Rethinking Education: An Interview with Professor Allan Collins

Today we have an interview with Allan Collins! He is the author of Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, a book about the future of the relationship between technology, schools, and students. Allan is also a Professor Emeritus of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University. The book analyzes the way technology can shape education in the future; it has received rave reviews from academics from the University of Wisconsin, Stanford University, and the University of Washington. We are glad to talk to him and get his insights on the future of education.

1. What inspired you to write Rethinking Education?
Collins_techMy co-author Rich Halverson was a graduate student in Learning Sciences at Northwestern and I mentioned that I was planning to teach a course on the History of Education Reform. Since he had been a history teacher in a Chicago high school, he offered to co-teach the course with me. As we talked about the course and taught it, we decided to write a book describing how education is being transformed by the digital revolution. Our tentative title was The Second Educational Revolution and we wanted to describe how we were in the midst of a revolution like the one we went through from an apprenticeship-based education system to a schooling-based system starting in the 1830s. The first revolution took 100 years to develop the school system we know today and we think it will probably take 100 years for the current revolution to come to fruition. We are about 30 years into it, so we have a long way to go.

2. What makes the current generation of students different from others in terms of technology?

The current generation is growing up with all the new digital technologies, so they understand them in ways older people do not. I view myself as a Neanderthal, a dying species that arose out of book culture — a species that will be replaced by people whose minds are shaped by digital culture. Digital people are different in many ways from book people, but I will focus on their differences with respect to education. They like to play computer games, which puts them in complex situations they have to navigate. In multi-player games they are learning how to pursue goals, plan and solve problems, recover from failures, recruit and negotiate with partners, deal with adversaries, etc. All the kinds of things they will need to thrive in a competitive world.

They spend a lot of time communicating with friends and acquaintances through digital media, sometimes lurking in digital communities, sometime producing work and getting feedback from diverse audiences. They are learning how to present themselves to different audiences and they can try out different identities in the many different digital spaces available to them.

They are becoming producers of different kinds of works — sometimes written works as in fan clubs, sometimes artistic works as on YouTube or digital art sites. So they are not just producing artificial works like school essays and science fair projects. They are producing works for real audiences.

They pursue activities they are interested in outside of school and so they are becoming less and less willing to sit still and do what a teacher tells them to do, things they have no interest in and do not see are of use to them in any life they can imagine. Politicians and educators are pursuing a losing effort to set standards for what every student must learn, since kids are less and less willing to listen. School pursues the goal of making sure everyone masters what they least care about, while digital technology encourages people to pursue the things they most care about.

3. How can technology change the classroom?

I think technology is unlikely to change the classroom very much. I can imagine science and tech prep labs where students work on computers, or art or video courses where students produce their own digital works. But that is at the margins of school. One of the arguments in the book is that the culture of schooling and the culture of technology are at odds. Creative teachers often find ways to use technology successfully in their classrooms, but they will likely always be a small minority.

I can imagine learning centers where diverse people come to take digital courses of various kinds, with computer tutors for math, science, history, ESL, etc. These would be like computer labs where people who have particular learning goals come to take courses for some kind of credit. But most may prefer to do so from home. So I suspect such learning centers are not likely to develop.collins-allan

People can pursue their learning goals much more easily outside of schools, and so that seems to me the most likely way technology will influence learning. Society is developing ways for them to get credit for their learning through virtual colleges and high schools and technical certifications. That is one way I see things developing in the future.

4. What is the biggest obstacle in integrating technology in education?

I think the biggest obstacle is for society to recognize that technology is going to have its major impact on education outside of school. The elites in society are buying themselves and their children all sorts of educational advantages, through technological resources such as sophisticated games and computer-based courses. This means that technology is exacerbating the differences in educational outcomes between the elites and non-elites in society. Since technology is only used marginally in schools, the schools cannot mitigate the problem.

So I think society needs to provide the resources for every child and adult to pursue the educational opportunities that the new technologies provide. For example I think the Federal government should provide every 3 year old with a handheld device that would support them in learning to read and count. Such a device could have Dr. Seuss stories and games like Chutes and Ladders that have been shown to help kids learn the basics of reading and arithmetic on their own. Deciding what are the most effective ways to provide technological resources to non-elites is a research question, but currently the only question we ask is “How can we fix the schools?” The schools are a very evolved institution and it will be very difficult to improve them in any substantial way.
5. Do you think it is possible to one day have all-online classrooms in the future?

I don’t think it is going to happen. Schools are into controlling what the students are learning and doing. Not only do educators want to decide what is important to learn, but they also have to worry about their legal responsibility for what kids are doing at school. If you let kids onto the web, the school will lose control. Schools could confine students to working with computer tutors of some kind, as integrated learning systems do. And I suppose I can imagine schools with classrooms full of these computer tutors with kids working away diligently on them. But that is not an online classroom. Online takes you out into the world of the web where kids can find pornography, facebook pages, war games, and text messages from their friends. School is not going to put up with that.

Thanks Allan for agreeing to this interview! We appreciate his insights on technology and how it affects education. Again, you can find Allan’s book Rethinking Education on Amazon. If you want more access to how you can change education on the internet, check out