Companies & Universities, Students & Careers

From cave walls to computers: a brief history of learning

Old picture of filming of students watching someone teach

Since the mass adoption of formal education in schools across society, understanding around items such as class size, curriculum development, and teaching tools have advanced significantly, but the format in which content is delivered to students has barely evolved for thousands of years. The lecture-based approach to education has spread across civilizations, continents, and cultures. Let’s take a trip back in time and I’ll show you how we arrived where we are now.

Forty thousand years ago, carvings of rock walls were used as a vehicle for teaching, however it is not until 3100BC that with the rise of trade, government, and religion came the invention of writing, which brought both schooling and education as we know them today to the Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations. A few hundred years later, Plato founded The Academy in Athens, where the Socratic method dominated teaching. This method involved argumentative dialogue between individuals and was led by a teacher who was trusted with the responsibilities of guiding the conversation and instructing students about new concepts.

Fast forward into the Middle ages: monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church were the centers of education and professors were master lecturers. This eduction style permeated through subsequent ages and was slowly combined with different mechanisms and tools; in colonial times, students had to recite what the teacher preached aided by a Horn-Book (a wooden flat board with parchment on top that laid out a lesson). A few hundred years later, the Magic Lantern, one of the first projectors, was created and then two decades later, our beloved chalkboard!

Now let’s stop and think, what do all these lecture methods have in common? They’re boring! Have you ever been on the verge of falling asleep during a class? That’s because most lessons you’ve taken have probably been lecture-based where you’ve sat and listened passively to a teacher “preaching.” You’ve probably interacted through some sort of Socratic discussion, performed some rote-memorization, or have energetically taken notes of what a professor is writing. However, there seems to be a persistent problem, one that technology hasn’t managed to solve in centuries: lectures still predominate the way we learn.

One aspect of education that technology has revolutionized is the expansion of education beyond the elite few and to the masses. With commercial radio broadcasting in the 1920s also came on-air radio education, then television for education in the 1950s and videotapes in the 1970s. Finally, with the advent of the Internet, online education took off and by 2008, web technology was being used to create the first Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which taught learners through videos.

So if you think about it, the format of learning has not really changed, students still sit and watch or listen to a lecture, and still fall asleep, not actually learning as much as they possibly could. And let’s not even mention the lack of individualized attention that a pupil might need to actually improve through instant feedback. What if we combine both technology that allows for open access of quality education and change passive learning into active learning that is self-paced, adaptive, and provides instant feedback? That would be the real revolution! And that’s what we are doing here at Smartly.


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