Friday 1 January 2016

Technology, Teaching, Learning and the Body

As a new year begins, the world of educational technology seems to be on the move. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, there is a growing feeling that somehow the internet we have today is a disappointment. It does not seem to be the great emancipatory force which its creators envisaged. It's become a giant advertising hoarding, selling us all things we don't really want on the basis of what we click on. As we've become lured into the world of social media, conned into becoming pro-sumers (information slaves) for Google and Facebook, entranced by the shining magic laterns in our pockets, so the optimism of the web's early years has died. Most depressing is that the conversion from counter-culture to corporation happened so quickly without anybody putting up a fight.

Alongside this, the 'massive interconnections' of the web, upon which the advertising model is based, has provided a conduit for the darker side of humanity to reveal itself. Most recently we saw this with the twitter response to Carrie Fisher's appearance in Star Wars, but there are sadly so many instances of online misogyny, hate, racism, and so on. The narcissistic thrill of spleen-venting in public is one of the peculiar side-effects of the web. I've been guilty of it myself, convincing myself of the wholesomeness of 'advanced' technological practice (which somehow absolves responsibility), developing practices of blogging, tweeting, etc, but really (also) feeding a deep narcissism. This year I want to examine myself more deeply: I think there is much merit in public online communication practice; but I don't think we understand what it does to us or what it does to others. Fundamentally, the problem is that in our online world, real feelings and (particularly) real bodies are absent. That's becoming a big problem - not least in education.

In 2016, the response to the disappointment of the web is a resurgence of interest in peer-to-peer technology. The Linux foundation has just announced a big project to create a standard Blockchain (the technology behind BitCoin) - see This is an attempt to delve into the fundamental technologies of the web. Most fundamentally it is to rethink the relationship between the documents we exchange on the web, and the servers which contain them. It is not only to re-ask the peer-to-peer question, "Do we need servers?", but to rethink the relationship between interconnections between individual computers (yours and mine, say), and how changing those inter-relationships changes the human relationships behind them. There is an important example of how a different kind of architecture and protocol create new kind of relations in the technology that's given rise to Blockchain: the apparent viability of cryptocurrency like BitCoin.

The bottom line here is that currencies only work when there is trust. If we distrust the web now, if we despair at the surveillance, advertising and abuse of the crowd, might the peer-based technology that supports economic transactions be a platform for a deeper level of trust and understanding between individuals? And then, trust and understanding between individuals is also fundamental to learning. For all the nonsense about the status of universities, league tables, etc, any fulfilling teacher-learner relationship requires a deep two-way trust. It doesn't take an elite institution to guarantee it. But it does take intelligent management of institutions to facilitate it - that means maintaining an ecology, not instantly dismissing noisy union reps and their spouses, not closing departments, not sacking people for stealing screwdrivers, not making your business 'selling courses' rather than thinking about the actual needs of learners, teachers and society.. in fact, NOT doing all of the things which I've seen unfold in front of me in the last year. It's worse than unjust; its irresponsibility borders on the kind of criminal social neglect that we saw in the banks. And we shouldn't be giving honours to University leaders either! - that really is beyond the pale when they are paid such ridiculous amounts of money.

Educational technology is political and the principal driver for innovation is social justice. Maybe Blockchain is the beginning of something big. But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the real problem in educational technology is the human body and its relation to the screen. I think music provides a model for thinking of something better than our screen-obsession. Music is highly technological and always has been - some of our oldest technologies are musical instruments. Somehow the relationship between our computer technologies and our embodied selves needs to move towards the relationship between the musical instrument, player and audience.

On this theme, I was very struck by the current exhibition in the Wellcome Collection in London on "Tibet's Secret Temple" which contains medical and other documents from the Dalai Lama's private meditation chamber in the Lhasa Lukhang temple. These are striking images of whole-bodiness - very different from any kind of Western approach to medicine (I'm very mindful of this at the moment because I'm preparing some technology support for trainee doctors!). Wellcome is organising a series of events on mindfulness, meditation and health in the new year to accompany this. What about technology in this? There is technology in Tibetan medicine... but it's relationship to the body and the mind is very different to our conception of technology. I'm not the first to ask these kinds of questions: Stafford Beer, for example, sought advice from an Indian guru in the 1940s when he was in the army, and this certainly influenced his work on 'viable systems' and ways of using technology. Now his archive is on my doorstep in Liverpool, there's an opportunity to delve into this more closely... I think that's my New Year's resolution!!

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