Working the Web for Education
Re-Tooling Schooling
by Tom March
Web-based Educator and Director of Pty Ltd. • Southern Highlands, Australia
MultiMedia Schools • March/April 2001

In the midst of a pneumonia-enforced convalescence this year, ongoing bed rest prompted a search of our bookshelves for a lightweight distraction that would be more pictorial than probing (we live in a TV-free household). I came across People's Century, a coffee-table book put out by the BBC and covering the cultural events of the last century. Flipping through its pages, a section on the rise of the assembly line caught my interest. In one quotation a son recollected his father's experience: "The monotony of working that production line, day in day out, was too much for him." Whether from insight or delirium, something clicked, awaiting this chance to reflect on how the mass production approach and a changing world affect our own profession.

Education as Assembly Line
Many teachers labor in schools and systems that are based on a mass-production model. I recall at times feeling more automaton than mentor. The press of segmented hourly lessons held learning captive to an inviolable bell schedule. A curriculum cycle, inbred through repetition, signaled that if it's autumn, it must be The Scarlet Letter. Although I love the novel and author, year after year it becomes a challenge not to turn on the autopilot. Finally, managing 150 students each day often ends in a routinization of human interactions and functions best with the passive and obedient, not the active and idiosyncratic. Yet, for all this, given the need to administer to large numbers of students, codification and systemization avoid logistical nightmares inherent in a case-by-case approach.

Socrates as Shiftworker?
With his advent of the moving assembly line, Henry Ford decreased the time it took to build one car from 12 hours to 1-1/2. Similarly, People's Century notes, "In just one generation, the tractor had transformed the age-old patterns of farming and brought mass production to agriculture." In our own field, since World War II, we have increased high school graduation rates from 25-75 percent. Ford's revolution yielded lower costs, higher wages, and raised the standard of living for many unskilled laborers. As consequences of globalization such as unrestrained markets and genetically modified foods call into question the sustainability of large-scale production in industry and agriculture, perhaps it's wise for education to reflect on its own trajectory.

Does One Size Fit All in a "myYahoo! World"?
Those of us interested in new ways to facilitate learning are frequently asked "The Question." "Where's the educational research that proves that what you suggest promotes student learning?" It's a great question to ask, because I suggest we didn't ask it when we ventured away from the one-room schoolhouse and into our brick graduation factories. A witty anecdote fits here. On visiting London in his traditional Indian garb, Mahatma Gandhi was asked rather smugly by a reporter what he thought about "Western Civilization." Gandhi responded that he thought it was a good idea. The assumption that the status quo in the West amounted to an achievement from the perspective of the East is analogous to the assumption that our current mass-production model stands on a respected research base when these practices clearly come from less-than-pedagogical origins. Do students learn more under the mass-production model or do more students learn? And do they really? Has this been measured? Compared to what control group? Also, is the piece of paper students hold at the end of the line worth much in a world where the JavaScript manual I use was written by a 17-year-old during summer vacation, where the editor of the bleeding-edge Web Techniques magazine is a former student, and where most of the best educational Web sites are ThinkQuest projects?

Students as Game Boys and Spice Girls
Studies and anyone's casual observation show that many students' Web experiences focus on computer games, music, and chat. This is great because it shows that our learners have discovered the Internet as a place where they can pursue their interests. But as wireless communications companies and dot-coms strive to turn the world into exactly what we want when we want it, asking students to shuffle passively through our hallowed halls seems quaint, if not crazy. In the old Soviet Union, workers in some factories used to take naps on their idle workbenches. Their justification: "They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work." I suspect some students could play a variation on the theme: "They pretend to teach us, and we pretend to learn." David Thornburg has called Game Boys and the like "educational Uzis," which enter schools tucked into backpacks and often boast more processing punch than most classroom computers. Furthermore, their mindless, stimulus-response use sits at the other end of the continuum from most of the higher-order, cognitive skills we hope to elicit from students. If you'll indulge a little predicting, I'll hazard a guess that the Berlin Wall of assembly line education won't come down as the result of a major uprising, but silently as a classroom full of students accesses a wireless Web of music and videos through jewelry-based devices and invisible earphones. Those colleagues of ours who currently accept their students' Web-enabled plagiarism will marvel at the classroom control they now exercise over their "learners."

Is the Choice Brain Versus Cognitive Collapse?
On the other hand, most educators I meet yearn nostalgically for just a little monotony in their work lives. Although most school systems operate on a mass-production model, the actual work that teachers do on the front lines is far from simple. Repetition would be welcome in contrast to their constantly changing responsibilities—technology, standards, frameworks, assessments, strategic plans, and committees—let alone real-life issues touching our students—violence, drug abuse, and family problems. Don't you feel sucker-punched by pendulum swings and paradigm shifts? The old challenge may have been to endure brain-deadening boredom. Nowadays wouldn't it be nice to find cognitive slots to calm all that's buzzing in our minds? But does this mean that the only choice is between numbing repetition and dizzying change? As the world around education evolves and successful subcultures emerge within our central society, perhaps it's time to abandon the assembly line as the only true model. Everywhere I go, I see educators doing their best, but the machine maintains its relentless pace. How can we achieve more in the same fleeting time? Assembly lines are based on simplifying a task into easy, replicable steps that can be performed by unskilled laborers. What's required of educators these days are high levels of diagnostic, design, and delivery expertise. Attach that to 150 students in 50 minutes flat! Yet, now that we're asking good questions about the anticipated effectiveness of new learning strategies, perhaps we can also eliminate those rust-belt remnants that no longer work. And, could it be that some things don't fit together now, under stress, because real education isn't about affixing pieces to inanimate products? Students never were Studebakers. When the culture held a homogenous vision and a relatively uniform workforce, students willingly moved down the line to take their place in society. But as the world changes around us, certainties are few. The People's Century continues, "Few of the assembly line workers took the time to think about the changes; they were too busy worrying about how to keep pace with the moving line." Doesn't this sound like almost every educator you know?

A Call to Reflection
So what's to be done? Education could, as we've tended to, look to current business models for ideas about new ways to organize the educational process. Total Quality Management and clicks-and-mortar hybrids may have elements that could positively re-shape our workplace called school. But I suggest it's a mistake to plagiarize another's answers. Especially if those we copy from study a different subject. As our new poly-cultural world teaches us that diversity and decentralization can be forces for good, why not problem-solve for local needs within a context, providing measurable feedback that can respond and redirect itself as necessary? Where do we start? The following areas might be ripe for experiments in re-tooling schooling:

Time. How do we work within the constraints of time? Can technology and different delivery methods be employed for some kinds of learning tasks? What timeframes work best for the kind of cognition and affect you're hoping to achieve for your age of learners? With the assembly line approach everything possible was done to speed up and cut the cost of manufacturing. Are speed and cost still the dominant imperatives? If so, can technology creatively maximize our investments?

Place. Obviously, society needs schools to play a daycare role. But beyond this, can internships, mentoring, and building powerful individual and team work centers allow some flexibility to keep the focus on student learning, not logistical lockdowns? We have to decide if our real job involves crowd control or cognitive coaching.

Product.What are the real desired outcomes for our students? We can't be everything to everyone, but by articulating a clear vision we can move toward realizing our goals. One caveat is to be wary of the old "preparing students for the workforce" rallying cry. How many jobs will be extinct or invented within the next 15 years? The silicon quickness of change makes it risky to focus on knowledge at the expense of skills. Also, what keeps traditional classrooms functioning may not be as "mission critical" for other environments.

Process. An even bigger question than what student should learn is, "Who is responsible for achieving this?" Thinking that teachers bear responsibility for what goes on in the minds and hearts of their students might be politically expedient, but pure nonsense. How can we help students manage their own learning? Can we make educated guesses about the best processes to use to attain success? What must happen for students to realize the point is not to jump through our hoops but to make their own learning leaps? And because this is harder work for students, what infrastructure of incentives can we provide? Whose help do we need to build strong bridges between our schools and communities?

Content and Context. If the vision and some learning-friendly processes are in place, then we can identify descriptors of successful achievement. Is it more important to know facts or understand factors? When? Different strategies support these different goals. Standards and related assessments are a step in the right direction, but how silly are standards tied to grade level, not actual student mastery? Sure it's a logistical headache to record individual accomplishments, but can't we design technology to work for us? Also, isn't it time to question the segmentation of content areas? What does cognitive science tell us about how the brain works? Can we make our contribution and turn these research findings into promising practices?

Working Conditions. Change isn't, unless it's sustained. What can we do that we can reasonably expect to continue doing? The People's Century states, "Only a few weeks after the assembly line creaked into motion, 10 workers were leaving for every one who stayed." Ford's solution was radical: Cut the working day and double pay. I suspect education will have to find its own answers. One flicker I see in the crystal ball relates to this. Many shine dollar signs in their eyes when they look at the earning potentials for online education: exponential numbers of students worldwide, fewer teachers, scalability, no bricks-and-mortar expenses, hooray! My prediction is that, like Henry Ford's early employees, many teachers will turn their backs on a sweatshop approach to online education.

Personal Growth. If we're looking at what really promotes our students' learning, shouldn't we appreciate that educators are learners as well? What aspects of the job actually interfere with achieving our main goals? For example, do we have to work in isolation? If we decide to entrust students with their own learning, can we trust educators to diagnose how to facilitate this? What support exists to maximize the gifts each of us bring and support changing elements that don't contribute?

Once experimentation reveals some answers, let's work together to design and develop helpful software and systems, thereby pooling resources to create truly powerful tools. I currently see districts and states investing in local databases of standards-based lessons, online professional development, interactive teaching tools, etc. These are helpful, but imagine what could happen if we worked together instead of waiting for Yahoo! or Google to give us what they think we need.

Let's stop bowing to monoliths and twitching to each new movement. It would be nice if this were the case, but computers, standards, and whatever the next buzzword is aren't medicinal pills, silver bullets, or magic potions. We have to be realistic and get serious while there's still time to lead. Perhaps it's time to think differently, to pause on calls for action, and to look carefully at what is clearly broken and what you've seen that works. Trust your calling and educator's instinct as you reflect on the teaching-learning process in your classroom and school. And remember, in a profession that's all about humans and interaction, getting reductive, uniform, and controlling rarely sings with the voice of truth.

Tom March develops Web-based activities, tools and strategies for teachers integrating the Net into classroom learning. Pty Ltd. ( designs Web sites for clients in the U.S. and Australia. To contact the author, call, fax or e-mail  him; phone: 612 4872 321; fax: 612 4872 321; e-mail:

[Information Today Inc.]
Information Today Home Page
[MultiMedia Schools]
Home Page
[Current Issue]
Current Issue
[Current Issue]

Copyright © 2001, Information Today Inc. All rights reserved.