Wow, how is that for a boring and dry post title? The full circle of education? But it's something I've been thinking about, so here you go. I'll try to be brief.
Although I've spent most of my career working in some form of 'distance education', I have long said that I don't necesarrily think teaching at a distance, or using technology in education, is the best, most perfect way to teach. I have stated in the past that I think that perhaps the best education can be described as many experts teaching one person. Think of it as the 'royalty method'. Imagine a prince being taught warfare by the king's general, and politics by the king's adviser, and foreign languages by people from that country. It's a great way to learn, but quite expensive, which is why hundreds of years ago, only royalty or the very rich could afford it.
The education for the common person, then, came in what I call the 'apprenticeship method'. This method usually involved one expert teaching one student. Think of a blacksmith teaching a young boy. The boy learns at the master's feet for 7 years or so, and then goes on and can do his own thing.
But while this may be an effective method, it's not efficient. So the solution to this problem is for that one expert to teach many apprentices. This method then morphed into the 'classroom method', which is the idea of one expert teaching many students - the antithesis of the royalty method. This method is not as effective, but much more practical. One happy side effect of this method is now if you're stuck on a particular concept or problem, you have friends to ask. Of course the reason you may be forced to ask friends is because the expert is busy dealing with other students, but still...
This was pretty much the state of things leading up to the late 90s. Then this fascinating thing called the internet came along. And suddenly educators found they could magnify this classroom method to the nth degree. Instead of teaching dozens of students (hundreds if you're in college), suddenly educators could theoretically teach many, many more. A teacher could create a site that suddenly allows content to be broadcast to tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. Teachers have incredible reach. It's incredibly efficient, but do we lose out on effectiveness?
Well, just as we had a happy side effect in the classroom method, we find another happy side effect from the internet. Guess what? The internet has access to thousands of learners, but in turn, those learners now have access to thousands of teachers, and tens of thousands of learners. We're right back to the royalty method. I can learn anthropology at my university, but now I can also learn it from MIT, USU, wikipedia, and a number of other sources. I'm no longer limited by the information my teacher has, I have access to teachers and learners from all over the world.
Nowhere is this happy side effect more beautifully illustrated than in the open educational resources movement. Things like OpenCourseWare, Connexions, OER Commons, MERLOT, iTunes U, wikibooks, wikieducator, open textbooks, Wikipedia, and so much more. You now have many different experts, novices, and learners coming together to shape information. These resources give you access to numerous experts, something that was available only to royalty in days gone by.
We've come full circle, but seem to have the best of all worlds. I have access to hundreds of experts, thousands of other students, and together we can learn from those who came before us, and create additional learning for those that will come after us. It's an exciting time to be an educator.
My congratulations for those that made it all the way through this post. :)