on the narrative of broadcast models of education

This post started as a tweet (which I deleted before posting), and then a series of tweets (which I only wrote in my head but never actually posted). Then, hey! I have a blog! So… I’m not going to fully (even partially? at all?) cite references here.

I’ve been uncomfortable with the “education is a broadcast model” narrative that’s been predominant for the last decade(s). It’s making another round, likely fueled by pushback against DeVos in the states (which, yikes!) and some NYTimes articles about billionaires who have ideas to fix education, if we just give them our kids (but mostly our money).

Education is broken! We need to open education! We need to include the voice of the students! Education is built to stifle creativity and force students to sit passively as knowledge-receiving-buckets!

Your humble protagonist, dutifully broadcasting education.

How is it possible to argue against any of those rallying cries? It’s not. They’re all admirable goals. But the side effect of using these rallying cries is that it drives and entrenches the narrative that education (that teachers and students) don’t do this already. That nobody has thought to include the voice of the student. That nobody has thought to foster creativity. And that if we value these things, we need to drastically change everything – bonus points for “disrupting” education by bringing in a third party service provider of some type (double-bonus-points if it’s a Silicon Valley startup launched by a Stanford prof who can’t understand why everyone isn’t doing things his way).

I can only speak from my own experience. It’s possible there are places where these things aren’t happening – but I highly doubt it.

From what I see, the most important and meaningful learning experiences have very little to do with content. They are all about creativity. About openness. About experimentation and real-world connection to communities. And all of the things that the EDUCATION IS BROKEN! mantra says are missing.

My problem with the broadcast model narrative is that it emphasizes the value of content (students receive knowledge from a transmitter, and that’s horrible! We must stop this!), when this is simply not the case. Content is often (usually? hopefully?) the least important part of a learning experience. Yes, it’s absolutely essential, but is primarily a vector for more interesting things – what students do to make sense of the content, and to extend it.

From my perspective, education is definitely not a broadcast model. I’m sure there are places where it is, but I haven’t seen it. Even the most boring-looking lecture hall is not about content as much as students engaging with it in some way. That’s not broadcasting. I see this kind of thing on a regular basis: (not usually in the main Atrium, but definitely a daily occurrence in courses in the Taylor Institute)

Will the circle be unbroken. Bye and bye.

At its best, learning is messy. It’s chaotic. It’s intensely personal. These are things that are impossible to broadcast. Impossible to Massively Open. They are deeply rooted in student engagement (with each other, with their instructor, with the community).

At its best, learning is about weirdness and fringes and chaos and creativity and discovery and trial and error and failure and triumph and teamwork and collaboration and connection and interaction and relationships. None of these things work well in a broadcast model.

A pod of cardboard killer whales, not broadcasted into the atrium of the Taylor Institute.

Is it happening everywhere, all of the time? Probably not. But focusing on the broadcast model narrative suggests that it is not happening at all. What if we focus on how amazing learning experiences can be done, rather than lamenting that someone, somewhere might be doing it wrong,