In a special feature on newspapers and technology in The Economist of December 19th, the following caught my eye:
"The internet may kill newspapers; but it is not clear if that matters. For society, what matters is that people should have access to news, not that it should be delivered through any particular medium; and, for the consumer, the faster it travels the better."
What this quote makes clear to me is how easily we get confused between the medium and the message. Yes, some of us may have become fond of a particular medium, in this case newsprint, but if it was to be replaced by another, more efficient, medium, then surely we should be welcoming the change, not mourning it. The people who should be concerned about a shift from one medium to another are not the consumers of the messages, i.e. those who consume news stories, but those who make money from exploiting a particular channel, in this case newspaper owners. And in the end, that’s their problem. That’s what being in business is all about.
So, is the classroom as a channel for learning analogous to print as a channel for news? In some ways it is. What learners need are reliable sources of expertise, the chance to reflect and discuss, opportunities to practice and to obtain feedback, and so on. For many years a classroom has been a convenient vehicle for these activities and a huge industry has now built up to support the use of the classroom for learning – in particular those who provide classroom facilities and those who have become expert in delivering in a classroom, i.e. teachers and trainers. However, as we all know, some pretty powerful new channels have now been developed which seem to support much of the same functionality as a classroom, except in many cases more flexibly and at a lower cost. Not surprisingly, the classroom training industry is wary of these new channels and has taken only modest steps to engage with the change. They will probably keep their distance until consumers, i.e. learners, themselves engage with new technology and begin to make this their preference. It took ten years for this to happen with online news; we cannot be that far off when it comes to learning.
If and when learners start to desert the classroom, we should shed no tears, in the same way that we should ignore the protests of the newspaper barons. They’ve had their day. The classroom is only a medium for learning, as was the job environment before that, and online technology in years to come. On the contrary, we should be delighted if more learning can be accomplished more efficiently. We will still need some expert practitioners to support this learning in the same way that we will still need journalists to gather and interpret news. The change will be uncomfortable but, ultimately, society will be the beneficiary.