Copyright 1988, Computing and Education: The Second Frontier,"Higher Education and the Interactive Videodisc", Robert O. McClintock, ed., Teachers College Press, Columbia University, New York, London.

 

Time of the Teacher

 

by Ben Howell Davis

 

Time is an ocean. let's not forget.

David Byrne,Take Me to the River, Talking Heads (original by Al Green)

Traditionally, illustrations have been a subsidiary to text in learning. Visual information is being set free from its dependence on text and the consequences for education will be immense, if we can learn to exploit its possibilities.

Every age has its own peculiar set of interesting issues and ideas. Today, in our computer-enhanced, video saturated society, this issue of visual computing in education has surfaced as a very significant one. To get a sense of the centrality and import of this topic for the university in our day and age, a brief imaginary excursion through time will set the scene.

The most intense topic for the Pleistocene is "Education and the Campfire". The new light emitting technology of the campfire is having a profound effect on learning. It is providing heat and meat never tasted better. It gives off light far into the darkness of night, keeping away predators. Everyone gathers around, discussing the fire, improving it a bit, staring into the flames, exchanging stories. The heat and safety of the fire allow a little wonder, allow a relaxed look at the stars. Bits of glowing bark blow up from the fire. Could the stars be distant fires?

It is 516 BC., Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory. Simonides is inventing the art of memory. He is equating the methods of poetry and painting. He is teaching that painting, poetry and memory are intense visualization. In order to demonstrate this spaces are designed with visual details that elicit lines of poetry to the initiated. Carefully placed windows and small openings direct light onto these details. The topic of the day is "Education and Memory Theater." Could it be that the mind has an eye? Do we remember the face and forget the name? Can objects be the repository of memory? Noumenon, phenomenon?

Sixteenth century Italy, the talk is of "Education and the Printing Press." Knowledge has been stock piled in various libraries and monasteries where scholars dispense information to the elect. The illuminated texts are carefully hand-made to create the illusion that light is coming from the page. The printing press has just been invented. Knowledge can be bought and traded like any other commodity. And if you can't read, well then just look at the pictures. Every picture tells a story, doesn't it? Now the great teachings can go home with you, they are mass produced. The teacher/student relationship is changed. No single teacher can have read all the books. So education is distributed, it is "universitized", codified, filtered through institutions.

In the late 19th Century amazing changes began to take place. Changes we take for granted as we enter the 21st Century. Elevators, skyscrapers, the fountain pen, zippers, the typewriter, airplanes, the electric light all appeared as if by magic. The conversion of sound to electricity to sound again created the telephone, the radio, and the phonograph.

Thomas Edison foresaw the phonograph as an instrument that would change mass education by bringing the voices of the great teachers to the ordinary person. In 1894 he invented the Kinetoscope, the motion picture projector, which he felt would replace textbooks. It was too expensive for education (as technology still is today) and instead became the premier instrument of entertainment. Edison actually wanted to combine the phonograph and the movie very early in his research "in the hope of developing something that would do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear." (Dagobert D. Runes, Diary and Sundry Observations of Thomas Alva Edison (New York: Philosophical Library, 1948), p. 64).

Motion picture records were never pursued, however. Instead, in 1926, sound was added to film. Happening almost simultaneously with the developments in film, research on electronic image making was being undertaken by inventors like Philo Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin. They were inventing television. The main concentration was on cameras, cathode ray tubes, and methods of transmission which have given us our modern television broadcast systems.

In 1916 Albert Einstein decided that he would spend the rest of his life attempting to understand the nature of light. His research led to his theories of quantum radiation. This work was fundamental to the invention of the LASER (Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.) The laser is a device that excites electrons into emitting photons, (the basic unit of light energy) of the same wavelength. It then pumps those photons into an intense amplified beam. The power of a million campfires.

John Loggie Baird, a Scotsman, was attempting to make television pictures by mechanical means. He worked on the idea of inscribing televison signals on a waxed phonograph record and he called it Phonovision. This was in 1926. In 1935 he tried unsuccessfully to market Phonovision. Developments in broadcast television were simply too powerful and his vision of prerecorded television for the home was premature. It was not until 1963, after the far reaching revolution in television, magnetic tape recording, and integrated circuitry that the notion of videodisc re-emerged as a medium of interest. The random access nature of the non-linear disc was a compatible design for the computer.

What have we learned? We know we are a long way from " Education and the Campfire." We no longer intuit directly from nature. The memory theaters of Simonides are pale marble monuments. Picture books are usually for art collections, travel, and fads. The fire has been replaced by television. "Tele-vision" - to see at a distance. Whatever is far away is close up. Whatever is too close can be made to seem far way. Pictures are literally in the air (microwaves). We are entertained. Endlessly fascinated by this notion of images produced by light. If we choose we can look at 1917 in motion or the 10th century in still images. We can see the aberration of black and white history, that brief period from the invention of photography in 1840 to the mid-twentieth century when color returned to images. And we can see advertising. We can see all about ourselves.

We can remember everything as well. We have computers. Powerful devices capable of astounding feats of memorization and organization. Electronic brains powerful enough to guide men to the moon and take pictures of distant planets. Enormous data banks that can be linked together to create electronic libraries more vast and encompassing than any single university.

What would happen if we combined optical, light based visual memory and the computer? John Berger in "And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos" (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, p. 50.), reminds us that:

The visible has been and still is the principal source of information about the world. Through the visible one orientates one self. Even perceptions coming from other senses are often translated into visual terms. (Vertigo is a pathological example: originating in the ear, one experiences it as a visual, spatial confusion.) It is thanks to the visible that one recognizes space as a precondition for physical existence. The visible brings the world to us. But at the same time it reminds us ceaselessly that it is a world in which we risk to be lost. The visible with its space also takes the world away from us. Nothing is more two-faced.

What sort of a visual metaphor is this two-faced condition that lets light in but also can block it out?

The window. Or better yet a series of windows, each with its own kind of vision, that can be studied individually or correlated by peering through simultaneously. The first window is for dialog. It allows the explorer to engage a search. We can call it a menu because it provides choices of action. The next window is a picture, it is the representational visual memory. Then a text window for reference and entering information into the system from the keyboard. There is a graphics window, used for annotation, animation. These windows may be shifted deleted, re-ordered, sized, moved, and iconified.

The computer is a windowed learning machine rather than a teaching machine. Learning is a relational situation. We connect pieces of information to form a thought. We each have a special way of connecting information. The computer has the unique ability to imitate this mental process. Any student who moves from only listening to classroom lectures to doing personal research has crossed into learning rather than being taught. The computer is a memory theater. It stores and displays information and is capable of being organized in an infinite number ways. It remembers whatever is placed in it and can associate data in an enormous number of patterns. Anyone familiar with a word processor (as opposed to a typewriter) knows how fragments of text can be endlessly modified, rearranged, and reassociated. Nothing is fixed until the computer activates the printing press.

In a world where television transmission creates an "overbody" of images engulfing the planet, the use of electronic imagery as a visualization tool seems obvious. What is not so obvious is how to grasp the tool. Connected to interactive networks, these image learning stations create a new model for education. All educational experience has a visual component; from physics to literature the mind's eye is at work.

How a student visualizes and associates research becomes key to realizing the potentials of the new technologies. By accessing libraries of images created from text, video, audio, and computer graphics the student is confronted with "virtual universities". Image learning also implies that the student assumes the role of the artist, the person of integral awareness who creatively looks, literally, for meaning. Each of us has a special way of learning which can be coded into the memory of the computer. Each interaction with databases can be noted and refined so that patterns of learning are clearly discerned. An art history interest can be applied to physics.

You can comprehend whatever you are curious about because it can be "shown" to you. The visual reference paradigm that this convergence of technologies represents will change expectations of mass media. The digitization of video means that all present and future pictorial imagery is available to the computer. The computer is a privatizer and a customizer. Mass media become personal media, becomes habitat. Everything is of interest, the world is open again to fresh insight.

Who will control this process? Who will decide content and structure? Who will have access? Is visual simulation a healthy idea? What will the inevitable marriage of education and entertainment mean? What will it mean to create knowledge gates that are independent of the campus and the institution? What role will the traditional teacher have in this environment? What will holographic visual memories mean? These will be the questions for the next twenty years. The educator of today has responsiblities on a planetary scale. The seemingly innocuous introduction of something like multimedia into education suddenly tips a cultural scale.

Multimedia is just a late-twentieth-century electronic campfire. It will allow a long gaze into our collective visual memories. What we see may astound us. The window can close, however. This is a two-faced world. While the window is open, teachers must be responsible for what is seen. There is one basic factor that separates the educator from anyone else using these new light-based,technologies and that is simple--love of subject. The message of this new electronic learning environment is not the importance of machines or the possibility of a Science of Learning.

The message is this: It is the time of the teacher.