Virtual/Real/Virtual (1)

(This is a written version of a speech given in Toronto in October at DIGIFEST)


The age of virtualization is changing. When the digital adventure began in the early 1980’s, the future of computers and hence the digital age was unclear, even fuzzy. Today, after 30 years of experimentation it is pretty clear that there have been some tremendous successes and also some clear failures.

I want to approach the issue of virtualization with great care. And, my approach will be framed by a deep concern for what is happening to our learning environments.

So, let me start by talking about space, that is, architectural and public space. The recent and continuing protests that began in New York and have spread worldwide are important indicators of what is happening to the generation that has been most influenced by the technologies we now take for granted.

Keep in mind, that technologies that virtualize break down as many barriers as they build up. So, when protestors get together in a park and create a variety of methodologies to develop consensus, to manage their affairs, to provide services, they are engaging in the type of face to face contact that completely transforms not only their perceptions of each other, but also their perceptions of the world. Virtual encounters inside and through screen based technologies permit exchanges of a similar sort, but these are qualitatively different from what is happening in Zucotti Park or Vancouver or Toronto.

The need to explore embodied relationships suggests that the increasingly complex mix of the virtual and the real will be measured against our experiences of each other in the real world and not vice versa.

The protestors in New York and elsewhere are using what to them is a novel approach to the discussions that they are having with each other. In a version of broken telephone, they are communicating their ideas to each other through individual repetition. People are transmitting the core ideas behind the protests using an oral tradition of storytelling. This is being done to strengthen their resolve and to personalize the relationships that they have with each other, but also to transform each conversation into a memorable one. In a period of history when conversations are fleeting and efforts to hold onto our memories are dictated by reminders, phones and computers, orality is both central and ephemeral to these protests. 

So it is ironic that in the Facebook age when short form communications dominate, that the protestors have turned to oral traditions that are thousands of years old, a mixture of the Greek polis and the Roman square.

Virtual communications have always seemed an efficient way of promoting interactions across numerous boundaries and this has challenged conventional forms of communications. The irony is that the virtual cannot exist without the real. The mistake we have been making has been to celebrate the virtual as an end in itself. For example, we talk about video games without talking enough about video gamers. We discuss Facebook through the interface and restrictions it provides and not about the potential shifts in human relations generated by  virtual interactions.

And, this mistake will not be very easy to overturn. Virtual spaces are just too attractive and the ease of use, the genuine feel and form of interactions, the potential to be a broadcaster with an audience, however small is a very powerful attraction. 

Part Two can be found here.

Learning in the 21st Century (Part Two)

One of the recurring themes in discussions about learning and education is that our post-secondary institutions are always to varying degrees on the verge of decline or even death. “The American Liberal Arts College died today after a prolonged illness. It was 226 years old.” (Washington, D.C., 2 July 1862) Quoted in the Winter 1971 edition of the History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 p. 339.

In 1862, colleges in the US shifted from a skills orientation to broader curricula more concerned with social, economic, artistic and cultural issues than traditional approaches to job-ready training. It is important to remember that in the 19th century it was not necessary to go (as Richard Hofstadter has put it) “…to college to become a doctor, lawyer, or even a teacher, much less a successful politician or businessman….Higher education was far more a luxury, much less a utility, than it is today.” (History of Education Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4 p. 340)

The key word in what Hofstadter says is “utility.” Today, in our rush to promote the utility of education, we have reduced learning to a series of “courses” defined in larger measure by a structure that privileges speed over gradualism. Intuitively, learners know that new knowledge cannot be ‘acquired’ through the simple consumption of information. Intuitively, teachers know that tending to the emotional intelligence and needs of their students is perhaps more important than promoting rote learning. Nevertheless, schools try to squeeze learning into narrow disciplinary boundaries. So much of the structure of schools works against change including the fact that hiring of new teachers is still defined by discipline.   

When economies go into crisis, policymakers look to schools to solve the immediate challenges of unemployment and thereby raise expectations that schools will simply ‘produce’ the workers needed to solve the economic challenges. This is also why the for-profit sector in education has become so large because they play into the fears learners have that they will not be employed unless they have specific skills needed for specific jobs. Policymakers amplify this even further by linking funding for public institutions to labour market data that is often years behind the economy itself.

In a globalized environment, it is increasingly difficult to predict economic direction and to manage complexity. Schools should be the places where we encourage complex thinking and doing, creating and collaborating. Instead, we rush to both prove the value of education and its outcomes. In the process, we have created straightjackets that limit invention, innovation and crucially the human imagination from flourishing and thereby actually decrease the opportunities for change and impact.

Our educational institutions are not dying, although some will disappear. The rhetoric around their value has become embedded in the fabric of Western democracies. The challenge precisely is to understand how that value can be transformed to reflect and enhance the ability of learners to generate, shape and contribute to knowledge-based societies.

Part Three will examine some of the central characteristics of the knowledge society and whether schools are in fact the pivot for the new digital era.