Electrifying Education Part I: Being There

There are many parallels in how electric vehicles are disrupting the transportation industry and in how digital has the potential to disrupt the education industry. To realize the potential of electric vehicles, we must grasp changed opportunities for reaching our destinations. To realize the potential of digital, we must grasp changed opportunities to reach our students.

Electric cars change everything from the design of the car to how they’re used. With an internal combustion engine, the nature of the engine dictated the design of the car itself. Form followed function. Its impact stretches far beyond the design of the car itself. The impact of this one innovation of the 19th century still reaches into every corner of our society. So many of our systems, from fueling networks to urban planning, are explicitly or implicitly designed to support the internal combustion engine. The electric car disrupts these patterns. We just haven’t noticed it yet.

Digital education is a similarly disruptive force. It changes everything from the design of instruction to the systems where it takes place. Like the internal combustion engine, the classroom drives the design of instruction. Systems are, explicitly or implicitly, designed to support the concept of putting as many students as practical into the same physical space as their teachers. This is also an innovation of the 19th century telegraphed into today. We build campuses around classrooms and their enrollment capacity. Headcount based on contact hours dictates funding. This thinking stretches into classrooms that don’t exist in any physical sense. Everything revolves around the basic assumption that the classroom drives instruction.

Both systems are facing a reckoning. It is clearer every day that we must wean ourselves from the internal combustion engine. The pandemic has similarly shown us what happens when classrooms are wiped from the table. Much like an electric car, digital education liberates us from the constraints of form. It shifts our notions of space and time.

Moving students around from class to class and all the infrastructure built around that is dictated by the constraints of physical spaces. It’s logistically difficult to split off groups of students based on learning needs. The form of the classroom drives the shape of instruction.

Design shapes behavior. The fluidity made possible by both electric engines and digital education opens huge possibilities for design. Electric cars, liberated from the centrality of the internal combustion engine, are essentially modular. Digital education tools are also modular. Because learning can take place anywhere and at any time, teachers can plug and play instruction, employing a wide range of tools unconstrained by time and space.

Supporting electric cars is also more modular. Since any electrical outlet can charge them overnight, every house can become a gas station. If there’s anything the pandemic taught us, it’s that presence in a classroom is not a precondition for learning. Every study can become a classroom. Over the last couple of years, we discovered a vast array of modular, digital technologies that we can plug in anywhere in the learning process.

There are weaknesses to both the supporting infrastructure underlying digital learning and that supporting electric vehicles. With electric vehicles, it’s long-distance travel and charging times. Digital educational systems also face constraints. For one, the reach of broadband in the United States has shown itself to be a serious problem for a lot of communities, particularly those more economically vulnerable. Instead of constructing buildings to bring more students into educational networks, perhaps institutions should focus resources on constructing better networks of all kinds to connect learners where they are. This shift would require them to reimagine their paradigms about what constitutes a community of learning.

There is a general lack of recognition of how digital instruction is different and how this demands that we approach its delivery in novel ways. As we discussed in part 1, many institutions look at the lack of physical constraints in the digital environment as an opportunity to have a “classroom” that they can pack as many students into as they want. As a result, digital/online classes are often larger than their physical counterparts. The limited research in this area shows that digital sections should have fewer students to allow for greater personalized instruction and equity. Lower costs and greater flexibility should allow institutions to do that. However, most institutions continue to view the economics of digital instruction through an analog lens.

While we have a vast infrastructure devoted to traditional forms of education to fall back on, the last 18 months have shown us how brittle that infrastructure can be. In almost all instances, however, this brittleness comes down to a failure of imagination. To cite just one example, we continue to measure learning through various time-on-task indicators such as contact hours, which imply live, direct content delivery. This is a little like evaluating an electric car based on gas mileage.

We have so many more ways to engage our students than forcing them to sit patiently through our florid prose. There is increasing evidence that there are better ways to instill deep learning. When you are standing in front of 500 students in a lecture hall, it feels like you have little choice. But that’s because you’re looking at lecture like it’s a well-tuned (hopefully) internal combustion engine and not a compact electric motor you can plug in anywhere to the learning process. This is another example of form driving function.

Instead of being constrained by the mechanics of what you perceive to be possible because of the technology and the system that put you in that space, break it down by purpose. In a car, that purpose is to get to your destination efficiently and safely. In a course of instruction those purposes vary more widely, but in my classes my purpose is clear: I want to teach my students the skills to engage with their learning, not just regurgitate information. The actual content is useless without giving them the ability to process it meaningfully.

We must learn to recognize the commonalities of our purposes and separate them from the mechanics of the technology. Figure out how to plug your lecture into the students’ minds rather than relying on the inefficient transmission possibilities of most physical spaces. This does not mean you do away with it, but it means you think strategically about where on the engine of learning that you put it. We do not measure learning in time or space. We measure it in reception and comprehension. Instruction should reflect this.

So much of our institutional energy is focused on the modes of transmitting information to our students. We should focus on the transmission of learning itself. From invasive assessment regimes to endless, mind-numbing remote lectures, remote teaching highlighted transmission as a point of failure. It’s past time to consider how we can go digital and modular to make the transmission of learning more antifragile. We will not do that by making it more complex and trying to emulate outdated patterns found in classroom-based instruction. Much like creating an environment for supporting electric vehicles, this transition will require a shift in how our systems treat learning. Let’s hope that the pandemic has created a spark for driving learning in unexpected directions.

In Part III, we will examine what applying lessons from electric design could look like.