Friday 4 September 2020

More on the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association: What online learning was meant to be!

 We've just finished the 4th week of the Alternative Natural Philosophy Association conference... It feels like a marathon - but what an amazing set of talks! You can see them all here: Overall, over 60 people have attended from all over the world - which is a number of attendees not seen since ANPA was founded in Cambridge 41 years ago. 

The level of depth of engagement, the level of mutual listening to one another, the variety of the presentations, it's all been extraordinary. Everyone says how amazing the impact of the technology is on the discourse. This is what online learning should always have been! We missed it because the community making the noise in online learning were the online educators - and they were not the most important people. 

In universities, the important people have always been the intellectual experts and deep thinkers within their own disciplines. The best of them would always think beyond their disciplines and listen to everything - and we've got many of the best of them in ANPA. It's also worth saying that because of the marketisation of education, these people have been oppressed within the university. Talking about the foundations of physics, or the connection between biology and consciousness became harder and harder in a transaction-driven system that was focused on certifying students and making money. The problem is that  all that transactional stuff is bloody boring. 

Covid is producing many changes, not least in the fact that the elders are now on Zoom. But more importantly, the closure of the campus has exposed the transactional nature of university learning as deeply deficient. Intellectual depth and real interpersonal connection will be essential for the university's survival in the future. As I've argued previously (and about to publish in Postdigital Science and Education), the transaction-driven model of marketised education relied on the campus to soften the blow of the outcome-driven educational process. The campus was a kind of biological surrogate.

With the campus gone (and yes, another lockdown is likely, isn't it?), a new balance must be struck. 

John Torday's presentation to ANPA provides what I think is an explanatory framework for what is happening to us. Our epigenetic environment has been transformed by Covid-19. Now is the time to rethink the biological foundations of our learning theory - particularly in the light of technology. It is, fundamentally, to rethink Piaget's genetic epistemology and Papert's constructivism (which drew heavily on Piaget)

My presentation was connected to this. I talked about "ontological theatre" of cybernetics (and Pask's involvement in ANPA has been a revelation to me), and the connection to David Bohm's idea that theory was a "theatre of the mind", and to think about what happens when minds come together.

This was Bohm's vision of a scientific dialogue: a tuning-in together of many brains operating thought together. It was also Stafford Beer's idea of "many brains thinking as one brain". My talk took in fractals, anticipation, a doodling program which I wrote, Rachmaninov's Corelli Variations and John Cage. It was fun!

But there have been so many talks - all of which will now receive new audiences for years to come. Mike McCulloch's propulsion mechanism explained with "information loss" was perhaps the most astonishing, but there were so many others, including beautiful artistic images from John Hyatt and Lynnclaire Dennis, or Andrew Crompton designing dice, or David McGoveran's wonderful overview of ANPA history in the US, or striking mathematical work drawing on quaternions from Doug Matzke and Mike Manthey.

And there's another 2 weeks to go!

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