Thursday 26 January 2017

What has technology done to education?

In 2017 we celebrate 500 years since Martin Luther sparked the reformation by nailing his 95 theses to All Saint's Church in Wittenberg (as well as sending them to the Archbishop of Mainz). Although it caused a religious crisis with which we have lived ever since, this was an academic disputation. But it was one which owed its origin to the invention, almost 80 years earlier, of the Guttenberg printing press. There is no better example of the impact of technology on institutions, no better demonstration of the antagonistic and dialectical relationship between technology and institutions, and no greater warning to our institutions today to keep up with technology and embrace the changes and possibilities it brings.

Technology, and particularly communications technology, creates new possibilities for individuals to communicate, and by extension, to organise themselves. Institutions are also a kind of technology (David Graeber writes well about this in his recent "The Utopia of Rules"): they provide a social mechanism to uphold relations based on roles, rights, duties and responsibilities (we see this very clearly in education and the church both today and in history). Communication technology threatens institutional structures and this results in various political reactions. For the church in the 15th century, printing was clearly very powerful. But it was also an implicit threat to blow up existing power structures.

The relationship between technology and institutions is dialectical. The first reaction of the church to the printing press was to exploit it to serve its existing structures. Guttenberg's first print-runs were for indulgences. The hierarchy of the church (and Guttenberg) must have been rubbing their hands! This was a license to print money!

But of course it wasn't long before the new freedoms to communicate and organise threatened the status quo. Luther's German bible didn't appear until 1522, but it must have been obvious that such a thing was possible, and moreover that if individuals could read the bible for themselves in their own language, the role of the church as the gateway to divine mercy might be challenged by a "do it yourself" attitude.

The internet is much more recent to us now than Guttenberg's press was to Martin Luther. If we run on the same timescale, then our Universities are at the stage of "printing indulgences" with the technology (MOOC anyone?) Perhaps more importantly, the Catholic church in 1470 must have thought it had got to grips with printing, that it could harness it in reinforcing its existing structures and political power (Have you submitted your assignment to Turnitin?). I think this may be where we are in our Universities' attitude to technology right now. In a recent call for 'co-design projects', JISC has asked for advice on new developments in AI, Internet of things, Learning Analytics, etc... (see but all with the focus of serving the institution as it currently is constituted (this is because the new 'market-oriented' JISC wants to sell services to the institution as it is currently constituted!). There is little consideration that the nature of the institution, its structures, its focus of activity, its funding, its science, its certification, or its scientific communication might all change.  Yet we know that this has happened before.

At the moment we are seeing dramatic and rapid technical developments. At a trade exhibition in London on the "Internet of things" the other day, a friend told me that the emphasis was not so much on smart devices but (to her surprise) on radical new data structures and technologies that sit behind them (this is why some universities are jumping on the Blockchain bandwaggon - There were a lot of banks interested - they worry about the threat to their existing business models. Universities should too.

We are also seeing radical new business models coupled with innovative technology. Today you can be a taxi driver (Uber), a hotelier (AirBnB) and a postman (Deliveroo) - all at once. How many other jobs are going to be added to that list? What about Carer, Cleaner, Doctor, Architect, Musician...? What about Philosopher, Biologist, Engineer, Computer programmer, Biohacker? What about the learning whereby someone acquires the skills to do any of these? What do universities become in such a world? What value does certification (which is the principal product of the university) hold in a world where status is determined not by a certificate but by customer rating (as with Uber)? Where does science, the preservation and growth of knowledge occur? What happens to the library? What about the arts? How does civil society coordinate itself?

Right now it doesn't look like technology has blown up education. All seems ok. But printing did blow up the Catholic church. The explosion took 80 years, and there were stages in its unfolding which gave no clue as to what might follow. Learning from history is important. Being alive to the dialectics of technology-institution relations even more so. We need good antennae. 

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