Tuesday, 14 April 2020

The Downes, Siemens and Lamb debate: Two Internets and Two-Cultures

It feels as if there are two internets at the moment, and these two internets are at the heart of a battle between the educational technology thought-leaders (see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/hippies-now-shop-dispensaries-revolution-has-been-george-siemens/). George Siemens and Brian Lamb are institutionally-focused on the need for what might be called “Internet-1”. Internet 1 is the hair-shirt internet of online education, but perhaps a necessary place as teachers struggle to get their stuff online. “Zoomworld” can be a rather dull place where people are glued to screens like coronavirus masks, gazing at pixelated images of each other, piecing together broken audio, each knowing that the other is feeling the discomfort that all are feeling – but nobody can speak of it. 

 Stephen Downes supports what might be called “Internet-2” - a convivial and sometimes transgressive internet. It’s the internet of Houseparty, TikTok, Youtube, memes of Trump and toilet paper, musicians playing in their bathrooms, or creating coronavirus lyrics to old songs. Sometimes driven by corporations who want to steal our time and sell us things, Internet-2 appeals to a psyche disturbed by the dramatic transformation of the environment. But for the next few months at least, it will be the locus of social creativity.

If you were an 18-year old student looking to go to a University which looks likely to be online until at least Christmas, which internet would you prefer? Students might still swallow Internet-1, pay the money, and turn up in Zoomworld in September. They may worry that if they don’t go in September ‘20, the demand for places in ’21 might make it much harder to get in. They may still believe that their much-vaunted expensive certificates will benefit their careers when all this is over, despite the signs that the world may never be the same.

But lockdown will give them plenty of food for thought about the differences between their online experiences. It may lead them to consider whether they might learn more from the creativity of TikTok or Houseparty, making music videos or publishing art on Instagram, than in the hair-shirt of Internet-1. University leaders and teachers would do well to consider this question too with some urgency: their future may depend on it.

One interesting difference between the two internets is that internet-2 is full of music. In The Glass Bead Game, Hermann Hesse described the eponymous Game’s provenance in an enlightened educational world in the 25th century as: “a kind of highly-developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts, but especially music and mathematics, and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines”. With our 21st century STEM-obsessed eyes, we may look at this and say “mathematics – of course!” But music? Why? It may be to do with technology.

Some of the oldest technologies that exist in our museums are musical instruments. And Internet-2 is full of music: time-based art-forms, games, movies and jokes all conveyed through technologies which would have been considered miraculous a generation ago. Some will scoff. Entertaining and diverting it may be. But educational? No, for that we insist on the hair-shirt of Internet-1. But music tells us something about technology which is missing from Internet-1. Musicians approach the technology of their instruments as a means of amplifying feelings. The musician’s knowledge, their body and their instrument becomes one. Where does this happen in Zoomworld? Behind the predictable monotonous cry of “Can you hear me?”, feelings – which can be more apparent face-to-face – are too easily ignored.

Zoomworld need not be like this. But in order to give it soul, the bonds of campus-based custom and practice need to be loosened and the full capacity of the internet (1 and 2) must be embraced as a path towards higher learning.

Two Cultures?

The resistance to taking Internet-2 seriously as higher learning partly lies in an old debate about the separation between the arts and the sciences. C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” criticised the separation of studies of artefacts of culture, and the phenomena of nature. As culture, students learnt about Beethoven or Pink Floyd whilst overlooking the vibrating molecules and communicating cells which underpin the whole thing. The latter belonged in scientist’s laboratory, where conversely questions of aesthetics were ignored. This overlooking of the aesthetics as a facet of nature is relatively recent. The inquiry into music, for example, has been fundamental to scientific development since antiquity. From Pythagoras to Keppler, to Newton (who professed no love for music but still divided the light spectrum into a musical scale), Goethe or Helmholtz, the soul of scientific inquiry was aesthetic. We must repeat Snow’s question: what happened to our universities that they simultaneously squeezed-out aesthetics from science, and science from the arts?

In some ways, lockdown provides a torch for reinspecting this. In lockdown, our lives seem much flatter: the screen for the departmental meeting is the same screen as the lecture. It feels is as if the richness of social experience has been forced into the narrow bandwidth of a transistor radio. Where’s the structure? Where’s the climax? What’s the point? Click here to continue.

Our institutions of higher learning were not designed to be filtered into an online restricted bandwidth, divorced from the campus upon which they established their history, reputation, and their more recent capital investments. As institutions with established structures and practices, the campus restricted the freedom admit the full gamut of online experiences and activities as a threat to institutional stability.

Embracing the richness of technology, the richness of Internet-2, requires a fundamental organisational shift. Pedagogy, curriculum, technology, management and the divisions of knowledge must all be challenged and transformed in the way that Snow wished.

Why is internet 1 so stiff? It cannot be that we don’t have the technology. It must be that something holds back the exploitation and discussion of the full gamut of technologies in the establishment of meaningful encounters with students. Some institutional leaders might be tempted to blame a lack of “digital fluency” among staff. But in reality, the hair-shirt is of the institution’s own making, resulting from the way it organises technology, sets expectations of staff, and its desire to keep the disruptive world of Internet-2 at bay.

Yet in Zoomworld, one has only to drop the formal demands of curriculum and protocol and ask students what they really think is happening to the world, and more importantly how they feel, to open out an inquiry into the aesthetics of current experience as both nature and culture.

Nourishing the Soul of the Person

An online university can be a great thing. But it requires the reconception of a University. John Henry Newman was faced with a similar challenge in the 19th century in establishing a new kind of University. His problem was to bridge the division between religion and science, and in doing so he recognised the need to revisit the fundamentals of what the human intellect was, and the conditions for its growth. Of the intellect he wrote that it:
“energizes as well as his eye or ear, and perceives in sights and sounds something beyond them. It seizes and unites what the senses present to it; it grasps and forms what need not have been seen or heard except in its constituent parts. It discerns in lines and colours, or in tones, what is beautiful and what is not. It gives them a meaning, and invests them with an idea.”

As many commentators have observed over the last few decades, the university has moved far away from this encompassing inquiry into being human in the name of “knowledge economies” and “markets”. The urgency to remedy this is upon us. And we do have the tools to reorganise ourselves.

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