Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Reflection on the Eve of International Conference on the Use of Books in Education 2031

[Note: This article is originally published in Hong Kong Association For Computer Education 2005 Year Book]

Tomorrow I am going to deliver a keynote to the ICUBE 2031. What should I say, I wonder.

25 years ago, the pendulum of pedagogy started to swing into the experience-based elearning. Has the pendulum swung too much?

In late last century, Tim B. Lee invented World Wide Web and made communication and computing a ubiquitous part of everyone’s life. Big international corporations started to carry out business and some became very successful. New ventures, such as Amazon and Google also started in late 1990 and early 2000. Everyone was trying to figure out what this WWW and Internet was about. About that time, people bought their music (about 10 songs) on a plastic disc called CD for about $1000 today’s value, around $30 at that time. Looking back, we could understand why the music industries were very eager to protect their monopoly market. The whole music industries were dominated by a few big players. Then iTune from Apple came along. With hindsight, we knew that iTune was a way for Apple to sell their personal music storage/player, iPod – which could store about 3000 songs. However, it started the revolution by allowing people to download songs at $100. It still sounds very expensive in today’s terms. No one would pay that amount of money when the marginal cost of production and digital distribution was near zero. However, please remember that at that time, a typical radio station had only a playlist of about 300 songs. Anyway, that was the “content is king” era.

The “content is king” paradigm was also the big driving force in the delivery of education. I can recall that online universities were rare and have received little recognition. However, the residential universities were all facing substantial pressure from the students who were demanding online access to their courses. So many educational institutes, starting with the higher education sector, used systems called “Learning Management Systems”. It was a wrong term. LMS did not manage “learning”. LMS was basically a student administrative system to log students’ access to “content”. The teachers, extinct today, were deemed as the expert in the domain they teach. Teachers put online what they thought would be useful to the students. Students received little support in learning. They were basically asked to read the content. Whether students understood the material did not matter. Students had to take an examination at a fixed time in the year to assess whether they had understood the content. If they failed, they discontinued their studies and fees paid were not refunded.

One may wonder why such irresponsible education establishments would be there. Well, at the time, information and access to information was not as easy as today and education was a “people filtering” system (sorting out different people to do different jobs), not about developing personal potential to the full. The universities were able to maintain their status by having huge physical libraries where books were stored. People could access information only by visiting the libraries and read from limited copies of books. Things started to change in around 2005 when Google started to scan books and made the content searchable. At that time, people had to pay subscription to “digital library” in order to access the online content. Of course, we now know that the situation had changed since 2015 when Google made all information available free to the world.

Having said that, there were pioneers who understood the fallacy of the “content is king” paradigm. MIT had begun their process of putting all their course material on the Web for free global access. BBC in UK also started to put their historical archive of videos available online, but limited access to people living in UK only. Organisations, such as EFF as it was called then, were fighting to make information free and against the increasing long copyright protection. Driven by their advertising-based business models, search engines, Google in particular, were making more and more content available online which eventually killed the “content is king” paradigm. The early version of the current geographical data visualization was called Google Earth. It was the beginning of making huge data repository online for people to mash up with other uses they could imagine.

The greed of the publishers and some corporate owner of the content and their inability to adjust to the new business model also contributed to the decline of “content is king” paradigm. As the subscription of the paper-based journals, digital libraries and paid music continued to decline, the fees continued to climb instead of falling (due to their monopoly power). At some point, even the most well-resourced libraries could not afford the fees. People just gave up the paid content and totally switched to free content. (BTW, at the early part of this century, paper was still produced from dead trees and could not be changed once information was PRINTED or WRITTEN on them.) Universities started to encourage their staff to publish online by changing the promotion criteria.

One may ask why publishers could own so much content and why teachers were willing to forfeit their rights just for publishing. Before 2010, most universities were judging their staff by the ability to create new information, not by by their ability to help students learnt. “Publish or perish” as it was known. In order to ensure the “quality of research”, the publication had to be published and undergone a “peer review” process - basically a process in which a few anonymous peers would rate the publication before it was published. The publishers basically organized peer reviews and demanded the copyright to be transferred to them for the work to appear in the publication.

We may laugh at how ridiculous that may sound. Teachers were paid to help people learn, not to produce more content. The fact was that at the time, few understood the learning process and delivering content was the mainstream strategy. Teachers were promoted based on publications.

By 2015, many of the Generation X have achieved executive levels at education institutes and government agencies. Some remembered how frustrated they were when they had to learn from content without support. Some were determined to change the way education should be delivered.

The momentum actually started about 25 years ago when Tim O’reilly coined the term “Web 2.0” and put the focus squarely on treating the Web as an interaction platform, instead of a delivery platform. Simulations, both rule-based and role-based were also started to receive more attention in the elearning field. In the same year, my own role play simulation platform, Fablusi, got its first major customer – the US Army War College. The general acceptance of learning via experience (virtual or real) became mainstream in 2015. It took almost 10 years to reach that stage.

Today, are we over-emphasizing the role of experience in our education for our future generation? Are we spending too much time in simulators? With their dependence on their personal agent, our kids cannot even do a simple addition by themselves! They cannot remember name of the last UN president. They will just not be able to enjoy great TV games like “Who wants to be a Millionaire” popular in the early 2000. Should we start focusing on the value of the ability to memorize at least some critical information, e.g. the birthday of your spouse without the personal agent? I don’t know how our kids can survive a day with their agents switched off. Books, obviously different from 25 years ago, should have a new life in the future education of our kids. Our next generation should learn to survive without their personal agent. That would be my plea to the audience tomorrow!

Filed on 15th March, 2031.

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