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Education by computer?

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June 22, 2004

"All academic subjects are now deliverable by computer …"

This looks really interesting. Note how public sector failure seems automatically to have attracted the interest of the private sector. The private sector had to solve the problem, and then it decided to go into the business in an even bigger way.

Clowes: How did you become involved in education reform?

Brennan: When we began automating our manufacturing plants in the early 1980s, we discovered our employees were insufficiently educated to do the necessary transactions on the factory floor, so our company went into the education business. Every single employee, depending upon level of education and achievement, was in our classroom for one or two hours a week, using computer-aided instruction.

We had great success with that program – which still continues in our factories – and I recognized that technology has a major place in education reform. But when I tried to carry this message back to the public schools, they weren't interested. It didn't fit their pre-conception of how education should be carried out. Then I recognized that the problem we had in public education was a total inability to effect innovation. That only comes in a market economy, where there are choices.

Computer-aided instruction is the teaching of mathematics, reading skills, language arts, history, social sciences, and so on, by computer. All academic subjects are now deliverable by computer. It's a segment of our education world where a number of companies are aggressively pursuing the continued development of more sophisticated computer-delivered curriculum. Our education company now has a fully supported homeschooling network with high school curriculum delivered over the Internet. We have a very large center of master teachers serving a student population of about 2,500 here in Ohio and we're opening in Pennsylvania.

Sooner or later, computer aided basic education that really works is going to be available free to everyone on the Internet, and everyone is going to know that it is there. There is some way to go before this happens, but when it does, and it will, it will be a different world, my readers, a different world.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:27 PM

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I'm afraid my reaction is a big yawn … and not because I'm one of the uninterested public educators. I'm sure that you can 'teach' subjects by computer and turn out pupils who've passed all the standardised tests. The problem is that pupils like that don't usually know very much!

I had a colleague a couple of years ago who taught physics (and was, incidentally, extremely interested in computer-aided teaching). Whenever he was lectured at by one of this kind of guru about what computers would do for physics teaching, he'd ask "where's the swimming pool?" When the guru looked puzzled he'd say "well, I like demonstrating the Archimedes principle by leaping into a swimming pool and have my students do it too. Can computers provide us with that experience?"

What I think this blog entry demonstrates (under the guise of modernity) is the age-old question about what education actually is. What Brennan is advocating, in my opinion, is Gradgrind's 'fact-based' education. Charles Dickens demolished that argument pretty convincingly in the middle of the 19th century …

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