The Blue Pill or the Red Pill

3 Stories about the Future of Education

The Matrix Is Everywhere

I don't own a TV. I don't watch TV (much. I do watch series on Netflix and I confess I bought a digital subscription on iTunes to this season's The Walking Dead). But Saturday night, I sat in a hotel room near the Denver Airport, flipping channels back and forth between the University of Oregon / Stanford football game and The Matrix. Now, sure, that's not a particularly remarkable occurrence. Anytime commercials come on, folks are apt to change the channel, even during football. It's fairly easy to "sorta-watch" two shows at once, providing the commercial interruptions are well-timed. And in the case of The Matrix, it hardly matters if I missed a scene or two. I've seen the movie a thousand times. It is a bit more remarkable that I tuned in to the football game, quite frankly. For the reasons Tayler Branch describes and more, I'm not much of a fan of college sports. But I was once a Duck.

And it was good to have something to flip to during commercial breaks -- either way. The contrast between college football and The Matrix seemed particularly striking to me, probably as I've been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory we are on with (technology and) education and have invoked various SF dystopian analogies -- including the "blue pill or red pill" -- over the last few weeks to talk about our choices and our future. It's not that simple, of course -- humans or machines, blue or red, black or white. Nor is The Matrix analogy quite right. Nor are the problems or the arguments that new. But it's still feels pretty epic as we swirl through a number of powerful political-econ-edu-tech narratives right now: whether it's the dangers of lower budgets, falling test scores, teachers' unions, technology (too much, too little), for-profit schools, education bubbles; whether it's the promise of iPads, data, digitization, privatization, Khan Academy, the Common Core, startups. Powerful narratives. Powerful players. Powerful realities. And in conjunction with that matrix -- or with the back and forth on TV Saturday night, at least -- college football.

On my mind, neither Stanford or the University of Oregon.

I've been sick to my stomach all week thinking about the crimes of Penn State's Jerry Sandusky. I'm sick over the culture of silence and compliance of the football team and the university administration. I'm sick over the responses of some of the campus community at large. I'm sick over the greater sickness this points to. I'm sick over all of it, but I don't know what to write or say.

But I can't help but wonder about the prevailing narratives around higher ed: student loan debt, graduates' joblessness, student athletics, team spirit.

What exactly do we want from our "educational experiences"? What exactly are we doing at these educational institutions?

My Teacher is an App

Both educator/author Will Richardson and investor/author Tom Vander Ark have responded critically to this weekend's Wall Street Journal story, "My Teacher is an App." The WSJ piece examines the growth of online education at the K-12 level, and even though both authors challenge the article, they do so from very different places. Vander Ark contends that the WSJ piece is "generally negative," listing 8 things he finds wrong with it including an "intentionally inflammatory" title. Vander Ark, the chair of iNACOL (the International Association for K-12 Online Learning ) and big proponent of "blended learning," disputes the characterization that students in these online schools perform more poorly on standardized tests than those in offline public schools. He contends that these new online schools -- whether public, private, charter, or for-profit -- do away with the barriers of geography, scale and unions. Richardson would probably agree that the piece was "generally negative," but I think he'd mean it in a different way. As he dissects the article on his blog, he posits that the type of education it describes heralds a frightening future: one about the elimination of schools, of teachers -- all in the name of cost-saving, efficiency, and standardization -- not in terms of better learning experiences. Although touted by some as a "revolution," Richardson argues that the move online "isn't different," that it still defines learning narrowly much the way current schooling does. Richardson believes that -- what schools online and offline espouse -- "direct instruction and standardization will make us less competitive, not more."

Morpheus: The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work... when you go to church... when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

Neo: What truth?

Morpheus: That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage. Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind.

The Rabbit Hole

Richardson ends his post with a call-to-arms:

"to raise our game, write comments and op-ed pieces and journal articles and books, have conversations with parents (or at least give them some reading to do), speak up at conferences and board meetings and elsewhere, not about the wonders of technology but about the changed landscape of literacies and skills and dispositions that the current system, online or off, is not able to provide to our kids in its current iteration. That schools can be places of wonder and exploration and inquiry and creation, not just force fed curriculum 75% of which our kids will forget within months of consuming it. That learning and reform as they are currently being defined are both nothing of the sort."

It's not quite a "take the blue pill" or "take the red pill" speech, but it'll do. So what does the future hold for our educational institutions? Who is in control of that future? What will the future of learning look like? And what future do we want to see?


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