Hail the pouting pedagogue

David Budge

Marilyn Monroe, the archetypal dumb blonde, may become a teacher in the next century, writes David Budge.

The film star's "rebirth" as a pouting pedagogue is foreseen by Professor John Tiffin and Dr Lalita Rajasingham, of Victoria University, New Zealand, who have written a book, In Search of the Virtual Class, on the colossal impact that the latest computer and telecommunications developments will have on teaching and learning.

Students, or rather their three-dimensional computer-graphic images, will be able to join tutorials in any subject anywhere in the world simply by donning spectacles or even contact lenses.

Teachers will be able to choose "classrooms" that simulate a jungle clearing, the bottom of the ocean or the summit of Mount Everest. Medical students will be able to swim through a human heart, and young scientists will wander among atomic structures as though they are in a sculpture park.

And if students grow tired of looking at their tutors' graphic image they will wave a gloved hand and transform them into Socrates, an elephant, a teddy bear ... or Marilyn.

As Tiffin and Rajasingham point out in their book, Marilyn may be one of the first of the virtual reality teachers because the University of Geneva is currently developing her brilliantly lifelike double. When she walks, her virtual clothes swirl and fold of their own accord.

Tiffin and Rajasingham look forward to the day Marilyn sashays into the virtual class to mark the death of conventional "two by four by six education" (two book covers, four classroom walls, and a six-hour school day). But they are even more excited by the more tangible benefits that they believe the new technology will bring.

These include less traffic and pollution, because parents and children will be able to work from home or their local school and community centre. Less building because there will be little need to provide additional classrooms. Less tree-felling because the demand for books and newspapers will be reduced. Less involvement of governments in education as business corporations assume the provider role. More opportunities for the developing nations to improve their standard of living (perhaps at the expense of the richest countries).

The authors do not suggest how the colossal spending programme they envisage can be funded, but they emphasise that mass production will reduce the cost dramatically. They also do not say how unemployed school- and road-builders, bus drivers and book publishers will make either a virtual or real living in the next millennium, but they offer some crumbs of comfort to teachers worried by the prospect of a rival on the other side of the world who may look like Monroe and have the mind of Einstein.

Tiffin and Rajasingham accept that good "teleteachers" will be able to charge higher fees, while poor teachers will lack business. But they do not foresee the demise of real teachers. No one will need to teach handwriting, which will become a folk craft, but teachers will still have to develop children's social skills and oral ability as computers will be voice-responsive.

A sensible balance will also have to be struck between computer use and human interaction, they say, and younger children will have to be carefully guided through virtual learning adventures by class teachers. In fact, they envisage that the best teacher training students will eventually be given responsibility for three-year-olds while less able graduates will be asked to work with 17 and 18-year-olds.

That is a future that nursery teachers, at least, would vote for.

In Search of the Virtual Class: Education in an Information Society, by John Tiffin and Lalita Rajasingham, Routledge, Pounds 35 hardback, Pounds 14. 99 paperback

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