12 August 2011

Heads up - Elvis has left the building!

Steve Wheeler yesterday mused on the social implications of head up display (HUD) devices as a projected way of unifying all the various screens (TV, computer, games console, phone, eReader, etc) which we now use in our daily lives.

It’s an interesting question ... especially as such development seems very plausible. I wrote a quick comment at about half past ten last night ( in a nutshell: that technologies don’t cause processes of social cohesion or fragmentation, but are used by them), but went on thinking about it.

The application of HUDs, and of ICT carapaces in general, is a topic which has interested me for some time. Ray Girvan and I (in our Babbage and Lovelace alter egos), wearing science spectacles, visited it in a Difference of Opinion piece, twelve years or so ago. In his cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, William Gibson gives his cyborg mercenary character Molly the ultimate HUD by implanting it directly on the optic nerve. Some current thinkers, such as Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading, believe that this is a likely future. The implanting of technology raises a lot of issues of its own but, from the viewpoint of Steve Wheeler’s question, it makes little difference whether the technology is internally or externally worn.

In an unusual reversal, I found myself thinking about an issue which Steve hadn’t mentioned: not the broader social picture but the specific application to educational spaces.

The classroom now is, to state the blindingly obvious, a different place from the ones in which I was a child. The dominant information retrieval technology, then, was the book, backed up by collections of books in a library; now it is the web. The dominant medium for execution and recording of learners’ work, then, was paper; that’s still true to greater or lesser extent, depending on level of the education process, but digital media are rapidly replacing it across the board. Surreptitious interaction between students in my primary days was by notes passed from hand to hand or (more daringly) written on paper darts; now it is by SMS or Twitter. The most important educational discourse of all, between students outside the classroom, used to take place in small social huddles in a café or other gathering place; it still does, but is now also amplified by networked digital media.

In some rural African schools, however, I’ve also had the opportunity to see an earlier model still. With only one copy of a key book, or perhaps no books at all, information is delivered verbally from teacher to child. Slates provide a writing surface for working on, but not for storage of information, so the educational model is based very much on memorisation. There are no paper notes or darts, because there is no paper and because constant attention is essential in a single serial flow of unrecoverable information. Most interaction takes place outside, again in physical gatherings.

Between those rural African schools and my British, Irish and US students lie two distinct step changes. There have, of course, been processes constructed from numerous other changes, many of them radical ... from books as expensive investments to cheap mass publication, for instance; the arrival of radio and TV in schools ... but let’s keep it simple: from slate to book to networked digital information. Thanks to programmes such as One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), some children in the developing world are leapfrogging the middle step: from slate directly to the constructivist possibilities of WiFi global interaction. (I said children. Older students too, of course, but the process often starts at the root, with children learning to read and type rather than read and write, using laptops as primers and learning to maintain them as well.) This sudden leap really does produce social tensions: primary school age children suddenly have access to an informational world which is not just incrementally different from that of their parents (and teachers), as has always happened, but an inconceivable leap in paradigm. Grandparents (parents, for teenaged students) in Europe and the US talk of a disconnect from their children’s educational processes because of the ICT explosion since their own school days; magnify that a millionfold for a physically and culturally isolated rural developing world community into which comes an OLPC powered educator bearing clockwork or solar powered laptops.

We are, in the liberal democracies, already looking at an educational landscape which is detaching itself from physical location. How far that detachment will go, we cannot yet guess. I am inclined to think that human beings are strongly gregarious, and the desire for some components of education to be sited within a mutual physical space is likely to persist; but there is no longer any absolute need for it to do so. There is certainly no future for a model which restricts education to the classroom or lecture hall, nor probably even for one which focuses it primarily there. Already, more than half of my students come into a physical campus very rarely and a small but significant (and growing) proportion never do so at all. Some colleagues in the Scottish Highlands and Islands (or in Scandinavia, or the Australian outback, or other areas of scattered population) reverse my position: they only ever meet a small minority of their students. Increasing use is made of virtual worlds. In that sort of world, too, there is no necessary reason to tie faculty into a physical location which their students no longer inhabit.

We are perched on the cusp of a dispersion about which we can only hypothesise imaginatively. And replacement of multiple screens by personal HUDs could, I suspect, be a trigger for the next step change. What essential need will there be for a student sit in a computer centre to study material which is as easily available lying on a grassy bank in the sunshine, or sitting with a cup of coffee in the kitchen at home, or even walking around the neighborhood like (as my nephew pointed out to me recently) Aristotle’s peripatetics?

One of the things about which I agree with Steve Wheeler (there are many, despite areas of difference) is his conviction that the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is a dinosaur. It does have necessary functions. In the short term, it serves as a vehicle (admittedly very imperfect) by which old codgers of my own generation migrate from old ideas to new methods. More persistently, it is likely to remain an essential repository for some institution specific information for privacy and commercial sensitivity reasons. Those are, however, a very small rump of the functions which institutions, stuck well behind the rapidly expanding wavefront of socioeducational reality, presently try to cram into it. Ironically, though, I suspect that as education from the students’ point of view evaporates off into various mixes of physical location, the institutional VLE will gain a very modest second lease of life, as the management core for administrative interconnection of increasingly subdivided and diversified personal learning programmes.

  • William Gibson, Neuromancer. 1984, London: Gollancz. 057503470X. [more recently 2001, London: Voyager. 0007119585 (pbk.)]


Steve Wheeler said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to this Felix. It's well written and insightful, and I will certainly draw people's attention to it on my own PLN.

Anonymous said...

"The implanting of technology raises...."
There are moves afoot in the US to have all newborn implanted with a bar code so that the government can keep an eye on their whereabouts and more. One step away from dancing fingers on a keyboard wiping out "undesirables" such as myself?

Anonymous said...

Another thought. Are we not becoming "out of touch" ? With each other, the zephyr, the rain drop, the pencil on paper, fingers on strings, the "feeling" of things?

Ray Girvan said...

Are we not becoming "out of touch"?

Only if we choose. I'm one of the heaviest computer users I know, but it's not incompatible with "analogue" interests such as playing the accordion. As to the pencil on paper, I've always found handwriting very difficult: the computer and other input devices (such as Palm Graffiti) have been a liberating release.

Dr. C said...

There is an idea that I have heard bantered about that children, once they start school, learn more from their classmates then they do from the teacher. This is, of course, hyperbole, but it was certainly the case with, often erroneous, sex education in my youth. Iona and Peter Opie were big into this oral tradition (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iona_and_Peter_Opie)

A very large fraction of professional interaction (physicians, lawyers, even the above dismissed teachers) depends on one's ability to communicate at a personal level. That is why I am dubious that we will ever have true telemedicine for the majority of patient's ills. Pretty good for dermatology, but not much else.