Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Change every lightbulb in the house

In Uruguay, every schoolkid has a laptop. A hard cased plastic laptop with wifi and a webcam. Costs a couple of hundred dollars, probably a lot less. Kids can use these laptops for whatever they like, not just schoolwork. What do you think happens - they spend all day on msn? not listening to the teacher anymore? they load it up with games? probably a bit of it all, probably some school tests, probably some web browsing, some wikipedia reading, some media sharing.

Ask a class in Uruguay any question - how do you wire a plug, what is the definition of this word, who was the first man to climb Everest, what is the speed of light, how does this relate to the big bang... and they will have the knowledge at their fingertips. This makes the job of the teacher more interesting. Instead of using a written textbook with a set collection of facts, or lecturing them your set of facts, you can guide them through the connections they make between the information online in a discursive way, a collaborative way. Learning happens most when we are talking, expressing ourselves and interacting with others who are expressing themselves. It all comes back to the questions we ask of the content, not the content itself...

Let me explain. Before google, if you wanted to know something - you had to go to a library. When you got to the library, you looked in a encyclopaedia, arranged alphabetically, and discovered the information in the context of the rest of the article, written generically. For example, you want to know more about the music written by handel, or beethoven. the article will probably tell you a few facts about these people such as birth, death, main compositions, but this is unlikely to satisfy you like the music does. You want to know more about the situation that brought these artists to compose such pieces, what they felt like when they were writing them, who they were socialising with, what other things were happening around the time, how is the music a representation of the epoch. but the encyclopaedia cannot give this to you, and if you either devote your life to finding the small answers in the thousands of books that form part of the bigger answer for you and help you appreciate the music more, or you give up and join a pub quiz team - they love little facts - hatched, matched, despatched, clinical, emotionless information. can you see how this about the questions we ask though? - we ask our questions to a search engine, it gives us an immediate reply of the keywords we choose ' handel politics', 'beethoven string instrument', 'scientific discoveries of the xxx century' - we can get to a position of evaluating more ideas more quickly and dissolve the boundaries, we can see unity and parallels and metaphors between the subjects - history and music, engineering and art - we can move to experiential appreciation of knowledge. By discussing the ideas, we are forced to defend what we think, to actually express what we think, and often causing us to re-evaluate what we think. this is learning. Ask, Express, Evaluate.

Click the first link of a wikipedia article and in less than 10 clicks you are at 'Philosophy'. Everything is philosophy because philosophy is about questions and hypotheses. Facts are facts, not very interesting on their own, until we ask a question and connect it to another fact. then we get ideas, or hypotheses.

Summary: textbooks are history. content has no boundaries, experience is knowledge, ask, express, evaluate - and that's what they can do in Uruguay now in their formal education process if they want. Who does it, maybe nobody, maybe its multiple choice questions everyday. But it seems to me to be opening the leaking door and letting the new ways flood in, whatever shape that may turn into. And the kids have control now, or at least they will shortly when they know more than the teachers!

We cannot say the same here. although perhaps the same things are going on informally, outside class. it just seems like a massive shame not to have a stake in the questions and connections of the future.

Who is Protagoras?

Back to ancient Greece again.

Protagoras was a sophist who lived around the same time as Socrates. Essentially he disagreed with the Socratic notion that there are 'forms' that exist outside ourselves, such as virtue and justice, and it is the goal of the philosopher to teach people the 'external' logic behind these forms. There is a much quoted analogy from these Socratic dialogues of man in a dark cave, dimly lit by the light of truth coming in the entrance a long way away.

Protagoras did not take this line. He believed that 'man is the measure of all things'. He did not believe in God, and he did not believe that there were forms that we have to discover the truth behind. What is true for one person is absolutely true for them; some people espouse statements/truths of little gravitas, but still phenomenologically true for them, and it is the job of the philosopher (or sophist) to teach people how to discriminate.

This little story is profound for me. Socrates' rather conservative approach of 'only the philosophers can teach you how to discover the truth (through absolute logic and mathematics)' next to 'the truth is relative' to individuals, and presumably societies. I follow on from Protagoras by claiming that truth is a participatory activity; we should not have to rely on Socrates or his conservative cronies to teach us things anymore.

This strikes to the core of this blog; on one hand, Protagoras' relativism shouldn't be taken to absolute solopcism, many truths are universally agreed, and it is the job of the educator to create knowledge from these truths. Content is important. Especially in subjects like medicine, or more broadly in the sciences. Much useful education is the activity of exposing people to content. Philosophy is not everything.

So I meant to write a blog about where I have come from in terms of my thinking on technology in education in the 21st century, and I have ended up back in ancient Greece. Who said all Western Philosophy is really just a series of footnotes to Plato (i.e. Socratic dialogues)?

So this is me. I started out designing learning objects, content for HE healthcare courses. I got quite good at visualising content. I spent a lot of time examining the same information in the books and realised that information has to be interactive, responsive, visual if possible to release its full educational potential.

Being Socratic now, I thought these learning objects should be free for everyone's benefit, not just as a means to a qualification. This is information that we as a world need to be free and available. So that's 'it' then. Content is the most important thing, yeah? Being able to interact with it, cool. Just get it out there..

And this is where it gets difficult, or possibly not. But certainly more tricky. Because now we are in the realms of what is useful content, what is agreed truths, how certain people may read certain things, what people can 'do' with the content - a host of problems that look like they need human intervention. so this has taught us something. technology can only go so far... we need to engage people in the learning process to make information socially worthwhile, if we can agree as a society what 'worthwhile' means...

and now i'm not sure if i am socrates or protagoras...

Monday, 26 September 2011

Welcome to Sophistry Blog

Why Sophistry Blog'?

This blog is primarily about education, learning, pedagogy, technology, futures, but the word 'sophistry' takes us right back to the start of Western Philosophy - Socrates, Plato and early definitions of scholarship. Today the word 'sophistry' takes on a negative meaning - "a specious argument used for deceiving someone", but back in Socrates' day, this would not be the working definition of a Sophist - 'Sophia' meaning 'wisdom' in ancient Greece. (Also think of the word 'philosophy'). Originally a sophist would mean an expert in his field. Socrates denounced the sophists of the day because they traded in wisdom for cash - he thought all knowledge should be free but not 'open source' as we shall see ;-)

I argue that 'education' is not a field of study that can be easily delineated (see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy as there is a lack of epistemological cohesion between 'philosophers of education', and much of the time educational theorists have (quite reasonably) the goal of directing social policy rather than contributing to a epistemological body of knowledge. On the other hand, "there is, in the field as a whole, a degree of adventurousness in the form of openness to ideas and radical approaches, a trait that is sometimes lacking in other academic fields"

So we (educational philosophers) are better described as Sophists - we are 'expert' in our field (be that technology, or pedagogy) but we are not contributing to anything beyond our time, as the metaphysics scholars, or the moral philosophers of past. We are pushing our own agenda (for society); not answering philosophical questions, but using philosophical arguments to forward our agenda of 'the good society'. I am not afraid to be a sophist, and you don't have to follow my brand of learning and teaching, but I am acknowledging that it is a brand, it is not the truth, there is no such thing as 'truth' in educational studies.

So, with that disclaimer in place, I will begin my sophistry in earnest.