Education and ecstacy

network map
Internet map @ The Opte Project

Suddenly he saw the city as a vast network of thoughts . The universities were places for self-perfection, places for the highest education in life. Everyone taught everyone else. All were teachers, all were students. The sages listened more than they talked; and when they talked it was to ask questions that would engage endless generations in profound and perpetual discovery.
Ben Okri – Astonishing the Gods

Although it’s a gross oversimplification (and I’m sure that all the different perspectives, nuances and complexities will emerge as the FLNW book takes shape) – it seems to me that one dominant theme runs through the debates on the Google group. I’ve identified this as the future of learning institutions in a networked world. There seem to be two main threads:

1. e-learning 2.0 or the ‘network way’ is the future of learning – we will all ‘learn’ by using web 2.0 tools and linking our personal learning environments to others in a complex ecology of connected nodes. The traditional role of the teacher as the transmitter of knowledge is over. We are all equal – no more groups, no more unequal power relations, no more hierarchies. There is no need for the structures and constraints of schools and universities as we know them – indeed, the network way is rapidly dissolving them. You can get education direct from the ‘teacher’ and assessment is an optional extra – when you want a qualification. We will all pursue our individual learning desires unhindered by institutional constraints of curriculum and timetable. A Catholic school in Australia is hailed as the exemplar of this new approach. Stephen has just posted a comprehensive philosophical basis for this which I haven’t had time to read properly yet.

2. Institutions will still be around for the foreseeable future, but is possible to incorporate the innovative features of e-learning 2.0 into institutional practices. But instead of focusing on the cool new tools, widgets and network hype, we should more think about the process of learning and whether the new modes are actually effective for learners across different fields of knowledge. Teachers will still be needed to model values and guide development, culture will still be created in groups or communities, and the institutions will continue to play an important role in the accreditation, funding, and quality of learning.

I tend towards the latter view but I don’t see the threads as oppositional – rather as the two endpoints on a continuum of ‘closed – open’ learning environments. In this post I want to situate the ‘network way’ and its emphasis on connectedness and ecology within a broader context of educational history and theory:

“In hindsight there is nothing significantly new about an ecological view of teaching/learning. There is a centuries-old tradition of holistic or whole-person education ? an underground stream as it were which bubbles up from time to time to disturb the positivist complacency of the techno-rational classroom. This holistic tradition is the educational counterpart of the Romantic movement (William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, etc.) that arose in response to the materialist worldview of 18th century Enlightenment thought. Early influences in this tradition were Rousseau, who in Emile (1762) argued for an organic child-centred pedagogy that would promote creativity and self-renewal to combat the debilitating effects of scientific reason, conventional roles and urban living. In the mid-1800s the American Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, developed anti-materialist educational practices grounded in an organic epistemology which connected the individual with a transcendent Nature in a process of spiritual awakening (Miller, 1988).

The early 1900s saw the beginning of the schools associated with Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf), two significant holistic educational approaches that rejected scientific materialism. These are now well-established worldwide as alternatives to mainstream education. It was in 1960s however that more coherent and rigorous critiques of Western mainstream education began to emerge in the work of A.S. Neill, Paul Goodman, John Holt, Ivan Illich, Neil Weingartner, Charles Postman, and George Leonard. The common concerns of these writers included an emphasis on individual growth and happiness rather than the forced imposition of cultural practices, with teachers and students free to relate to each other as whole persons. Decision-making was democratic and the curriculum was essentially problem-based with intrinsic motivation rather than a decontextualised and abstract syllabus based on facts and right answers. The main basis for these ideas was a romantic faith in human nature coupled with a conviction that mainstream schooling actively negated the latent powers of creativity and learning possessed by all individuals.” (Frielick 2004, p61)

In Education and Ecstacy (1968) George Leonard anticipates ‘networked learning’ by 3 decades in his description of a 21st century school:

“When a child takes the chair to begin learning, another radio receiver senses his presence through his electronic identification device (EID) and signals the central learning computer to plug in that particular child’s learning history …. through Communal Interconnect (CI) the material on one learning display sometimes influences and is influenced by the material on nearby displays. This makes the learning process far more communal. It also helps tie together all forty displays into a single learning-art object, enhancing learning and appreciation … ” (p149)

The point for me is that the idea of ‘e-learning 2.0 / the network way’ has been around for centuries. What is different now is that we have the tools to make it happen on a planetary scale. Sherry Turkle points out that internet concretises the Lacanian notion that identity is constituted in language, or in other words, a new technology gives form to an abstract psychological theory. In the same way, networked information technologies can be seen as the physical manifestation of an ecological epistemology – which in my understanding is ancient in origin. This is why we need mythology to truly understand what is going on with the internet and networked learning, why McLuhan always to turned to Joyce and Finnegans Wake.

As William Irwin Thompson reminds us, we now live at the edge of history, which is myth. And on this edge we encounter the transformation of the body in the shift to an electronic age, where “what McLuhan recognised, but did not explicitly state, was that our new highly advanced electronic media if used by evolutionarily unadvanced mortals will lead to cultural annihilation. These new media that work with the speed of light require a new spiritual consciousness of Light … we either shift upward to a new culture of a higher spirituality to turn our electronic technologies into cathedrals of light, or we slide downward to darkness and entropy in a war of each against all …” (Coming into Being p8)

For my part, we need all the myth we can get. Education can become ecstacy in the networked world, but I think we need transformed institutions to ‘cathedralise’ learning by intergrating the best of the old and the new. Not a compromise or ‘middle way’ – just an acknowledgement of the creative tension generated by the continuum between ‘closed’ and ‘open’, rigour and imagination, and innovative ways to make science, art and culture out of it.

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4 Responses to Education and ecstacy

  1. Mark Nichols says:

    Hi Stanley,

    I just want to add a perspective to one of your statements (1. above):

    “The traditional role of the teacher as the transmitter of knowledge is over. We are all equal – no more groups, no more unequal power relations, no more hierarchies.”

    Perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that the role of the teacher solely as transmitter of knowledge is subsumed into more of a holistic role, as a high-status member of a *network* made up of ontological equals. True, we are all equal – but we are not all the same. All perspectives are valuable, but some perspectives are more valuable than others; this will only become exacerbated in the first scenario you suggest. The implications of this for power relations depends on the openness of those with recognised expert knowledge (which needn’t necessarily be attributed to those with the highest qualification!) It would be interesting to see whether the default of ‘no more hierarchies’ would hold for long, given that particular levels of debate and emergent group (or network…) norms would encourage participation by some but not necessarily by others. A fully egalitarian society has its critics. Power and hierarchies in such societies still tends to exist, just not explicitly. Political egalitarianism and material egalitarianism have their problems and internal contradictions; educational egalitarianism will as well, even if it could be realised. the problem is not necessarily one of systems, more of huuman nature.

    In short, if we were ever able to start scenario 1, chances are it would soon degenerate into something similar to what we have now – a small group of active participants, with a large group of read-only participants. Power structures and hierarchies tend to be implicit rather than explicit… even a community as open as TALO has a very small number of active participants. Could it be so because of implicit power relationships and hierarchies? Not a dig at TALO – far from it, I am learning so much from it – but rather an example that even in very open communities structures, power and hierarchies are still present.

    For what it’s worth…

    I’m also looking forward to digesting Stephen’s IT Forum article. I especially appreciate the way he’s linked to various sites to provide further insight into where he is coming from.


  2. hmmm,

    It is true that hierarchies seem to naturally form – we are far from deschooled sadly – but the key difference today is that anyone can speak at anytime. The fact that most don’t doesn’t really matter, what matters I think is that the opportunity to speak is never technically blocked by qualification, peer review, funny black hats, light weight gowns and a tube of paper, money and enrolment, etc… there are still quite a few technicalities in the way (Internet and computer access most obviously) and plenty to keep fending off (imperialistic ideas of intellectual property, patents and copyright for example). Being aware of the power dynamics in any given situation is important, which is what I think makes the open space challenge a valuable effort. What we do with the realisations remains to be seen.

    Stanley, I still think you are documenting not two ends, but a middle and an end. The end in this case being option 2, and the middle being option 1. I’m not totally clear what the other end is yet, it is a 3rd wave yet to hit us I suspect. It may emerge in the realisation of mobile, or when the 2nd wave adopters push the more radical into new territory (such as is happening in the case of Downes responding to many challenges to his position). But I’m not satisfied that the status quo is suitably challenged. The current challenge as it presently stands – or more accurately, the way it is being interpreted by us who work within the system – is still too easily absorbed by present and flawed system. Which is why I’m still waiting for the other end to emerge.

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