Friday, 22 November 2013

Powerful Conversations and Powerful Institutions

I'm having some powerful conversations at the moment. These are the conversations which open doors, not just to new external opportunities (although this can happen) but also which open doors on new areas of the imagination (which leads to new opportunities). A powerful conversation is where one can feel free to utter something which one has long thought about but not felt able to say; and having uttered it, it is recognised, validated and expanded  by the person one has the conversation with. You don't need to have read hundreds of books to have a powerful conversation. In fact it helps not to (Michel de Montaigne advised 'Read a lot, forget most of what you read and be slow-witted'). But what you do need is the deep honesty that only comes from the emptying of ego. It may be your expression of some deeply traumatic event: a bereavement or a divorce. It's that delving into the deepest recesses of the self where the conversations can start. Events like death and divorce can be the most powerful spurs to intellectual development - not reading books or attending lectures. They invite that unequivocal emptiness which is the necessary ingredient to the powerful conversations: powerful conversations happen between empty people.

The academics I admire most are the ones with whom I have the most powerful conversations. I am deeply grateful for these friendships. They exhibit profound intellectual generosity, which even given the pressures on their time, still make room for those who want to struggle to be honest. These people are rare - even in powerful institutions. Many academics (even 'successful' or (worse) 'powerful' ones) really ought to know better. The mean spirit of Richard Dawkins has set a very bad example. There's vast variation in ways academics position others in conversation.

Powerful institutions, on the whole, set out to gather together great academics. They are the window dressing that lures in students. But academia is not about celebrity; it is truth and honesty. Managers of institutions of all sizes like to sell institutions on the basis of celebrity because it seems to work: it gives them something to brag about; the students want to come to be near the stars. But this gloss is really a shadow world. What matters to those who matter is truth. And the way to truth is powerful conversations.

This is really why we have Universities. They are places to talk and to think. Their functional role in running courses and awarding degrees is related to thinking: the best teaching is also a process of emptying and empathy. But what if you just want to have the powerful conversation and not the degree? This can be a problem because the degree (at whatever level) is the means by which institutions earn their money. So No degree = no money = no conversation? Well, that's not true in my experience. In the end, the discourse rules, not the institution. Any institution which tries to disrupt discursive flow risks ridicule (although there may be some cases where institutions have stepped in to distort discursive representations - particularly in health care: things can get nasty)

Thinking about powerful conversations is important when we think about efforts to create open education. There are many wonderful things on YouTube. The emptying of an academic is quite visible on video. Karen Armstrong's talk on "Compassion" at TED a few years ago is one of the best examples of this. But  YouTube isn't a conversation, and its power will depend on the state of the individual watching it. Emptying is much less easy to convey in writing, although not impossible. The most effective way of self-emptying is to invite people into an activity: a discursive response, a game, group creativity, etc. This can be done through technology; although it seems qualitatively different if its done in real-time rather than asynchronously. But with things like MOOCs, real-time is tricky and asynchronous appears to lead to homogeneity and depersonalisation. However, I do think that it is possible to create the conditions for people to have powerful conversations in an online environment. But we need to have experiments where we explicitly try to do this.

Currently online education provision (not just MOOCs) positions learners as consumers of knowledge. This may be because the most natural affordance of internet technologies is the provision of information. But the internet can do so much more in terms of coordinating mass-scale activities, rendering virtual worlds (even in VR), delivering real-time data (audio, video, text), and so on. Yet pedagogical designs are largely unambitious. Instead of focusing on pedagogical innovation and exploration, they focus on academic celebrity (come and hear Prof. X's lecture of data analytics... blah... blah...) or institutional status (you too can study at Stanford for FREE!).

The problem is that MOOCs are seen not as a pedagogical and technological experiment. They have got off the ground as a marketing opportunity in an increasingly marketised education system. Only when Universities realise that their real function is not the selling of courses but the enabling of powerful conversations will there be a genuinely exploratory and experimental effort to create those opportunities for everyone online. 

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