Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

Torn Between Two Lovers

Jerry Stratton, July 27, 1995

Deputy Lord Mayor, Deputy Lady Mayoress, Ladies and Gentleman.

The theme at this conference is “Liberating the Learner” and the question on everyone’s mind is, “liberating from what?” The answer seems to be, from us. That is, from the teacher and from the classroom. And we’re torn between two lovers: our computers and our jobs.

The computer is best at the classical liberal education: it encourages exploration, spontaneous creation, and choices. It requires learning how to ignore: how to criticize and categorize what’s been seen.

In our schools, the “classical” education has another name: subversion. Western primary schools require that you learn only what you’re supposed to learn; that you accept it unquestioningly; and that you only accept it when it’s presented to you. To quote Humberton College’s A. E. McFarlane on Tuesday:

The culture of the computer promotes personal empowerment, it provides access to vast quantities of information in a variety of media, the power to explore and manipulate that information and to construct an individual knowledge base as a result. The culture of the classroom is dominated by the need to meet the demands of content laden syllabuses, prepare for formalised tests and at the same time moderate the behaviour of a large number of young people.

There is no likelihood that this would change even if we wanted it to. The market for educational software is not the school. Software developers are writing for the home market, which wants subversion: parents want software that their children will play with on their own, rather than supervised. If you’ve watched any television adverts you’ve heard of this: it’s called “empowering the user”. Subversion is interesting. There is a strong fear throughout these papers that if the educational community does not co-opt the computer, the computer will co-opt us. Education will happen in the home, and teachers will be on the open market as contractors. If they’re lucky. Or on the dole if they’re not.

David Keenliside says that the role of teacher under “IT” (what computer learning is called in the rest of the world: Interactive Technologies) is as facilitator, or a manager of resources. Librarian, in other words. The keeper of the AV room. An electronic janitor. Not, however, in control. Wolfgang Weber from Germany echoed that:

With hypermedia learning environments, the teacher’s importance as an imparter of knowledge diminishes, other competencies are necessary. Problem: most teachers are unfamiliar with this new role.

The personal computer “empowers” the learner. The Internet further empowers the learner. Neither does much for the traditional teacher. At some point, the learner will be so empowered that they’ll take control of the curriculum. As I see the unabashed love for the computer expressed in some of these presentations, I am reminded of Mikhael Gorbachev, implementing reforms in an attempt to fix his current system, not seeming to realize that his reforms, so wonderful that they were to history, were his unemployment ticket. Or the hero from the classic science fiction story Mimsy Were the Borogoves, not realizing until too late that his children’s futuristic toys taught them how to leave him, and his adult mind could never understand where. The toys were just toys to him. Jonathan Lazarus, of Microsoft, got an inkling of that observing his own children, one and three-year old Micah and Jake, using the computer: “Some of their uses are a bit frustrating to me.” Any use of a computer is an education, even games and toys. Computers are companions. You talk to them, and they talk to you.

One presenter identified four different models of what’s called “distance learning”, learning where the students aren’t in the same place as the teacher. All her models were basically the classroom with an electronic gulf. One of the models was named the “Symposium”, but all it represented was two experts, each presenting a prepared statement and then discussing prepared questions. The audience just watches. It’s not a symposium, but a panel. It’s a good reform: but soon the audience will want to take part, and where will the experts be then, with their prepared discussion? If they don’t take part, they’ll be left behind. Trying to use the computer to expand traditional teaching is like trying to use money to expand the use of barter. It’ll work. It’ll work great. But you won’t have anything recognizable when you’re done.

Craig Barnett of Intel claimed at the opening ceremony that interactive technologies are “morally neutral,” but two other buzzwords in my circle of colleagues was cultural hegemony and technological colonialism. No one knows what they mean, but we all agree these are issues of vital importance. Lazarus tried to cast it in a better light when he said that computers can help students to “break out of culturally induced cycles of failure.”

But what if these failures are only failures when seen from a western point of view? Dr. Bart Thurber, of the University of San Diego and my co-presenter, believes that the computer itself imports western values. Regardless of the computer’s software, it has the potential of undermining non-western cultural values. Whether or not he’s right, there’s no question that all the discussions of computer-mediated learning in non-western cultures involves bringing in western styles of education. When computers are brought into poorer countries, we aren’t asking how the technology can improve their lives; we assume that “improve” means “become more like us”. So we graft the technology--which may even be undermining our way of life--onto an educational system that can’t handle the strain. We give them our factory-style education along with our classical liberal computers.

Part of the problem is that even we aren’t western. Not in the sense that computers are. Computers invite change. They invite the individual to edit what has been told before. They invite the individual to respond. And computer networks act strongly on the principle of “one voice... one vote”. Leaders are ëelected’ on the spur of the moment, and last as long as they have popular support. This isn’t the western liberal democracy of the United States. It’s the tribal democracy of Athens, and more than just education is on trial. There isn’t enough hemlock to go around.

Can the Internet bring culture shock home, turning it into a domestic disease? Besides the obvious danger that the Internet brings by allowing individuals from widely varying cultures to get into arguments with each other, the Internet allows other cultures to be imported. For any individual country, for example, the number of individual images coming in to the country far exceeds the number going out of the country. We need to turn our children into what’s called, in cross-cultural psychology, mediators, people who understand how to interact with cultures they don’t understand. We need, as M. Al Ameri said, in reference to computers in the United Arab Emirates, to teach them to “read the technology”.

Can we do this? Probably. Will we?

They still hold one Latin mass at Westminster Cathedral on Sundays. So what?

  1. <- Internet World 1994
  2. Death and the Dead ->