Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The beginning of the end for schools

I've recently finished Peter F. Hamilton's mammoth Night's Dawn trilogy. At 3563 pages in trade paperback, it's by far the longest story I've ever read. It's also one of the best.
Hamilton creates an entire universe out of blank paper, peopling it with an interstellar human Confederation as well as numerous sentient alien species at various stages of evolution. 
The main plotline can be boiled down to three words: satanists in space. But as with all decent sf, the plot is only a platform: a platform for ideas, for technologies, for ethical concerns. This epic space opera has all three. In spades.
(What really elevates this work is Hamilton's uncanny ability to elicit sympathy for, well, almost everyone. There's one character in this book who is totally and unreservedly evil, and even with him you can't help noticing he was made, not born, that way. Everyone else is just doing the best they can with what they've got--sometimes their definition of "best" is admittedly short-sighted, but hey, isn't that the case with most of us?)

Anyway, the technology, as one might expect for a story set in the twenty seventh century, is well ahead of what we have now. Confederation citizens have access to the whole of human knowledge and wisdom by means of neural nanonics: implanted computer systems powered by the body's own biochemistry. One of the heroines of the novel comes from a planet where such devices are forbidden; when she arrives on Earth and buys a set, she is stunned and outraged that her government would deliberately withhold such breadth and depth of knowledge from its people.

That all came to mind when I read about the ongoing cellphones-in-class controversy. The cellphone-detesting Luddite that I'm tempted to call the adult in me doesn't really see the controversy here: cellphones are banned in class because (a) they are endlessly distracting to both the teacher and other students and (b) they detract from the whole purpose of the classroom, which is--supposedly--to get an education.
Teenagers don't see it that way, which doesn't surprise me. What surprised me (at least until I heard the rationale) was that many parents side with their teens on this. How dare school boards "take away the right" to phone my child at school?

Memo to parents: you still have that "right"; you always did. Here's how it works. You phone the office, the office decides whether or not your phone call is worth interrupting your child's class for, and if the answer is yes, you may speak with your child. That's how it was when I went to school, before cellphones burst on the scene and made everyone Very Important People and every banality an URGENT PRIORITY.

Having spent time around many teenagers whose cellphones are practically extensions of themselves, and having read a great deal of speculative fiction, the sober chamber of second thought within me demands I take a few steps back and  contemplate what's actually going on...which is nothing less than the beginning of an educational revolution.

As with all revolutions, those in the center of the storm strive mightily for the stability being yanked away from them by the winds of change. They scream in order that they might be heard over that wind, while their charges embrace the wind and let it carry them where they will; and the first place it carries them is out of earshot of their elders.

The Internet is in the process of migrating away from your desktop and into the palm of your hand. The first order consequence of a true portable Internet is the (usually welcome) ability to obtain information on anything, anywhere at any time. This ability will mean the death of the conventional classroom. Trust me on this.
Right now, in that classroom setting, the Net is being used mostly for frivolous (read: student-directed) ends...which is entirely to be expected. Rather than fight the inexorable tide, teachers best concern themselves with exploiting the stupendous capability that so many students now carry with them everywhere they go. The best teachers will make education fun and relevant...just as they always have.

Of course, this will eventually eliminate the need for teachers at all, at least as we know them now. Just how well can a teacher execute her lesson plan when one class member can access Wikipedia and broadcast his findings to everyone else in seconds? We're at a point even now where any student can learn more than his teacher knows on a given subject: all it takes is a little skullsweat and an Internet connection that's all but ubiquitous. 

Eventually, we'll have neural nanonics that will implant a classical education in the space of a few hours. What will become of all the teachers?

1 comment:

Rocketstar said...

Exactly, call the office....

Like our parents did. It is ridiculous.