It should be clear to anyone reading this that the type of tools we have for communication strongly affect how education occurs. If we examine communication tools over time, we can see two trends in our communication tools.
The first is that our communication tools have evolved from more personal and intimate, to greater mass distribution of information and less personal engagement. When we communicate via body language only, you have to be fairly close to the person, and you need some understanding of who they are for the communication to be successful. At the other end of the extreme, the Internet requires almost no intimacy, no personal connection, and only a modicum of cultural understanding.
(Graph not to scale)
The purpose of the graph above is to illustrate that the communication tools we have invented tend to allow for both a greater communication speed, and for a greater reach. I can talk to a few hundred people from on a top of a hill, but I can potentially reach millions of people through a single tweet. The effect of this trend on education is that the flow of information, once painfully slow, is now more like a fire hydrant.
Another interesting trend is the evolution of communication tools in such a way as to promote the more personal, more intimate communication but at a greater distance. For example, tools like Skype allow for a greater degree of interpersonal communication than is possible through sending text messages back and forth. If this trend continues, we will soon be able to communicate in 3d holographic projection to people across the planet, allowing for the subtlety of body language to be included as part of our communication. We will be able to have truly intimate and personal conversations with people who we have never met in person.
A flaw with the current system of mass communication is that most of the "communication" that is occurring is just noise. There is vastly more information than one can ever possibly digest available through the web, and a huge amount of that information is just garbage. There may be 35 hours of video footage uploaded to Youtube every minute, but how much of it is worth watching? How much of it is family vacation videos?
If the flow of information through the interactive web is like a fire hydrant, then it should be the role of schools to help our students develop tools for filtering that flow.
We must also recognize that if the intimacy of the classroom can be replicated through the Web, that it will be, and that educators will need to adapt to this change. Already schools have seen their traditional classroom students start the migration toward online learning. While I still think that services like the Khan Academy and MIT’s Open Courseware are poor substitutes for the intimate classroom experience, I do not think we are far away from the kind of technological changes which will place a huge strain on the typical didactic classroom model.
I think we need to ensure that the importance of personal and intimate communication, which has always been important to us as a species, is not lost during this transition. While our communication tools may change how and where we connect with our students, we must remember that our value as educators lies not in what we know, but in the relationships we form with our students.
Here is my presentation from the Digital Learning conference in April.