You vs. Your Non-Human Counterpart!

February 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am fascinated by the notion that there are enduring, deep-rooted power relations (whether conscious, active, explicit or otherwise) between and amongst human and non-human actors. These politics are exercised, mostly unconsciously, as part of daily educational, professional and wider social practice. I am now writing this blog from Wolfson library, and I really wish I could play some music, but other readers will not let me. Because of the regulations, I cannot eat either, although I have my lunch in my bag and I am starving! I wish I could just lie on the floor and do my reading, but it would not look good! My back hurts; the chair is badly designed. What can be seen from these complaints is that any human actor (e.g. me at the library) is bound up with a vast power network of both human actors (e.g. other readers, librarians, maintenance staff, etc.) and non-human actors (regulations, social values, the way in which the library and its components are constructed, etc).

In our daily life, we often face difficulties getting the right balance of power between ourselves and other human actors, e.g. older brothers, parents, children, partners, colleagues, flat-mates, housekeepers and receptionists. In some situations we are powerful, whereas in others we turn out to be powerless. Regardless of how rich you are and how much prestige you enjoy, when you get in a taxi, the driver has a degree of power that can be exercised over you! We also sometimes want to ensure the right balance of power between us and non-human actors. Can you not do what you are doing now? Or, can you do what are you are doing now in a way different from how you are supposed to do it? If not, this is simply because what you are doing is actually imposing its power on you and in this situation has more power than you do! There are even power relations between one and oneself. This is perhaps why a term such as ‘self-discipline’ exists, whereby we are the ones trying hard to assert control over our own behaviour, especially in the public domain.

So, what are the educational implications of such a situation? The University of Sussex seems to want to change the power relations between students and their classrooms. Thus, the University has attempted to play with the balance of this power by giving the former more power over the latter. That is, the University has supplied students with more flexible chairs allowing students to sit in almost whatever position they like and has turned all walls into whiteboards, authorising students to write on just about whatever wall they want. Another example is that the University of Manchester, where I did my master’s, has adopted Blackboard, meaning that all my interactions with this system could be recorded and traced. Tutors looking through the browsing history could see a great deal about my engagement and working patterns, such as what I was reading, even the time of day I was reading it and how long I spent doing so. All these examples refer to considerable changes in the balance of power between the inferior, the superior and the technological structure that all must interact with.

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Here comes the Internet

February 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Internet democratizes knowledge, allowing us to fetch information from most newspapers, magazines, or books anywhere in the world. It provides choices. It is convenient; it spreads newspaper stories all over the Web, multiplying the readership. It opens lines of communication to bloggers and readers with valuable information and provocative opinions.  Thanks to the proliferation of Internet into our daily lives, we are racing through a revolution comparable to the one ushered in by Herr Gutenberg’s printing press in the fifteenth Century. The outcome is as unclear today as it was then. “During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points,” NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote on his blog. He continued:

“The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment…When someone demands to know how we are going to replace the print, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution…They are demanding to be told that the ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to….We’re collectively living through 1500, when it is easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”

Shirky is correct, I believe, in general, yet wrong about the unimportance of the printing press.  A good knowledge resource- regardless of being online or offline- should be like a supermarket with a variety of choices.  No one is forcing readers to pull items down from shelves. But they ought to have available to them all the information they need to be well-rounded, informed individuals.

In the digital age, technology alters the playing ground, just as it did in World War II.  As NYU professor Clay Shirky points out in his provocative book “Here comes Everybody”, German tanks were equipped with a technology the French tanks lacked; namely the radios. These radios allowed commandeers to share intelligence and make quick decisions, leaving French commanders standing still and guessing while German tanks moved in concert.  “The French regarded tanks as a mobile platform for accompanying foot soldiers while the Germans understood that the tank allowed for a new kind of fighting, a rapid style of attack…” The technology provided Germany with an advantage, but   so did a superior strategy that allowed Germany to prevail.

At this point, with regard to the strategic use of technology, it might be relevant to take into account the famous scholarly debate between Huxley and Orwell.  Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. On the other hand, in Huxley’s vision, people will come to love this oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think…. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. At a time, when especially Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries convulse toward becoming a democracy by integrating social networking tools into the process of revolution, can we talk of passivity any longer? As Orwell rightly claimed, maybe the citizens should worry about those who banned the Internet. Or shall the governors fear those individuals empowered via technology? As in the case of the printing press revolution, we’re collectively racing through it and only time will tell us about the outcome.

Be inspired by Sir Ken Robinson and RSAnimate!

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

As usual to begin with my digital morning, I woke up and checked my e-mail, updated my news from the BBC news website, and followed this with a brief visit to Facebook. Suddenly, I found a link to a talk entitled ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ in a friend’s most recent status. ‘The most amazing talk ever! This is what we need for our education!’ the comments stated, but on top of that, many others had ‘liked’ the status or reposted the link themselves. Somehow, the ‘like’ button has becomes today’s most trustworthy yet ambiguous star rating measurement, and so, seeing the sheer number of fans, I assumed the talk was something special.

The talk was presented in a form of an animation with Sir Ken Robinson’s voiceover, with occasional audience laughter in the background. It was a TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference speech that had been modified into an animation. The talk laid out the problems of today’s educational system, training children to be good worker rather than innovative thinkers. Robinson believes that more a creative learning system may solve the problems of high school drop-out rates, decreasing arts activity, and student ADHD.

Other than the content of the talk, what made this speech interesting was the use of instant animation (RSAnimate). RSA is short for ‘Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’, which is a London-based society for social progress. The animation provides a great deal of information in comic sketches and descriptions, supported with voice narration. The talk was edited down to only 12 minutes, but it held my full attention for exactly this amount of time. I was enlightened, but also entertained. I know that without the animation I could still ‘survive’ this talk without falling asleep, as Robinson, after all, is a great public speaker with a subtle sense of humour. However, the pairing of this particular talk with the animation worked perfectly: Learning and teaching should be creative, after all.

After watching the animation, I said to myself, ‘This is not good, this is amazing!’ For the interested, I will let the animation speak for itself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U&feature=player_embedded.

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