In the mid 1980s, the course of longtime educator Roger Schank’s career changed forever. A professor of computer science and Artificial Intelligence (AI), he radically shifted focus when his own children began their careers as students. His professional work up to that point had been devoted to developing a successful system by which computers could be programed to learn. When his children entered the education system he noticed that, while he was trying to teach computers how to learn, the schools were merely teaching his children how to pass. Schank became increasingly horrified with how little learning actually occurred in these supposedly “educational” environments and devoted the rest of his life to correcting this fundamental problem. The solution, he believes, is learning with computers.
According to Schank, the modern education system is deeply flawed because “school isn’t about learning at all, it’s about certification.” On top of that, Schank argues that there are large and powerful groups with a vested interest in keeping the system flawed. From text book manufacturers to the university system, the modern education machine is a multi-billion dollar industry that relies heavily on things staying exactly as they are – regardless of how it affects students. As a result, students are stuck is classrooms listening to lectures, memorizing material that they care little about, and retaining information just long enough to regurgitate it for the exam. After all, says Schank, the goal of school isn’t to learn, it’s to pass.
But how does learning with computers change all that? For Schank, the computer is the new medium through which the stagnation of the current system can be bypassed. While lectures tend to be ineffective for long-term retention of material, “computers are inherently doing devices, rather than listening devices, so courses can be based on doing.” Schank also notes how intelligent computer based courses are ideal because they are free of traditional classroom hindrances. In a traditional classroom the teacher can not hold up the entire class for a single student who is stuck on a concept, whereas the individual nature of web based learning runs into no such problems – students are free to learn at their own pace. Schank believes that “the modern era of education is not about the physical proximity to the teacher… it is about instant access to new kinds of information sources and new kinds of experiences.”
By the end of the 1980s, with funding by Andersen Consulting, Schank had established the Institute of Learning Science at Northwestern University. From there he developed computer-based, learn by doing software for numerous organizations around the globe. As time progressed, the reality of widely implementing this costly software became increasingly less likely and Schank adjusted his educational model to fit the modern era. In 2001, he founded both the Socratic Arts company as well as the nonprofit Engines for Education to proliferate his learn by doing methodology. Schank’s most recent projects include the creation of a virtual university as well as partnering with LaSalle University in Barcelona to recreate the Institute of Learning Sciences. His active and controversial blog, Education Outrage, is an excellent source for further reading from one of the leading proponents of technologically based education.