Are any of these great? As you say on a wider level no. But in their own environment, very influential and very very good.

    The precursor of elearning was obv distance learning. Suited me just fine for my MBA as I am happy with my nose stuck in a book and I could do it at evenings and weekends. The teacher input came in some local seminars and lectures and the annual summer school. A good combination.

    What gripes me about free higher education via the internet are a couple of things. Free is great. Maybe I should sign up for another degree. Quite fancy botany. Or maybe Spanish. But I like studying with books, so maybe not.

    The gripes – education is more than just studying and completing assignments and essays. Discussion and ideas with other students and teachers is critical. As is guidance from tutors. The second gripe is about the plethora of people who will gain degrees and hopes and expectations – to what purpose? Will they get a job before someone who has been to an established bricks and mortar university? In my post about education (architecture) I included a link to an article asking if there were too many schools of architecture in the UK. Raising peoples’ expectations, particularly in the vocational sector, is a bad thing (to me) – when there aren’t sufficient jobs to go round.

    Bill Gates. Yeah. Well I don’t like Microsoft and Windows anyway. Here’s what I wrote about him on my GMO post:

    And Mr Gates. Apparently vegetarian, or vegan or something. With 500,000 shares in Monsanto. Worth some 23 mill bucks. Or whatever depending on the rate on the day. It comes as no surprise that he considers GMO foods to be the saviour of the world.

    There”s more, but you get the idea. I would be extremely sceptical about anything he claims to do in the public interest. I’ve been vegetarian for a very long time, and I don’t want Mr Gates telling me what to eat. The same principle applies to education.

    1. I like the way you think, especially the point about education being a lot more than just being able to parrot off “stuff” in the end–a fact that is lost in some of the hype.

      In the end, I think something of a “natural selection” process will look after some of the nonsense. Most of those “self serve” courses have abysmally poor completion rates. Typically what I hear is that around 5% of those who start get certified! In the meantime I see a lot of money wasted and a lot of false hope.

  3. The first so great educators that came to my mind were celebrity physicists who write pop-sci books or science writers.
    Though as much as I would like to sympathize – I am wary of “teaching hard sciences” using this science-is-cool-look-at-that-great-animated-video-of-a-star-sucked-into-a-blackhole approach.

    I believe that the pleasure of learning science is in doing it the hard way – using Kahneman’s terminology: by turning slow “system 2 thinking” into easy “system 1 intuition” via ample experience and painstaking practice.. painfully and slowly at the beginning. (And you have to re-train constantly not to lose that abilities…).

    There is no shortcut. Any teacher fostering that will appear unpleasant at the beginning of this process to a student who is not intrinsically motivated in my opinion. The greatest teachers – those I would give that title to – were not overly popular among the majority of fellow students.

  4. Thanks, Maurice! Weird – my previous comment is still “awaiting moderation” though I already see your reply? And I spotted a typo in my comment: “so great educator” should have been “so-called great educator”

  5. Pingback: In Praise of Textbooks with Tons of Formulas (or: The Joy of Firefighting) | Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything

  6. How did I end up here? I clicked on your face from Jenny Pellet’s blog, and here you are, hosting “another” blog. And since I have passionate feelings about education I had to read it…

    I feel like one of the things that computer/internet technology has advanced is the ability of masses of people to quickly leap onto the copycat bandwagon (of course I see the many positives of technology, too). It sure appears to me that “form without substance” has become viral.

    A long time ago in another life, I read a book by Locke Bowman about the nature of teaching/learning (I have no idea if the book is any good, but it was inspiring and formative for me, when I was very, very young and had nothing to compare it to). He sees teaching/learning it a social act of co-creation, and mostly inseparable–meaning learning happens when facilitated by a teacher-in-relationship-with-the-learner.

    To assume that when a student shows up at a lecture (or views a multi-media presentation online) she is learning, seems to me akin to thinking that the passenger in a car is driving.

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