Gaps In EdTech History

There are gaps in history, eras when important things happened but no one properly preserved the records. If you study history, you probably have your favorite examples of mysteries that will only be resolved with a time machine – or a very lucky find. The history of education is facing such a blank space.

Within the last decade, conversations about #EdTech have been accelerating and expanding. More material is being produced than anyone can assimilate. The born-digital portion of the discourse is impressive. Even the research, analyses, and insights being developed today aren’t always archived correctly; but academic studies are more likely to be preserved by their institutions, unofficial but effective efforts like Internet Archive save many of the web sites, and popular press collections by journalists, bloggers, and commenters are more likely to be preserved (at least temporarily) by whoever hosts them. Today, born-digital means easily transferable, and possibly preserved.

The decades before the Internet became a common (and largely chaotic) depository for all of human information weren’t so fortunate. It was an era that started with discussions about students possibly being interested in getting jobs that would develop computers, up through the period when computers dominated classrooms but were largely constrained within the walls of the schools. It was an era that had governmental and institutional initiatives; but it was dominated by pioneering teachers, administrators, and students who didn’t wait for official approval to expand what, why, how, when, and where they taught and learned. Compared to today, there was far less material produced, which means each artifact is that much more valuable. We at HCLE (the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum) are focused on that era and those people, and are surprised that we can find few others doing similar work.

The teachers, administrators, parents, and students then asked the same questions being asked today. How much screen time is appropriate? What lessons are best taught by the teacher lecturing versus the student exploring software? Does the cost of technology create a digital divide based on wealth? EdTech’s historical gap is filled with insights and answers that apply to questions today.

EdTech’s blank space exists because the pioneers who didn’t wait for approval also didn’t necessarily document their intent or process. Sometimes it was unintentional, because the pioneers were so busy pioneering that they postponed documenting their progress. Sometimes that was intentional, because official records could trigger official demands to cease and desist. 

The documents that were produced were usually printed on non-archival paper. They are perishing through age and neglect. The hardware is becoming more fragile, and possibly impossible to repair because of the lack of replacement parts. The software is being lost because it was stored on a variety of media, some of which are degrading quickly, some of which are orphaned because the hardware readers are no longer available, some of which are orphaned because the operating systems no longer operate, and some of which might work but no one remembers how to run the programs. The most valuable and ultimately most perishable information are the stories stored in people’s memories; the true source of the research, analysis, insights, and wisdom that may or may not have been documented elsewhere.

Liza's van with computer monitors, wheel barrow of monitors and Stephie dog
News “Managing the not-so-virtual assets of HCLE” – by Liza Loop

It is a sad, yet unavoidable, reality that the pioneers are reaching the end of their lives. The era we study began in the mid-fifties, sixty years ago. As people age, memories fade, and are ultimately buried. After they’re gone, their descendants are tasked with sorting through estates that may include boxes of old notebooks, personal letters, newsletters, photos, home movies, computers, programs – a massive amount of work given to someone in mourning who understandably wants to get past a difficult part of their life. Artifacts are easily tossed away. Our awareness of the urgency is why we are preserving our document collection, recording stories of the pioneers, and reformatting born-digital information that was almost orphaned. (Thanks to the volunteers and collaborating institutions that are making it possible.)

The loss of artifacts and first hand accounts is not unique to our museum. Any museum that is working with the history of a topic from the fifties through the nineties experiences the same urgency.

Change in society is accelerating, but today’s efforts are more likely to be born-digital in an era when the awareness of preserving the information is being discussed. The efforts of decades ago didn’t benefit from the preservation efforts; yet, those efforts were the enablers of today’s acceleration.

Change requires adaptation and learning. A hundred years ago there was change; but a person could learn skills that would be useful for decades. Very little retraining was required. It was the era of lifelong careers. If you needed or wanted to learn something new, you found a class and learned from the teacher. Today, the skills you learned to operate your computer, your phone, your car, and your appliances may become outdated with the next overnight update. If you need or want to learn how to use the new version, you expect to teach yourself, possibly by communicating with peers. We’ve become less reliant on authority figures and more reliant on ourselves and our community, online or offline.

Understanding how we adapt to change is becoming more important because change is accelerating and adaption becoming more necessary. And yet, the history of our adaptations to one of our most important changes is being lost.

Civilization was enabled by education. What, why, how, when, and where is largely different from a hundred years ago, and even fifty years ago. Our civilization is entering a new era that is dramatically different from the previous era. Between the two was a transitional era, an enabling time that is easy to ignore, overlook, and even throw away. We are working to defend against the growth of that blank space in our history, to save enough of the artifacts and first-hand accounts to tie the eras together, to document a time when change accelerated – a useful study considering how understanding change will be necessary for understanding our civilization. If you’re doing the same, great! Thanks for doing what you do, and thanks to everyone who is helping.

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