Sunday, 9 August 2020

Luhmann and Biology

Niklas Luhmann's social systems theory is one of the most impressive achievements in the social sciences in the second half of the 20th century. Widely appreciated and mainstream in Germany and across mainland Europe, it remains far less well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, beyond the realms of systems theorists who knew about Luhmann's hinterland, cybernetics, Maturana, etc. 

Loet Leydesdorff is about to publish a new book detailing the intellectual relationships that Luhmann had with Habermas and the intellectual elite in the 60s and 70s. This history is important because its not just our institutions that are in a mess at the moment, but our disciplines - not least, sociology. 

For those who want to critique Luhmann, his dependence first on the biological cybernetics of Maturana and Varela is a cause to claim "biological reductionism", or his later fascination with Spencer-Brown as a kind of sophistry which doesn't convince Leydesdorff.  It's remarkable that despite these criticisms, and indeed the criticism by Maturana that Luhmannn had misappropriated his theory, that Luhmann is the only figure from mainstream cybernetics to have had a major transformative impact on a discipline, with important work drawing on it - from Kittler's media theory (again, pretty much unknown to Anglo-Saxon media departments) to Yuk Hui's recent and brilliant "Recursivity and Contingency" which is spreading around the world. People reading Hui will learn about Ashby, Maturana, Von Foerster, Simondon, etc from this. 

Luhmann, like Stafford Beer, grounded his theory in biology. Autopoietic theory said that organisms maintain their structure by reproducing their components. Luhmann said that communications and discourses were the same. His project was to detail the mechanisms of reproduction in the discourses of economics, law, education, art and so on. It was a biological metaphor applied to a historical sociological analysis. Leydesdorff has impressively (but sometime impenetrably) operationalised this. By going back to Luhmann's intellectual foundations in phenomenology (Husserl, Schutz, Parsons), and drawing this together with biological work that Maturana didn't consider in detail (Robert Rosen, Daniel Dubois) and information theory (Shannon), Leydesdorff has created powerful analytical techniques for analysing discourses and identifying the mechanisms of autopoiesis by looking for "anticipatory systems" in the imprint of communications.   

At the heart of Leydesdorff's techniques has been the analysis of "mutual redundancy" - something which I have played a part in too. Redundancy is so useful and powerful because it exists at all levels of communication, from cellular organisation to language. The technologies that allow us to make comparisons between different levels of analysis are becoming more available. Leydesdorff was able to exploit the internet to make measurements of discourses. But now we have so much more - physiological data is available to anyone with a FitBit or an Apple watch, and more sophisticated techniques for analysing other facets of communication like prosody, body movement, etc are all becoming easier to operate. 

These physiological data points throw the spotlight back on Luhmann's drawing on Maturana. What is the relation between cell-talk and people talk? Cell learning and organisation and people learning and organisation? More to the point, people are aggregates of cells which have a history both in the ontogeny of the person, and in the phylogeny of the species. 

We know that developmental history is fundamental to present behaviour and learning. We know that developmental history was informed by environmental conditions. We're not clear about exactly how this works. How should our education policy progress if it turns out that (as we suspect) the history of environmental conditions are inseparable from individual development. Poverty, austerity, unemployment, stress, etc will all contribute to developmental problems - an uneven playing field which serves nobody well.   

Eugenics is generally considered a dirty word even in right-wing educational thinking. But it permeates a lot of educational thinking on the right and the left. The idea that individual merit and achievement is purely down to individual "effort" - Blair's "meritocracy" (which he never saw the irony in) is implicitly eugenic. It is implicit in the awful video that UniversitiesUK sent out that I commented on in my previous post. 

It is gaps in our theory which lead to this. The grasp of environment and history in the understanding of educational development is urgent if we are to make things better in education. In a sense the theoretical project is an extension of Piaget's "genetic epistemology" - but we've got to look beyond manifest biological structures and more towards their ontogeny and phylogeny. Mass education is about as old as the last pandemic. Perhaps it's about time we used the anniversary (and the current pandemic) positively. 

Friday, 7 August 2020

Taking Stock of Epigenetics and Universities

I've had some nice things happen recently, including publication of a paper with Loet Leydesdorff on musical communication and anticipatory systems in the journal Systems Research and Behavioural Science. The techniques I developed in this music paper have also been used in another paper which is getting published in the journal Interactive Learning Environments extending work on anticipatory systems into studying learning conversations and concept formation (work which I did in Russia - it would have been impossible to do in the UK). After having not published very much since my book last year (which I keep meaning to revisit but never get the time), it's quite nice to have two papers in good journals published at once. 

My day job is not academic. Like many working in educational technology, we tend to spend our time chasing problems in systems that are designed by corporations, herding staff into new (sometimes uncomfortable) practices, dealing with the political can of worms that has become institutional IT, and now with the added intensity of COVID, there is no time to think. Which is a bad thing in a university. 

It seems that in modern universities (particularly in the market-obsessed UK) thinking is regarded as inessential - something of a luxury. It's more important to "deliver" than to think. Good staff, under pressure to deliver, will know that delivery without thought is madness, and will spend much of their own time (unpaid) doing the thinking work, often in isolation. It will exhaust them as they then try to deliver something meaningful on top. It will exhaust them more that nobody around them actually sees the importance of thinking, or acknowledges that this is so critical and requires time and space. 

I suppose my deep question here (which I ask when I do have time to think) is "Why have we become so stupid?" My answer to this is that Universities have convinced themselves that the environment they operate in is entirely cultural - it's a world of the "knowledge economy" and "markets", learning outcomes, institutional brands and certificates (ironically, this is what Loet Leydesdorff's work has concerned itself with!). COVID has shocked us all because it has reminded us of the fundamental importance of the natural environment - not just the world around us, but our own biology. As evolutionary biologist Simon Conway Morris wrote "First there were bacteria, now there is New York"

Stupidity comes from failing to understand one's environment.

We are biological organisms. We are not technical systems. Our biological constitution right down to the microbiome really matters. Many think the microbiome is deeply connected to our thinking and educational processes, but at the very least thought and consciousness sits on a biological substrate. We are at the beginning of discovering the extent of the connection between the microbiome, thought and consciousness as COVID transforms the natural environment of education. 

The simple fact is that the epigenetic landscape of the campus - the biological markers which affect the ongoing development of each of us - is different from the epigenetic landscape of online learning. Ironically, this can help explain why and how universities have become somewhat thoughtless places. In many ways educational practices have become increasingly transactional over the last 20 years, whilst universities have spent their increasing income on new buildings - coffee bars, sports halls, students accommodation, learning spaces. It's as if the somewhat cold transactional processes of education for which the institution charged increasingly large fees needed to be compensated for with new spaces which were more biologically connected (and epigenetically rich) to make the transactional stuff bearable. Disneyland operates on a similar principle: generate enough oxytocin in the place, and nobody will complain about queuing for hours to buy a burger for $20. 

Take the campus away - what happens? We're left with the cold transactional stuff administered by learning platforms, but no compensation. That's not going to work. The experience will be similar this account of a person who was living in a plush new flat in Battersea during lockdown:

The complex included restaurants, spas and bars. But when all those closed down because of the pandemic, the reality of her environment dawned on her.

"I spent seven weeks isolated there and realised that I absolutely hated it," she told the BBC. When you take away all the amenities that these developments advertise, then you realise you're just living in a glass box. It was a ghost town. It was just very soul-destroying living in this enormous development with no life going on."

That's the difference a change to the epigenetic environment makes. Education is meant to nourish the soul - but if the only soul nourishment took place in the campus bars and clubs (and the actual education was cold and transactional), then we're heading for trouble.

As if to underline the point and the folly of the educational establishment in believing they can ignore the biological environment, this rather shocking student-blaming video appeared from UniversitiesUK, promoting universities and exhorting students to cough-up, study online, and "stay strong":

The professoriate have, however, been reorganising themselves online. My "Important things group" (I ought to think of a better name) continues to meet (this is now week 13), discussing epigenetics (thanks to John Torday from UCLA) and physics (thanks to Peter Rowlands and his important nilpotent quantum mechanics). There are important contributions from Marc Pierson with his insights into systems theory, Richard Heiberger from Temple University with his brilliant insights into statistics, Andrew Crompton's  (Liverpool) polymathery, Steve Watson's insights into education (Cambridge), Elizabeth Maitland's (Liverpool) work in management, Vinca Bigo's work on meditation (Kedge Management School, Marseille), Kerry Turner's knowledge of General Systems Theory and Sebastian Fiedler from Nurtingen and Geislingen University who brings insights into educational technology and psychology. 

As biological organisms, we need to think. Universities were formed as places for thinking. The deep thinking is now happening online. 

Does deep thought produce epigenetic markers which promote a confluence of ideas which is enjoyable and rewarding to participate in? My experience of comparing mindless managerial zoom meetings with this zoom meeting suggests to me that it does. Exploring the physiology, communication, environment, epigenetics, and technological activity seems to me to be an important research opportunity. 

Monday, 3 August 2020

Why Nothing Matters

We tend not to aspire to amount to nothing! To conceive of nothing as the absence the present, of time, space, my dinner, etc, is of course not new – all religions postulate an afterlife in this way. But to conceive of present nature as being nothing, amounting to nothing, is much harder for us to bear. We all want to probe the:
“frontiers where we are learning, and our desire for knowledge burns. They are in the most minute reaches of the fabric of space, at the origins of the cosmos, in the nature of time, in the phenomenon of black holes, and in the workings of our own thought processes.” (Carlo Rovelli)
So we start from us, here now, and we look back and speculate about origins. Somehow, it seems to help how we feel about ourselves. But our journey from our present state back to past is reasoning after the fact of our own evolution. Evolution itself has its own logic, but this logic is obscured from us. 

All scientists are a bit like a Neanderthal cave dweller, who (as Rovelli discusses) mapped antelope tracks in the snow. They understood the existential threats of starvation and predation. Antelope tracks are essentially negative, nothing – they are the absence of snow or earth. With the benefits of intelligence and observation of this “nothing”, our forebears could eat, fight predators, and we are here. Even Raquel Welch survived! Without this, none of them would have survived, and we wouldn’t be here.  

Today, we understand the existential threats to our survival as a species on this planet. Where are the antelope tracks we need to map and understand now so that we survive? Where is the imprint of nothing from which we can organize ourselves into effective collective action for survival? These imprints of nothing lie in our biology, our language, our institutions, our economies, and in the relation between our cells and their evolutionary development from the beginning of time. 

Where perhaps we might have once seen a distinction between the "scientific" Neanderthal analysing tracks and the "artistic" Neanderthal telling stories about the tracks, now our looking for tracks looks to see those tracks both in the scientific marks of cellular communication, and in the linguistic marks of our language as we make stories, music and other forms of human activity - all the imprints of nothing produce a bigger map, which we need to follow.  

When we go looking for the imprint of nothing, we see a pattern which connects our human world of language and culture, to a biological substrate of cells and communication, disease and health, to a quantum world where established theories of quantum mechanics allow for confirmation that this indeed is an “antelope”, whose journey across time we need build new kinds of maps for, and whose journey into the future can be determined by our collective intelligent action.

This is what me and a few colleagues from different universities across the world have been doing online for some weeks now. This last week, there was a powerful discussion which started about nothing and energy, and gradually evolved into a discussion about physiological monitoring, fitness trackers, etc. Is there something there? 

Is there nothing there? might be a better question. 

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Important Things and Education

The discussion in the online "encounter group" between physics, biology, management, art and systems which I've been running for the last few weeks (we've been going for 10 weeks now), is something which I've longed for in education for years. It's no good talking about education just with educationalists - their discourse, like all discourses, play the games of disciplinary politics where some things are easily discussed, and other things are impossible to discuss. Only when we actually have people representing different disciplines having a conversation about important things that something special happens. But as Whitehead once said, if you want to know where the next scientific advance is coming from, look at what people are not talking about.

One of the group members remarked to me later that they were surprised that a leading biologist, physicist and social scientists were actually having a conversation which kept on going, and people keep on coming back. This week the conversation started talking about poetry and music, and quickly moved on to biology and Peter Rowlands's nilpotent quantum mechanics.

I think it is the nilpotent which is the glue, and the fact that John Torday has a theory of epigenetics which directly relates to the nilpotent has meant that a new conversation has opened. And that's exciting. 

Monday, 6 July 2020

Is Learning Unified?

A common criticism of education research is that there is no coherent theory of education. There are lots of specialised theories, mini-theories, practical rules, and a few macro-theories, but no coherent scheme within which they all hang together. Among the macro theories, constructivism serves the purpose of effectively explaining this unhappy situation away: because theory, like knowledge, is constructed there can be no single overarching process unifying learning.

The question of the unity of learning is related the much discussed question of the unity of consciousness (see Consciousness too suffers the same fate - there are obviously lots of processes going on in consciousness. Is it simply a happy accident that they all come together to produce my thoughts and actions, or is there some hidden mechanism that we will one day discover which ties the whole thing together. Because, it does seem that somehow the whole is tied together.

If we could take all the parameters of learning, alongside some guiding principle of how they might be connected, would we uncover a "unity of learning"?

This is something that has been lurking at the back of my "Important Things Group" which continues to meet online. This week's discussion ranged from the pathology of institutions to the nature of energy.

I wonder if the situation in education is a bit like the situation in chemistry before Mendeleev. There were obviously lots of differences between matter - different substances had different properties. But there was no way of unifying the way we spoke of those different substances - no way of relating things that looked completely different from one perspective, so that the deep connections not only between completely different things, but between those things and everything else could be made.

More importantly, because Mendeleev had an idea as to what the connecting principle might be, he could identify where those known substances fitted in his scheme, and (more importantly) where there might be substances that are not yet known that might fit in the gaps. The proof of what might be considered a "unity thesis" in chemistry came when he could fill the gaps.

So what are the parameters of learning? Communication, or conversation, seems to be an obvious one to start with. Of course, communication itself is not a single thing - it is a process. But it is a process with a pattern. It can generate order (in cybernetic terms, it reduces entropy) in understanding. It produces utterances, writings, videos, etc in the environment - it generates information. And it cannot do anything unless the living system which communicates has the energy to communicate.

Is the biological substrate of communication a parameter in learning? It must be, surely. So what is the pattern of the biological substrate? It turns out, this is homologous to the human conversation. Cells create order in their internal organisation and with each other. Cells create signals - proteins (information) - which they put into the environment of other cells.  And cells cannot do anything without energy, which they absorb through a process called chemiosmosis.

So we have two processes here which look very similar: one at a biological level, the other at a communicative/educational level. And they are connected.

Now the trick is to look for a pattern which unites the three basic parameters that have been described - negentropy, information and chemiosmosis. In Mendeleev's periodic table, atomic mass and reactivity were the fundamental variables he used to organise the varied phenomena of substances. The logic of reactivity was determined by a basic understanding of the need to balance chemical equations. If we look at the parameters of learning from the perspective of negentropy, signals and chemiosmosis, then is there a way of conceiving how these parameters might "balance", and how each item might "react" with others?

To do this, we need a more fundamental description of the parameters of learning than cells. We need to look at Quantum Mechanics. In Dirac's equation of quantum mechanics, there are 4 expressions which taken together detemine the behaviour of subatomic particles like electron, determining  (among other things) the Pauli exclusion principle which is the reason why electrons organise themselves into shells in the first place.

How does Dirac's equation work? It turns out that the sum total of all the parameters that it describes in the universe is zero. This is hardly a surprise, since Newton's 3rd law of motion also means that the total force in the universe must be zero. More surprisingly is the fact that Einstein's equation of mass energy and momentum can also be expressed as zero in the same way.

Zero may be the key.

So is zero the thing which provides the unity of learning? The attractiveness of thinking this is that if one analysed the parameters that we know about, and found that it didn't quite make zero, we would know that there must be some parameters which we had not properly considered. Effectively the parameters of learning form a kind of "group structure" which rotates according to the different degrees of elements of learning, and as they do, they leave gaps which reveal parameters that we hadn't thought about.

I want to pursue this a lot further, but it does resonate with me in some fundamental ways. Not least that the discovery of gaps, and the prediction of the parameters which might fill those gaps, seems to be a fundamental part of the process of teaching. Just as much as it was a fundamental part of the process Mendeleev went through as he probed his periodic table... 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Dialogue Jam in Vladivostok and the Connection to Global Online Research

I've long been an advocate of formative feedback through video (I was doing it over 10 years ago - 10 years ago, it took quite a lot of effort to do - but it was still worth it because students watched the videos and gained a lot more from this than they would have done if I'd just written it. Now this kind of practice has got a lot easier.

The global takeover of institutional groupware by Microsoft may be seen as an important moment for institutions. Microsoft Teams and Stream will shortly become institutionally ubiquitous in the same way that Word and Excel are today. The Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok invested in Teams a few months back, and my work with teachers there this week has fully exploited its potential. The Global Scientific Dialogue course which I was preparing them for involves lots of video communications - both synchronously and asychronously. Over the course of this last week, the asynchronous video communications were much more interesting that the synchronous stuff.

One teacher - a biologist - made a video of her comparing two documents about systems and organisation, revealing that she had been introduced years earlier to Wiener's book on cybernetics (this was an exercise that I'd asked them to do as part of the course). I didn't know about her familiarity with Wiener, but through a combination of auto-translated captions and video feedback I was able to make some contributions to her journey.  What's so important about this kind of feedback is that the listening that takes place is very careful - on both sides. We play-back and listen to each  other far more attentively than one would otherwise do.

I had a similar experience with another teacher/student, who initially said that they thought that online learning could be no good because there was no smell or touch. I initially thought this was a bit reactionary, but then I recalled conversations about epigenetics that I've been having with Prof. John Torday, and reminded myself that the epigenetic markers (some of which will produce smell) are indeed formative in biological (and by extension, cognitive) development. This is not to say that there can't be compensating factors - but perhaps these compensating factors lie in a deeper and more personal engagement which itself can produce other kinds of epigenetic marks.

This raises the whole issue of deeper connections and what else is happening online - particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Everyone is at their computer. So people can install all kinds of new tools - AI tools (in Russia, I used a few mobile AI apps), tools for video making, tools for analysis and visualisation (we used deep dream), programming, etc. And increasingly we see tool-driven education with things like Kaggle. Tools are more important than content now, and provide the focus for discussion and learning.

On Thursday, the physics/biology discussion group met and we discussed a provisional idea of a "periodic table of biology". This was one of the most animated and exciting discussions we have yet had in the group - ranging from cell signalling to quantum theory at one end, and yoga and meditation at the other.

All of these things are now online. They are not in closed rooms along dusty corridors in buildings. They are on YouTube and GitHub. And the kind of meta-discussion which I was having with my students in Vladivostok could equally be connected with the discussions that scientists and sociologists/psychologists are having in the discussion group. The technology is capturing conversation, and creating the opportunities for meta-conversation - and increasingly this is happening at the periphery of the traditional institution.

This is not to say that traditional institutions aren't important. But it is saying that the world of academia - and the practice of scholars - is changing very fast, and universities are slow-moving bureaucracies. It is not the first time in the history of Universities that this has happened. The Vladivostok experiment is a way of opening-out education to this new world of scientific dialogue and ubiquity of tools. The Russians can do it because they are not (quite) so beholden to the constraints of a market logic which is strangling universities in the West. The Chinese are also experimenting, and we should expect more radical experiments to come as they both hold on to more of their own students (so they don't go overseas - which will put Western Universities under financial stress), and they recruit teachers from the West. 

Conversation itself, in this form, can be "content". This is not content in the way we traditionally conceive it - it's not books and papers. It is a living system of human interactions between people who are thinking at the frontiers of science. Making the connections between students and these conversations is becoming increasingly feasible, just as making connections across the world and across languages is also becoming feasible (look how the translation tools in YouTube and Word provide enough information for communication to take place). Barriers are coming down.

If I was 18, this is what I would want to be involved in. I wouldn't want a load of assessments to gain points to get a certificate which won't deliver the job that it promised when I enrolled. I would want connection to the best minds around and find out how they talk, and to learn how I can join in the discussion. That is the new academic apprenticeship - the technology might have just cut out a whole load of irrelevant barriers.  

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Meta-Dialogue at the Far Eastern Federal University

On Monday at 6am I'm leading a small group of Russian teachers at the Far Eastern Federal University in a preparatory course for the next iteration of the Global Scientific Dialogue course which is now in its 3rd year. I've said many times how much I have appreciated the openness and creativity of my Russian friends, which has often been in stark contrast to the rigid market-oriented constraints of the Anglo-Saxon HE system. We need difference - and I don't believe difference is going to come from the ideology of Anglo-Saxon HE.

Global Scientific Dialogue was always envisaged as a vehicle for driving conversation between students and teachers. It was really inspired by the work of physicist David Bohm, who realised that the fundamental problems of science were not in the content matter of science - they were in the way scientists talk to each other. It was bad in Bohm's time. With the naked marketisation of the knowledge economy and the gamification of academic publishing, things are much worse now. The course also drew on work on conversation from cybernetics (Gordon Pask), phenomenology (Alfred Schutz, Edmund Husserl), sociology (Niklas Luhmann, Loet Leydesdorff), mathematics (George Spencer-Brown, Lou Kauffman), philosophy of technology (Gilbert Simondon), biology (John Torday), and physics (Peter Rowlands). I've also been happy that the approach is aligned to other developments in dialogic education such as Rupert Wegerif's work in Cambridge (see The starting point of Global Scientific Dialogue was the point of realisation that all these people were basically saying the same thing - and we needed to talk about it.

The pandemic has accelerated things.  For some considerable time, it's been obvious that the professoriate of the academy (or at least those who were the real professors, even if they weren't formally recognised as such!) has been reorganising itself online. ListServs have been very important for nearly 20 years. The Foundations of Information Science ( has numbered some illustrious names in fields ranging from mathematics, physics, biology, semiotics, sociology and philosophy.

More recently, these scholarly discussions have shifted to videoed meeting through Zoom and other similar platforms. It took the pandemic to make this happen, but having got everyone on there (even the most tech-phobic professors), there will now be no going back. Physicist John Williamson's "quicycle" ( has been growing for a few years, but has really taken off in the pandemic. Last week mathematician Louis Kauffman gave a talk (which was a collaboration between him and Peter Rowlands in Liverpool) about the mysterious Majorana Fermion, and its topological significance. This was the discussion at the end:

I have accidentally ended up doing a similar thing, because of two friends whose work I introduced to each other, and because of the pandemic which made the Zoom connection possible. John Torday has a radical theory of evolutionary biology which relates cellular communication to quantum mechanics, and is backed up with an impressive array of empirical data relating to studies of the lung and asthma, while Peter Rowlands has spent his career rewriting the laws of physics in a way which provides a foundation for Torday's thinking, and which also is commensurable with fundamental work in mathematics developed by Kauffman. So we all met on Zoom, and have continued to meet each week, each time developing the dialogue and the connections between biology, physics and everything else. I have half-expected it to run out of steam, but it doesn't seem to have done yet. It started like this with four of us:

And gradually, I invited more people. They came from architecture, management, education, cybernetics, psychology, philosophy, art history, and technology (so far).

But the real trick is to get students involved. Joining the conversation now is a process of observation of the dynamics of people who are working at the frontiers of their fields talk with one another and attempt to find connections between one another. I've been wondering if that is too off-putting for students - there's no gentle way-in. Now, there's not even any time to make introductions. I try to keep the sessions to an hour (no more than 90 minutes).

I've been doing a similar dialogic thing with a group of students in Liverpool who have been doing projects related to educational technology. Because these students have come from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, the key has been to make connections between disciplines and technology, which inevitably means digging into the nature of technology, and its connection to biology, physics, sociology, history, art, etc. A couple of students ended up in academic area quite close to the discussion that I was hosting online. So I sent the student snippets of the online discussion saying "this is what people working at the frontier are doing, and this is how they are talking with one another". That seemed to fire their imagination, and many of the results have been very good.

I've often thought that "the way forwards is always meta". I don't know who said that first (it's a Bateson-ish thing perhaps), but I think it's right. So Global Scientific Dialogue will be a meta-dialogue. We've got to get the professoriate talking (the real professoriate). And we've got to video their discussion. These videos will become the resources to lead a meta-dialogue in which students can be introduced to the ways people talk, the content of what they talk about, their biographies, and in the process conduct their own dialogues based on this.

The students dialogues will then also create a resource-base at a different level - a commentary. Some students will gradually find that they are perfectly comfortable within the base-level dialogue group, participating with the scientists. Others will continue at a commentary level, producing dialogic resources which then feed another level of engagement by other students.

So in September, we will have 200 Russian students doing this, creating meta-dialogues. YouTube translation tools are going to be invaluable  (technology is so important to this process). This week I will concentrate on teachers doing it (which can be a resource for the students in September).

At the root of all this is a fundamental principle of education. To teach is to reveal one's understanding of something. It is not to hide oneself behind a Powerpoint presentation, but to reveal oneself - both when one is leading the argument, and when one is learning from others.   It actually can only work online - it would be impossible to do without technology. But more importantly, higher education can be much better for it.