The fascinating relationship between the growth of the automobile and online remote learning

At the turn of the new industrial age with the automobile making its presence known and fears that centuries old travelling were about to be replaced, there existed an interesting conundrum. In New York, 6,000 horses, the sum of all US cities combined, were engage in haulage of a kind. Horses were essential; they were embedded within society.

What, many experts asked would happen to horse power ? A series of photos from the era explain — from amusement of the automobile to the car-horse co-creation. It’s part ignorance that people couldn’t understand the car would entirely replace the horse, and part intransigence when authorities in the Massachusetts town of Nantucket set out to ban cars.

A progressive and businessman Clinton S. Folger, partly escaped banning laws by mounting his horse to his car to deliver mail.

It took a full eighteen years for the acceptance of the car and the banishment of the horse and the ideology. The vote to accept cars was by a slim voting margin: 326 to 286.

The car-drawn-horse seems a befitting analogy for our times. In the next coupe of months many institutions around the world will attempt to engage students predominately through online courses. If you’re reading this in 2038, the reasons have to do with the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing to safe guard viral infection and lives.

Yet as lectures move online, there’s something of the 1900s car story about what’s unfolding. People expect a communications gateway they’ve become accustomed to, coupled with a way of generally presenting in class. That is the norm from which to commence.

No one wants to throw away the horse and let the car truly show what it can do. The issue is the car, in many ways, already exists.

Here’s a problem that provides a paradigmatic way of thinking. Imagine you were asked to deliver a lecture on how to cook a dish of lasagne. There lies the strong temptation to confront your students with a set of power points and you mellifluously uncoiling the lecture. Is that the best way to deliver said lecture?

If you pause and think analogically for a moment, by ditching the horse, you’d find out several cooking show formats exists, and some are ratings winners. Somewhere here, in the great tradition of show don’t tell ( at least not all) lies a methodology.

This thinking can be stretched even further, so plastic pollution can be explained again in the kitchen with the right utensils. That’s not to say every subject merits the TV show format, but that television has already showed how to entertain and teach an audience.

It’s time for academia to learn, just as politicians in the 1960s learned trade craft in PR and selling themselves and message. Alternatives to pop up lecture studios — already exist in modular forms in Udacity and Udemy — but they’re just one style.

In practice, truthfully it’s too soon. Institutions have been thrust into this situation, and Zoom, google and Skype are some of the best available, but Zoom and Skype were not built for mass education.

It’s the equivalent of Kevin Kelly, Wired Editor and Internet Guru in the late 1990s telling ABC to invest in the Net. Kelly is politely walked out of the meeting. It’s too soon and I expect, just as it took Nantucket a while to shed their love for a way of life and horses, it’ll take academia a few years.

Yesterday however, I wished for its acceleration. I attended a conference of some of the world’s leading educationist and couldn’t stay absorbed to what could have been richly rewarding experience.

There was a potpourri of backgrounds, dutch and off framing cameras, and power points that read like encyclopedias. Cognitive scientists and UX designers are about to make fortunes.

If anything online is about to expose a spectrum of online teaching styles’ that commercial games and entertainment companies know intuitively keeping young and old people engaged for ages playing games.

Think about it? How does radio with no pictures manage to keep you engaged? Within this new horizon, what raconteurs, comedians, radio podcasts, film have been saying for ages is Storytelling and the end product is the experience. What you’re designing is an enjoyable experience which worms its way into long term memory .

But also spare a thought. Today the automobile and its related attributes: pollution, traffic jams, reliance on oil and damage to the environment is a trade off in 1920s that may carry a difference sense of optimism in 2020.

We should be wary of that designing new online learning.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store