Which comes first, the message or the audience?

Comments by Liza Loop, HCLE Founder & Executive Director

Earlier this year HCLE applied for a grant from California Humanities, a state-wide calhum_logoCouncil that gets its support from the US National Endowment for the Humanities. We didn’t get the grant. In the proposed project, entitled Hopes for a Future of Education: 5 California Ed Tech Pioneers Tell Their Stories, five pioneering California educators from the 1970s and 80s will tell us what inspired them to introduce computing into their classrooms, how it changed their teaching and how they hoped this would benefit their students. They will also share their thoughts about the status of ed tech today.

Since the deadline for another round of funding is approaching I asked CalHUM for feedback on our previous proposal. The program officer sent me the review sheet from one of the reviewers saying that the other reviewer basically agreed – their comments were more direct about the limited audience appeal demonstrated.

Why is it so hard to find participants for this conversation? I think it’s significant that there is no Museum of Learning and Education. This topic is buried so deeply in every society’s culture that, like the proverbial fish and water, it is difficult to perceive and taboo to question or change. During my 15 year association with Stanford’s Graduate School of Education I saw almost no initiatives to explore paradigm shifts in teaching or learning (although there probably were some in other departments). “Educational Reform”, a catch phrase from the period (1960-1990), meant tinkering around the edges of conventional, class-room based, teacher-centered educational practice. My hypothesis that schools and class rooms may not be the best technologies to support learning was summarily dismissed. And that was the response in a community of practice dedicated to education.

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Source

In the larger (developed) world remarkably few people enjoy or thrive in schools but even fewer are interested in working to invent something better. Instead we continue to export this institution throughout the lesser developed world and systematically plow under all vestiges of indigenous ways of cultural transmission. In 1985, I and my colleagues in educational computing saw the personal computer as the Trojan Horse that would allow us to break down the walls of the conventional classroom and conquer the status quo. I thought the audience for this message would grow.

And the audience has grown but it has split into two very different channels. The current HCLE  crowd is  an audience of rebels. Many of them are pioneers in different aspects of the electronics industry. They are the ones who were bored in school and were also able to access external sources of teaching so that they could learn to create new devices and functions. They have become the world’s intellectual and economic elite. They understand that there is something wrong with our educational system (and by “our” I mean those of India, Japan, Russia, Indonesia and others, not just the US). Unfortunately, few of them have turned their prodigious analytical skills to the problem of building better scaffolding to support learning in the broad “normal” population of the planet. Some don’t understand that, by definition, most people have an IQ of 105 or less and do not fall in the upper reaches of the bell-shaped curve as they do. IQ was designed to predict capacity to learn and excel in school-like settings. If we are to have an “educated” world population we cannot teach only the best and brightest. We have to support prodigious learning for everybody. Computing offers a promise of delivering prerecorded, interactive teaching materials to learners around the world — all learners, not just the very bright. Some HCLE supporters are so busy succeeding in their chosen fields they don’t realize how critical our educational failure is to sustaining their way of life.

The audience in the second and larger channel is engaged in a contemporary debate about the effectiveness of electronic devices in the classroom. For the most part they are unaware that their concerns and experiences have been under discussion for over forty years so they keep repeating the same old arguments. They are willing to consider “flipping” the classroom but not eliminating it as the principle way of organizing students.

It is important for our potential funders to understand that the current size and composition of the HCLE audience is the very reason they can benefit from supporting us. The people we can reach without additional funding are those who can catch the message without extensive curation and professional-level presentation techniques. But progressive social change is not a popularity contest. It’s a search for meaning and likely to be unpopular in it’s early stages. That’s why it needs partnerships with government agencies and philanthropic organizations. If it was popular Jane or John Q. Public would just buy it and we would not be asking for support.

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3 thoughts on “Which comes first, the message or the audience?

  1. Wow! This is excellent! I just want to let you know you have a soldier on your side who truly understand the gravity of education in this day and age. I am looking forward to share my doctoral thesis with you soon. It focus on “Computing in Education.” You are 100% correct! We have to bring a paradigm shift in education.

    Dr. Ronelus
    Science and Technology Educational Research Scientist.

  2. Hey, thanks, Johnny. You always have neat stuff on your Facebook wall. Actually, we’d rather have participants like you than audiences. We are all both learners and teachers at the same time. Ubiquitous computing makes it possible for everyone who has access to join in the fun. Now, how shall we go about getting everybody access…?

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