Just like blogging disrupted journalism, tweeting disrupted news reporting, and music videos killed radio stars, in the field of education a new era of mobile video technology is disrupting centuries-old methods for teaching and learning. We can't rewind these changes (nor should we, for reasons explored below) but to understand them we need to go back to the streets of Athens circa 387 B.C., where Plato inaugurated the first Academy.
Economists tell us that all systems self-organize around the dimensions of scarcity (think trees in the jungle's canopy growing ever higher in search of sunlight). In Plato's Akademia, the main organizing principle was not the frontal lecture but the dialectic: back-and-forth spoken interaction between senior and junior scholars. The key scarce resource was the masters' attention, and the organizing principle was therefore centered on regulating access to them. This was not a very scalable solution, but there was no easy way to disseminate knowledge other than by osmosis. The closest thing to spending time with the master was learning from the master's meetings with other people.
In other words, the Academy was a school founded on orality and not on literacy. Knowledge was both being produced and preserved in these spoken exchanges, and when the dialogues were recorded it was mostly so they could be recycled back into the oral culture of younger generations, and not replace it. (Socrates, for one, felt that writing per se was going to not only hurt oral arguments, but weaken human memory).
For the next two millennia the dark ages were made dark mainly by the loss of classical knowledge when its oral preservation chains were interrupted, leaving only a staggeringly small portion of the population literate -- mostly scribes busy replicating religious texts. An average person could live their whole lifetime without seeing a book, let alone reading one, and knowledge was thus being transferred by variations of the apprenticeship model. Lectures developed as the main method by which a group of students could share a rare book. They would get together and one would read aloud while others quietly listened. The context was mostly religious gatherings where access to the scriptures endowed the church great power over the general public.
Fast-forward 1,800 years. By 1450 A.D., Gutenberg shocked Europe when he introduced his printing press. Arguably the most important invention of the modern era -- perhaps marking the very beginning of what we call the modern era --movable type changed the economics of knowledge distribution and underwrote the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.
Gutenberg's invention also dramatically changed education. No longer would it take the lifetime of a scribe to replicate a single book. The demographic basis of scholarship was dramatically expanded when direct access to the master, or to a copy of a rear manuscript, was no longer a necessary condition for learning. As a result, the institutions designed to create, preserve and disseminate knowledge re-oriented around new modes of scarcity. Power shifted to the individuals who could read and write, which in turn started a virtuous cycle: The proliferation of books ushered in more demand for books and a new era of education. By the end of the 16th century, universities had mushroomed all over Europe, soon eclipsing in number and scope the monastic and guild-controlled schools.
This technological advancement had immediate results: First, the number of people who could be educated grew dramatically as scholarship was no longer limited to a handful of nobles who could afford private master teachers. Second was the disintermediation of experts, which led directly to the Scientific Revolution. With the ubiquity of printing, universities were not only disseminating knowledge but also producing and distributing their own research. When would-be scientists gain access to other scholars' work, they can challenge it, invent their own theories and come up with conjectures and refutations that are at the heart of the scientific method. Lastly, literacy enabled the rise of the middle class. Education was and remains the key to participation in the culture and the economy, and Gutenberg's printing press dramatically lowered socio-economic barriers.
Five hundred years later, we are blessed to live in an age when a third revolution is upon us. If Academia 1.0 was about institutionalizing access to the masters and their oral culture, and Academia 2.0 was about a transition from orality to literacy and access to the knowledge of certain masters through physical books, then Academia 3.0 is about universal access and social learning. The invention of personal computing, the Internet, and now tablet computers and smart phones means that students can, quite literally, hold an entire library in their pocket.
But with these transitions come new modes of scarcity, and we can expect the system to re-orient itself around them. What's missing in a world where every book ever written could be summoned with a pinch, zoom, or waver of a finger? What limitations must we face when we are no longer bound by the physicality of buildings and benches? What gets lost when ubiquitous access is gained? The answer has to do with the realization that education is not based solely on the distribution of knowledge but also its internalization and the signaling rewards that come with its externalization.
Students do not choose Harvard for the size of its library -- rather, they choose Harvard in equal parts because it endows them with the prestige, connections, and community that will shape their career for life, as well as access to expert faculty. Similarly, MIT's value is greater than the sum of the PowerPoint slides that professors share in their classrooms, made clear by MIT's brave release of its course material as part of the OpenCourseware initiative. A new model for teaching and learning must recognize these added values lest it fails both educationally and commercially, as is evident from recent news that the University of Phoenix, the first large scale attempt at distance education, will close half its campuses.
Analysis shows that what's missing from many social-mobile-global digital environments are a sense of authenticity, a definition of quality, and mechanisms to build and sustain reputation and community within and beyond the digital campus. Luckily, new incarnations of technologies like video and multi-media can help alleviate these scarcities. Consider the following examples.
First, video allows separating the delivery of knowledge and its internalization. The recent success of the Khan Academy is a case in point, demonstrating how even a low-production value (but well-planned) video lesson can shift the role of teachers: Instead of reciting knowledge that others can deliver in a more professional or consistent manner, teachers can spend the newfound time on individual or small-group interactions.
Then consider what happens when turning connected devices into the means for actively internalizing knowledge. For example, imagine a negotiation class in a business school where instead of two students practicing a role playing scenario on stage while 298 students sit back passively, 150 pairs practice the role, all while recording themselves and submitting the recording to their group for critique and improvement.
Or imagine a medical student preparing for an Anatomy class, wanting to review the names of vital bodily organs. Touch-sensitive videos of virtual cadavers dramatically enhance memorability and knowledge accumulation.
Or consider a group of students in a Chemistry lab using a smartphone app to record the bench procedures and automatically extract the transcript using speech-to-text technology, so that they can review it for finals.
Or consider an ornithologist who needs access to high-fidelity recordings of rare birds while in the field. Or teachers who record their lesson plans so that they can get feedback from a mentor. Or a working mom who can't afford to quit her day job to go to school, but pulls through evening classes offered by her local community college, classes which she can revisit remotely if she misses a class, and where she can get peer feedback with video comments.
The common element in all of these real world examples is that video opens up possibilities to overlay new models of teaching and learning on top of traditional ones. Video facilitates more individualized, more personal, and more focused approaches that are not centered on the lecture-based delivery of knowledge but, rather, on its accessibility in ways that encourage student ownership and a strong sense of community. The video-enabled classroom is very Platonic in that it brings an oral culture, a dialectic, a personalized connection between teacher and student and among students, and it does all that at a scale never known before, as is evident by the recent rise of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like the ones offered by Coursera and EdX.
Education was and remains key to success in an information society. Designing the next generation of our academic institutions to be accessible, inclusive, empowering, and impactful is not only our right, but also our duty. How many of us would have loved to get the basic principles of Calculus from Newton himself or to study Biology 101 with Darwin? Since we can't put our hands on their lecture capture recordings, how about empowering the Newtons and Darwins of the future? We now have the technological wherewithal to do so, powered by video. Far from killing the radio stars of yesteryear, with video we can create the stars of tomorrow, today.