A follo-up to last week’s post on MOOCs: Nick Carr, whose article I cited in that post, has noted that the promises we’re hearing that MOOCs (massive open online courses) are going to transform education completely — well, they’re not unprecedented:
Mail: Around 1885, Yale professor William Rainey Harper, a pioneer of teaching-by-post, said, “The student who has prepared a certain number of lessons in the correspondence school knows more of the subject treated in those lessons, and knows it better, than the student who has covered the same ground in the classroom.” Soon, he predicted, “the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount than that done in the class-rooms of our academies and colleges.”
Phonograph: In an 1878 article on “practical uses of the phonograph,” the New York Times predicted that the phonograph would be used “in the school-room in training children to read properly without the personal attention of the teacher; in teaching them to spell correctly, and in conveying any lesson to be acquired by study and memory. In short, a school may almost be conducted by machinery.”
Movies: “It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture,” proclaimed Thomas Edison in 1913. “Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”
Radio: In 1927, the University of Iowa declared that “it is no imaginary dream to picture the school of tomorrow as an entirely different institution from that of today, because of the use of radio in teaching.”
TV: “During the 1950s and 1960s,” report education scholars Marvin Van Kekerix and James Andrews, “broadcast television was widely heralded as the technology that would revolutionize education.” In 1963, an official with the National University Extension Association wrote that television provided an “open door” to transfer “vigorous and vital learning” from campuses to homes.
And so on. What I’d like to add to Nick’s list is one observation: none of those predictions was completely unreasonable at the time. Heck, I might have made one or two of them myself. Which raises, I think, the key question: why has what some people call “the traditional classroom” — a group of students chosen primarily by age and secondarily by ability, placed in a room with one or two teachers, and relying heavily on printed paper for information and testing — been so resilient? Is it because educators are in general technologically retrograde? Or is there something rather functional about that setup? Or some combination of the two?