I have just found out that the Commodore 64 is 30 years old this year. While for some of you this might make you feel old, I got a different feeling from the news – namely, sweet Jesus, that was fast.
I don’t mean that 30 years went past in the blink of an eye. I mean that a tremendous amount of progress has taken place in 30 years in computing. If you’ve looked at this sort of thing before, my apologies for boring you; you can skip to the next paragraph. If you haven’t considered it, let me give you some numbers. When compared to the C64, the current low-end iMac has 64,000 times as much RAM, 2500 times the processor speed (and four cores instead of one), displays a million times as many colors, and has a comparable price to the original C64. The iMac’s hard drive stores over two billion times as much as the floppy drives available at the C64’s launch.
There’s a famous (apocryphal, of course) story about a back-and-forth with Bill Gates and General Motors comparing the computer industry to the auto industry. I think education would fare worse in the comparison, but naturally it’s not a fair comparison.
The history of computing is one of “killer apps” and game-changing alterations in the status quo, which these days people refer to as “disruptive innovations”. Here’s the short version: a killer app, in the old days, was a program so valuable or cool that you bought a particular system to be able to run that program. Angry Birds might be a modern killer app; I’m sure there are some folks out there who upgraded to a smartphone simply to play that game.
Education, on the other hand, has had only one killer app that I can think of in the past 100 years: the SAT. Everyone adopted it because it made admissions easier, there are spinoffs and competitors (ACT, SSAT, PSAT, GRE…), and now there’s a whole industry based around it. Before that… hell, it might have been democracy that was the killer app, putting more power into the hands of the people and leading to compulsory education, forcing the rectilinear classroom. Some folks are putting online education forth as a killer app, but I’m wondering if we’ll ever see an educational method that makes people jump and shout. If we imagine our modern-day education as the iMac, what ancient thing was the C64? What massively ineffective boondoggle did our current somewhat ineffective boondoggle grow out of?
On the other hand, perhaps the comparison of education and industry is a bad one to make, but one that we’re trapped in. Maybe education is a different sort of shape entirely and we’ve been round-pegging it for over a hundred years.