Monday 20 August 2018

Is Educational Technology Over? (No - but we need to talk about consciousness and the universe)

I'm finding myself a bit dismayed by the state of the education system. It seems I'm not alone. Even my 18 year old daughter who survived education with good A-levels is committed to not going to university: "why do I want to pay for more school?". Even 10 years ago there was a lot of hope about what might be possible with technology, and personal technologies in particular presented opportunities for gaining knowledge which were unprecedented and which appeared like a significant threat to rigid institutional provision.

What has actually happened is that institutions have largely maintained their practices unchallenged. Rigid curricula are everywhere (although "curriculum review" seems to be a constancy these days),  and learning outcomes have made the assessment process an explicit exercise in measuring compliance with expectation rather than a consideration of understanding (things were better in the early 90s when I graduated). As David Sherlock reminded me the other day, the real threat to institutions now is not the current generation of students. It is their children.

One would hope that in the educational technology community (and education in general) there would be some soul-searching as to how we got it wrong and what to do next. Unfortunately, because educational technologists are mostly employed by institutions, their focus has shifted to how to keep their jobs and pay their mortgages rather than think of how the institution won over technology, and how we might fix what has become rather authoritarian and technocratic. The injustice of what has happened in education finds voice in various critical approaches to educational technology, which - from the institution's perspective - are now easily sidelined as a kind "two minutes hate": you can say what you like, but keep the VLE/portfolio/content-production going and keep the students happy!

All of this is market-driven nonsense. The environment of education is not a market; it is society as a whole in its scientific, historical, cultural, spiritual and emotional dimensions. Anthony Seldon is right that we barely touch any of these dimensions, and so our education is deficient. The suppression of understanding in favour of metrics of compliance is the most serious problem. Suppressing understanding is a route to alienation and mental illness. But we don't know how to measure understanding. We don't understand understanding.

David Bohm made the remark that "In the end thought produces results. But thought says it didn't do it". That is the problem we face: all our theories, critiques, technologies, experiments are the product of thought, or consciousness. Our thoughts about the physical world give us physics and biology. But the thinkability of those thoughts is emergent from the very biology that we thought of. It's a circular process.

Bohm thought that the way the universe really worked was as an expression of an "implicate order", where its expression articulated symmetries which recur throughout nature. Pattern was the key to apprehending the implicate order: the "pattern which connects" as Bateson put it, and the search for pattern and coherence in the symmetry between thought and nature was the driving force for intellectual inquiry, emancipation and understanding. A few years ago I asked Ernst von Glasersfeld "Where does the desire to learn come from?" He didn't have an answer. Bohm may have it, though.

One of the crucial elements to pattern is redundancy: the saying of the same thing in many different ways. It's what we do as teachers. It's what music and art do. It's what we do on Facebook when we share photos, and it's what I do on this blog. Technology has massively increased the degree of redundancy that we are immersed in. However, in our approach to technology, we have not focused on redundancy; we have focused on its opposite, "information". I think this is at the root of where we have gone wrong with our institutions.

Institutions were indeed threatened by the explosion of possibilities unleashed by technology. But they responded not by adapting their structures and practices but by wishing to maintain their structure. And they did this through attenuating patterns, producing more video resources, assembling more curricula, fetishising the VLE and the MOOC, and using the rationale of the market (which is an attenuation mechanism in its own right) to justify the whole thing. They became "information" organisations. Many years ago, Karl Pribram identified the problem "Redundancy in a world of Information". He highlights "values, redundancy, memory, - the enduring aspects of the word we live in - have been given short shrift of late in our scientific thinking." Pribram's model of consciousness drew heavily on Bohm.

Bohm's concept of consciousness and the universe is that it is a hologram: patterns are present at all levels, from thoughts to atomic structures. It is because of this holographic structure that he argued that dialogue was the most important thing in science and society.

We can use technology very differently. We can use it to harness the redundancy it produces. We can use the redundancy of technology to support rich dialogue in education. We can examine the self-organising processes of understanding for how they connect patterns. We can explore redundancies implicit in the expertise of academics and find new ways of communicating the patterns of their thought. We can create new contexts for conversation free from curriculum but with opportunities for students to pursue deep interests in dialogue. We can have a holographic education to fit our holographic consciousness. 

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