Bling it up for education

(This is the fourth post in a series on the publishing industry’s new product categories.)

One industry gambit these days is to annotate a literary classic with videos and audio and all sorts of interactive content before foisting a cacophony of celebrity videos on unsuspecting students—who are wholly undeserving of the torture, annoying as they can be.

The theory is that these apps are the natural progression from those hefty annotated versions of Shakespeare’s crap and other similar monstrosities that are used in education.

Unfortunately, education has become a cash cow for almost everybody except teachers and students—both are regularly forced to buy overpriced rubbish _cough_blackboardcough by a novelty-seeking idiot managers—so the prospect of ‘rich and complex’ (read: expensive) apps and ebooks fills the business peoples with glee.

(Whenever you hear of anything becoming a success in education, you can guarantee that students and faculty got shafted somewhere in the process. They always do. Education today does not exist to educate. It’s a vehicle that lets governments and local councils reward their corporate patrons with easy money while coincidentally babysitting children and adolescents at the same time. Education does very little educating.)

(I hope you can tell that I used to lecture at university, teach teenagers at junior college, and spent a decade or thereabouts in academia.)

Very few of these apps, or ‘rich’ textbooks in the iBooks Author style, are going to be long-term successes (at least, not if they are allowed to earn their keep on their own merits) for a simple reason: they don’t add anything that the reader values.

What most students need is for ebook reading apps to support two things:

  1. Proper—sophisticated—hypertext support so that the experience of reading an annotated classic is more natural and switching between the main text and an annotation is fluid and seamless. Bonus points if the student can easily add hypertext (and a variety of link types and styles) to the text.

  2. An easy way to get a student’s highlights, links, and annotations out of the app and into a writing program while maintaining structure and metadata so they can use them in their notes and essays and references.

And, of course, all of the above is kind of useless if it is joined at the hip to a single title. Curricula worldwide vary too much for this to be bolted on, ‘value-add’, features custom-built by a single publisher.

Stamping yet another talking head into the margins of yet another literary classic doesn’t help them at all. Getting another poncey TV celebrity to gush about how much they loved a piece of overrated mandatory part of the national curriculum does not add value. Worse yet, getting dozens of them to read the same goddamn passages of the same goddamn book that most students rightfully hate as the goddamn reactionary tripe it is, does not add value to the text.

It’d be different, of course, if studying performances of poetry and plays was a core part of the modern curriculum. But it isn’t. It’s all about the text not performances. Analysing performances isn’t marked or valued by the core curriculum so no student will get any value out of an interview with an actor on how they approach the role of Hamlet.

It should, obviously, be a part of the curriculum since digital video and apps are democratising access both to recordings of performances and to expert analysis thereof. But, it isn’t.

I should outline my basic educational philosophy since it goes a long way to explain why I hold the above opinions.

Of course, at most five of you will ever read this far since most blog readers will just scan the first few paragraphs and then decide I’m a nutter without reading any further.

Which is good, because it means I don’t have to appeal to the moron constituency for the rest of this piece.

The only thing you learn in school, college, and university is what you do—the methodologies, rituals, and practices of each discipline. What you remember isn’t what you learned because, most of the time, what you remember isn’t what you memorised in the first place.

You see, memory is notoriously useless. It degrades severely with time. It peaks very early (late teens to early twenties) considering the lifespan of the average human and is downhill from there. It is extremely unreliable—the very act of recalling something modifies the memory—so you can’t completely trust what you remember. In the very few situations memory is truly reliable it’s because it has been supported by habit, routine, rituals, and practices. So, again, actions and methodology are really all that you learn.

(There is quite a bit of research and evidence going back decades that lend credence to the above view of memory, by the way.)

This is the reason why universities, colleges, and schools today are, In My Not So Humble Opinion, next to useless for pedagogy. They are brilliant social institutions: halfway houses where barbarian teenagers are contained—figuring out the basics of community, friendships, and relationships—until they are fit to enter society at large. Teachers, on the other hand, have been reduced to over-qualified babysitters. At many institutions they are no longer allowed to grade people based on the work that went into the papers they write or the work they do. They can’t give those who plagiarise a stern warning by giving their essay a failing grade. In many of these establishments, ‘C’ is the lowest grade a teacher can give without getting reprimanded either by their superiors or by irate parents, who seem to think that taking away a vital feedback tool will improve their children’s education. Teachers at earlier stages of the school system (as in: not university) spend most of their time preparing students for standardised tests, which are educational toys that bear no resemblance to any sane practice outside of education. In the universities, teachers spend most of their time getting students to exercise rote memory skills until they have done their time and can be stamped ‘fit for employment’ with a diploma.

The only thing those kids are learning is how to sit still, listen to an authority figure, and take exams. And textbooks only work for autodidacts. (Autodidacts are people who habitually integrate what they read by exercising the new ideas they encounter. True autodidacts aren’t people with a talent for memorisation. They habitually integrate new ideas by doing, if not actually, then virtually—visualising actions as they read.)

What you learn in history class, for example, shouldn’t be dates or names or events, but how to discover those facts through research and present them, verbally or in writing. And the only way to teach that is to make the students do it. If a teacher can’t give a student a lower grade for not doing the work, then they are, by definition, not allowed to grade them for what they have learned. They are only allowed to grade them on a temporary biological anomaly: the young brain’s superior ability to recall facts.

Which should make it obvious why I consider most of these ‘rich’ educational apps—classic texts littered with videos or textbooks with zooming 3D and images—to be a waste of money. They don’t help the student do anything. But if you integrated proper writing tools into the reading app, enabling styles and structure in the notes the student writes and proper export tools for those notes so they can easily use them in their papers, then you’d be doing them a real service.

As writer, editor, and horseperson Seriouspony is fond of pointing out, there is a big opportunity here for changing the structure and writing of textbooks to match what we know about memory and learning—compensating for the basic flaws in human memory by changing the text, not by adding inconsequential interactive ‘bling’.

This is something publishers and writers could do that would have a greater impact on learning than any of these ‘enhanced’ apps or ‘rich’ textbooks.

The current educational orthodoxy among both educators and policy makers has for a long time been that education is a matter of moving information between two receptacles: the textbook and the student. Improving eduction in this worldview is largely a matter of improving the receptacles (better textbooks or better students through weeding out the incapable receptacles, i.e. the poor and those they consider genetically unsuitable).

You’ll note that the teacher’s skill at teaching doesn’t enter into the equation in this worldview. If this theory were true you’d be able to replace teachers with minimally trained low wage workers, so long as they made sure to use the latest textbooks. And because policy makers do believe this theory, this is basically what they’ve been attempting to do in the public education systems in many western countries.

It’s a worldview that has been thoroughly undermined just by research into memory—that’s without even getting into the results of other studies in education and learning, or experiences in countries where this model has been avoided. It’s understandable that people who labour under this delusion don’t worry too much when the practice of essay writing or presentation or other methodologies of the disciplines taught is being debased. In fact, if you think those practices get in the way of moving ‘stuff’ from one receptacle to another, you might even prefer them to be abandoned completely and cheer when they stop making students write essays.

It’s this very same worldview that drives the development of new textbook technologies, more interactive online learning environments, and the adoption of tablets in the classroom. None of these are designed or intended to improve the doing that the student does but to improve the source receptacle—add decoration and ‘bling’—resulting in better teaching through better containers with more features.

Which is a pity, because the current drive for change and adoption of new classroom technologies could have been an opportunity to reform teaching; bring the doing in the classroom up to date with the doing in real life.

The above philosophy of eduction is not mine and it certainly isn’t new. It was best outlined by John Dewey in 1916, almost a century ago, in his book Democracy and Education.

(Yes, both my opinions on art and media and my opinions on education are based on Dewey’s ideas. At least I’m consistent.)

The core of his ideas, the essential heart of his view of education—long since forgotten—is that a public education system is not there to prepare people for the labour market; it’s not there to give kids skills they can use to get jobs and be better at them; it’s not there to improve the economy or increase the student’s chances of earning more money upon graduation.

The heart at the centre of his philosophy of education is that the only defensible purpose for a publicly funded education system is to create enlightened voters. Voters who can make informed and reasoned decisions when it comes to voting in elections.

The public education system is there to make citizens, not workers.

Anything else we get is a bonus.

Conversely, the motivation behind modern education—the system we have now—isn’t nearly as pragmatic (for what motivation is more pragmatic than the wish for a stable society with few opportunities for demagogues and fascists?). The foundation of modern education is a rapacious desire for more money, more power, higher acclaim, and more bodies under your foot that you can trample in your rat race up the status ladder.

Schools today are training grounds for mercenaries who understand that grades and status are a matter of power and coercion, not skill and practice. The parents know this and the students know this. We all know this.

And like all mercenaries, we sell out our ideals, our loyalties, our service, to the nearest scumbag willing to pay, while we let our governments serve the highest bidders.