The Onrushing Avalanche of Pedagogical Technology (1936)

I’m presenting at London Book Fair next week and wondered on a whim if it would be a good idea to present as if it were actually 1936. It’s probably not such a good idea. This is a sketch of a 5-7 minute presentation in that style (which I freely admit I stole the idea of from Brett Victor’s mindblowing “Future of Programming” presentation at DBX2013) and it owes something of a methodological debt to Jim Groom’s ongoing paleoconnectivism.

“A college education for anyone who wants it. A complete course in practically any of the subjects now named in the college curriculum – for five dollars; an elementary course in these subjects for one dollar, and a single far-reaching lecture on one of them by a worldwide authority for ten cents”

Professor Michael Pupin, Professor of Physics at Columbia University, sets out a compelling vision for the future of higher level instruction in a  “Popular Science” interview. In this vision of the future there is no need for a campus, or for textbooks.

Both university and private money is being invested in this and similar schemes – after recent upheaval in the financial markets it appears that technology-led speculation has moved to the world of education, bypassing existing industries entirely. A glance through the content of the rest of “Popular Science” for the month in question sees a number of advertisements for various forms of remote learning, for business or for pleasure.

Remote instruction has since become far more widespread, and we are on course to see more than 200 city school systems, alongside numerous colleges and universities, broadcasting materials by 1938. Both Columbia and Harvard, along with many other famed institutions, are a part of this movement. Often, credit is offered linked to self-administered examinations.

But, despite the obvious boon to those thirsty for knowledge without the capability to attend a physical campus, not everyone is a fan. Bruce Bliven of The New Republic asks: “Is radio to become a chief arm of education? Will the classroom be abolished and the child of the future be stuffed with facts as he sits at home or even as he walks about the streets with his portable receiving-set in his pocket?

Bliven is highlighting the need for a social aspect to learning. Advances combining learning theory and psychology at Yale (notably the work of Clark Hull) suggest that the act of learning is one constituent of the wider formation of character, and that the act of imitation is key to this. The person of the teacher, and of the more mature peer, is key here – and as yet we cannot transmit character via radio waves.

Or via the printed press. None of these concerns about technology in education are new. In Plato’s account of the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus the idea of learning from books is discussed:

“[T]his invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them. You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.” [274c-275b]

Our UK coalition government is presiding over a number of far reaching changes to the education sector, not least the raising of the compulsory school leaving age and the development of new types of schools to meet the needs of new forms of employment. But, in this context, the 1928 Hadow report recommendation that “the books used in schools should be excellent in quality as well as adequate in numbers” suggests that as a reference and as a model, high-quality published material should be around for a long time yet. As the report notes (p112) “[C]hildren should learn from them to admire what is admirable in literature, and to acquire a habit of clear thought and lucid expression.”

Whatever the advances in pedagogy that the future may see, it is difficult to imagine a time where the expertise of the tutor, the lucidity of published materials and the discipline of classroom dictation are not central to the learning process.

The Rome Act of the Berne Convention convention, nearly 10 years ago, added a whole range of additional publication types to those protected globally by copyright. It is to be hoped, that as technology develops, these global treaties protecting the rights of publishers will develop with them, but that this would not be to the detriment of access to published works by learners and scholars.

But how are the publishers using new technologies to support education? Already we have seen the Milwaukee Journal experiment with Facsimile transmission of newspaper pages via the airwaves to a range of receivers in department stores and other public places. Although, at present this is a proof-of-concept led by the struggling newspaper industry as a way to cope with the threat of radio news, it is possible to imagine academic materials transmitted in a similar way.

We know that certain enterprises, for instance the innovative start-up “Penguin“, are experimenting with newer, more portable formats for books. The team are also looking to revolutionise distribution via a number of platforms in railway stations. Admittedly, these have been cheap mass productions, and I for one would not be surprised if a newspaper business like Pearson doesn’t become involved. But what today is only a way of selling gaudy crime novels for the price of a packet of cigarettes may tomorrow cut into the core business of many academic publishers – imagine if a consortia of university presses owned an operation like Penguin – or the proposed Pelican factual imprint?

Increasingly, readers are expecting “more” from books, and are paying less for them. Competition from broadcast channels has so far been focused on the newspaper industry, but who is to say that the in-depth engagement with an educational institution or a textbook would not be next to fall to the immediacy of new sources of information? In 80 years or so, would we be discussing a global marketplace in scholarly publication that doesn’t involve printing at all? A few years ago I would have said no, but these days – in the words of the popular song by Mr Cole Porter – “Anything Goes”!

4 thoughts on “The Onrushing Avalanche of Pedagogical Technology (1936)”

  1. Man, this is really awesome. To think of Penguin as an innovative start-up is crazy, but more than anything the rhetoric is pitch-perfect for our m oment. It’s a brilliant graft of history, particularly the notion that David Harvey has been talking about for decades now, capital thrives on a constant state of culturalcrisis (radio threatening, newspapers disrupted, wireless facsimiles) and technology has become the goto field in that regard. So a “paleoconnectivism” (you know I love that name) starts to lay bare this pattern and open up this discourse for critique. I lvoe you.

    1. You’re dead on regarding a constant state of crisis, and the format wars. I’m of the generation that went from vinyl to tape to CD to mp3 to streaming. Who knows how many more I’ll see.

      One nugget I was meaning to chuck in here but didn’t: though Pearson was (in 1936) a local UK newspaper business, it started in the late 1800s as a civil engineering firm, and built tunnels under the Thames. You know, tunnels – they made bridges obsolete.

      #paleoconnectivism #4life

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