Teacher of the Future

2nd Conference on Educational Computing, Educational Computing Multi-Environments, University of Athens and Doukas School, November 12-14, 1994.

Copyright 1994, Ben Howell Davis

The teacher of the future is a history teacher.

Further, for the sake of this discussion, the history that will need to be taught is the history of information technology.

Because of the enormous amount of fragmented information created by contemporary media (TV, radio, computer networks) it is becoming increasingly difficult to teach the young why it is important to be able to read, write, and think with focused clarity. Indeed, the mediums of TV, radio, and computers were created by people with the abilities of literacy, not by people with media-fragmented attention spans.

In order to filter the enormous amount of information that students will be encountering inside and outside of school because of the coming use of multimedia computer networks, the teacher must act as a filter, a perspective provider. The simplest way to provide that perspective in a curriculum context is teach where information sys tems came from: The history of technology, the history of science, the history of mathematics, the history of language, the history of art, the history of history (including the history of the "future"!).

In other words, whatever the subject being taught, a teacher in the future will have to give students a sense of the evolution of that subject in order to provide a reason for thinking in a continuous, non-fragmented way.

Until recently, computer networks have been havens of literacy. They have been primarily text-based and actually encourage liter acy because the main means of communication has been words. This condition is quickly passing. Computer network research is moving quickly toward a multimedia condition. This means that digital imagery (moving pictures, sound, graphics) will become the major influence on these networks. The "information superhigh way" so often discussed by American politicians and technologists will be a drive-in movie, not a drive in library as we have known it. It will be a global maze of information that will be an exact digital replica of the current media condition of television, radio, and print, only it will exist in a united medium of digital data. This resource will flow into the home, the business, and the school.

The Structure of Complexity

The typical educational/business model. Will be a new world of electronic education that will complicate the future of teaching.

Basically, central servers will be created by business and academia to be repositories for authored information with the intent to use it for "distance learning" over networks. These systems will required systems maintenance and constant systems research in order to keep them operating. These functions might be supported by corpo rate research, academic research, or some combination.

The consumer, the learner, will be subscribing to the services pro vided either from academia or business depending on whether the information is for job training or general knowledge. They will be able to take the course at computer centers, at work, or at home.Tuition will be more like a subscription fee paid to a pub lisher.

The publisher will produce material from authors (teachers) that has been created in a multimedia form by electronic curriculum design teams. These teams will be contractors for multimedia pub lishers. The publishers will be media conglomerates like Time Warner or Ted Turner.

Other strategies for production of educational materials for distance learning will be consortiums of academic institutions and corpora tions. These consortiums will support "media laboratories" that produce new technological innovations and explore educational strategies.

These models already exist in places like the Open University in London, the Universidad de Educacion a Distancia in Madrid, at MIT and various U.S. colleges and universities that utilize their departments of continuing education as distance learning models.

A Strange New World

The benefits in terms of access to information are overwhelming. The potential for new ideas and a renaissance in world-wide educa tion are enormous. But the question still remains as to whether teachers are merely "content providers" or whether they have a much larger, much more critical role to play in the future.

Not only will teachers have to make this electronic educational sys tem understandable and responsible, but they will have to create an approach to learning that puts this new world into a context. Teach ers will have to teach the process of education as well as the history of their subject.

Neil Postman in his latest book Technopoly say it this way:

I am referring to the idea that to become educated means to become aware of the origins and growth of knowledge and knowledge systems; to be familiar with the intellectual and creative processes by which the best that has been thought and said has been produced; to learn how to participate, even if as a listener, in what Robert Maynard Hutchins once called The Great Conversation, which is merely a different metaphor for what is meant by the ascent of humanity...In other words, it is an education that stresses history, the sci entific mode of thinking, the disciplined use of language, a wide-ranging knowledge of the arts and religion, and conti nuity of human enterprise. It is education as an excellent corrective to the anti-historical, information-saturated, technology-loving character of Technopoly.

In my first teaching job in a small art college I asked a colleague who was a well know physics professor to come to my video class. He was to tell my students what the physics of television was in order for them to more completely understand the medium as an artistic tool. In the process of explaining how electronic images where processed by a camera which was looking at light he men tioned the name of a physics particle called a Quark. I asked him where this name came from and he replied that it was a word made up by James Joyce in his book "Finnigan's Wake". He said that physicists often took names from literature or made them up to describe phenomena. For me it was a revelation. I had thought that names like Quark came from physics! That physics actually had its own language derived from centuries of scientific linguistic history. Quark had come from the mind of James Joyce! I now understood that physics was human, not science.

This was a classic example of a student creating a bad model of how a discipline was actually constructed. I had imagined that physics had a history but that it was a purely scientific history that did not have any relation to any other discipline. That physicists were somehow only mathematicians who liked theories. Perhaps if I had had a physics teacher like my colleague when I was student I wouldn't have so badly misunderstood science. Teachers like him are rare.


Another teacher like this was Doc Edgerton at MIT.

At the MIT Center for Educational Computing Initiatives work is being done on multimedia computing technologies for education. One of the more relevant multimedia applications is a CD-ROM based project for middle school students on an MIT Professor, Harold `Doc' Edgerton. Doc Edgerton was an engineer, inventor, photographer, and teacher. He was the man who perfected the elec tronic strobe for flash photography and filmmaking.

The images that his technology helped to create are actually visual histories of events that the human eye cannot see. He employed these technologies to his teaching of engineering and science but in a larger sense he taught students that understanding how events occur was central to being able to think clearly.

By creating this multimedia application of his life and work as a history of technology we are able to provide a model of a teacher who used futuristic technology to inspire students to become researchers. Our hope is that by using multimedia technology to show how Edgerton accomplished this we will be employing the computer tools of the future to teach a history of creative, coherent learning.

The intent of the Edgerton project has many facets. Funded by the Edgerton Foundation, the work consists of cataloging the vast num ber of Edgerton related materials in a digital database at the MIT Museum, creating an interactive multimedia exhibition on the life and work of Edgerton for the George Eastman House Exhibition to open in November, and an interactive multimedia application for 5- 8th graders on Edgerton as a scientist, inventor, artist, and teacher. The creation of the digital Edgerton museum as a resource for the MIT Museum has the same spirit as the Edgerton images. The data will be network accessible as a resource for creative thought and productivity at MIT as well as other museums and institutions.

A difficult design strategy is being attempted to accommodate museum interests (both technical and aesthetic), museum education interests, college level educational experiences, middle school sci ence curriculum, not to mention the representation of Edgerton as scientist, artist, inventor, teacher, philosopher, and celebrity. The single framing of the strobe films, the ability for the user to feel like they were taking the pictures themselves, the enormous technical archives that lie behind the images and the apparatus he used, the adventures with Jacque Cousteau, the Lock Ness monster search, the aerial strobing of Normandy villages before the WW II invasion (imagine a villager waking up to those unearthly white lights) -- in short it seemed that interactive multimedia was the only medium capable of representing the meaning of his life's work.

Basically this project is an "extended biography" -- the life of a sin gle individual can be used as an example and a stimulus for interac tive experience with a "life's work." In the case of Doc Edgerton, his life's work was the creation and demonstration of technologies that allowed ordinary events to be viewed and examined in extraor dinary ways. This work is especially relevant for young students as they search for meaning in educational experience and begin to dis cover what their own "life's work" might be. The study of science and engineering is especially useful in this context as it provides a window into the examination of everyday experience as phenom ena by using technology, mathematics, and theory as tools of explo ration. The products of Edgerton's inquiries also happen to be like art, providing an even richer set of experiences.

Already though, the digitization of images from Edgerton's work has raised issues in the use of them for K-12 education. The most famous image of a bullet passing through an apple has suddenly emerged as symbolic of violence in schools. The reference of the teacher's apple being blasted has caused educators some concern. How to use the image in the digital education package is an inter esting problem. Edgerton used to refer to it as "how we make apple sauce at MIT". The innocence of the experiment has since become sinister. This was never an issue until the image appeared in a digi tal form inside a digital multimedia application for a contemporary fifth grader.

The task of the material and the teacher is to provide a context for that image. To make it useful as an illustration of seeing time, rather than a literal image of violence. By providing historical perspective and context, the teacher in the information age creates a situation where the student is at the center of learning rather than the passive receiver of knowledge. The student becomes a researcher into how ideas are created, how they are used, and how they are rewarded.

Even more powerful technologies like virtual reality remove all physical constraints to knowledge access and knowledge construc tion. One can literally fly through fields of video, text, and graphics as if there were no gravity. The dreams of philosophers are coming true. These technologies are powerful. As networks become more and more sophisticated the ability to have simulations of direct experience will become more and more common. What begins as an amusement will certainly become a model for new education classrooms that do not exist anywhere accept inside a computer. The concept of tele-learning, to learn at a distance, will become a standard feature of life-long education.

Will this make anyone happy?

During a press conference after his first year as President of the United States, John Kennedy was asked if he was happy being the President. "I define happiness as the Greeks did", Kennedy said. "They believed that happiness was to be fully engaged along lines of excellence."

The teacher of the future is a teacher fully engaged along lines of excellence. The only way to be happy in the information age with its constantly changing technologies and information overload is to be fully engaged in an active understanding of the problem. To be interested in making sense of new and difficult time will require a measure of involvement in new technologies and a measure of involvement in providing a context for them.



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