Sunday 12 April 2020

What we learn, we learn about each other...

We've learnt nothing, it seems. Decades of well-intentioned public education policy has resulted in ecological catastrophe, global inequality, and a political environment across many major countries in the world which resembles the political situation in the 1930s. The latter has been driven by global networks of communication which have been amplified by remarkable telecommunications technology. Now we see our apparently miraculous advances in healthcare and increasing longevity threatened by the systemic effects of economic thinking which creates scarcity, and technologies of global travel which exacerbate contagion.

It's not even that we have learnt nothing. We seem to have forgotten a lot. Our universities,  in an important way, are institutions of memory. They have succumbed to a political toxin where knowledge is for sale, research is currency, and the richness of possibility and speculation has been distilled to curricula and certificates to bought by the young out of fear that their lives will be a misery without them. Our institutions of higher learning have become institutions of forgetting. In my own field of educational technology, I looked at the work going on 10 years ago in (then publicly-funded) JISC, and compared to what is being talked about now. There is no comparison in the quality of the thinking: the 2008 financial crisis was the moment when we forgot ourselves, and let the door open to what is happening now. 

The job of universities is not to sell courses or publish papers in 5-star journals. The job of universities is create contexts for conversations about the future, the present and the past. It is an inter-generational process. We now find ourselves overwhelmed by environmental complexity which many feared would happen: it turned out the people who feared this most were ignored. The complexity and variety of the problems we face requires equal variety in the scientific thinking to address them. But to gain equal variety in our scientific thinking, there needs to be sufficient variety in the ways we organise the conversations in education. If the variety in the ways conversations are organised in universities is impaired, then the variety of the scientific thinking will not be up to the job of the scientific challenges we face. 

The lockdown presents some interesting challenges for education. Universities will be desperate to maintain their business. They will seek to utilise technologies they have ignored for a long time in order to reproduce the practices of the institution online. This will not be a good experience!

But there is nothing about a "context for conversation" that says that 200 people should log in to zoom and listen to a lecture at a particular time. What it really means is that there is a set of conditions for creating meaningful communications between teachers and learners. Individual and small group communication, inquiry-based learning and personalised projects provide the best way to do this. There's really nothing new in this - and it can all be done with the minimum of technology. Short pre-prepared videos to set the scene and text chat will suffice. But it is a pedagogical shift, not a technical shift.

Deep down, it is a shift away from what we traditionally consider to be "teaching". Why prepare huge amounts of content when content is everywhere, and can be referenced with a URL? Why force learners into a one-size-fits-all pathway for the convenience of assessment, when each individual can be supported and encouraged to explore their own interests or be directed down individual paths that mean something to them? Why put so much effort into parading the teacher as a distant talking encyclopedia when the technology allows the teacher to make themselves available for inspection and inquiry so that each student has the opportunity to establish a more personal relationship?

It comes down to a fundamental principle of education: what we learn, we learn about each other. It's not our communication tools which are the problem. It's what our institutions have done to them. Essentially they became tools in a political game.

So now is our opportunity to learn something. And what we learn, we will learn about each other.

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