Distance Education: The Dream


Stephen Downes, from the University of Alberta, Canada, will give the Dream Team's rebuttal to Colin's nightmare!

Stephen is an information architect employed by the Faculty of Extension at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He is employed on a contract position to design and build a major Internet resource called MuniMall, a one-stop site for all components of the municipal affairs sector and municipalities in Alberta.

Previous to this position, Stephen was employed as a distance education and new instructional media design specialist with Assiniboine Community College in Brandon, Manitoba, Canada. Prior to that, he taught philosophy by distance for Athabasca University. Downes received a B.A. and M.A., both in philosophy, from the University of Calgary.

If you check out Stephen's site at http://www.atl.ualberta.ca/downes/ http://www.downes.ca (changed, 2001) you will also notice that he has a keen interest in politics.

Your turn Stephen!

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It's a sunny summer afternoon and as Roger arcs his line into the water a loon skims the surface, its call a familiar siren in the Canadian wilderness, its flight postcard perfect. Like most ten-year-old boys, Roger can be counted on to habituate the shores of this nameless lake on a sultry August afternoon, his mind racing with childhood ideas, his senses open to the wonders of new experience.

There is a bit of a chill in the air as the late night breeze wafts through his open window. Fraser should be asleep, but all day he has been extolling the virtues of a Platonic republic to all who would listen, and even though his mother has long since called lights out, Fraser hides under the sheets, softly urging the virtues of the ideal state as the Southern Cross shines high in the winter sky.

Roger isn?t having any of it, and he tells Fraser so as he casts another line into the crystal clear water. As the reel whirrs, he casts a glance at his pad, propped up against the tree, and looks Fraser square in the eye. Plato, says Roger, would not have approved of a life of ease and pleasure, and yet - they both agree - such a life is far preferable to an Orwellian nightmare of authoritarian, lock-step, and worse, indoor education.

Plato's Republic, of course, is not difficult material for ten-year-olds who have since their early days been exposed to a daily diet of news, reason and entertainment. Both Fraser and Roger mastered material many times more difficult when they learned to play Sim-Civilization in kindergarten, even though the program's macro-economic layers were not yet enabled. Fraser's latest enterprise, a Sim-Civ modeled on the Greek philosopher's writings, is the subject of his defense, though malcontent players, such as Roger, have been keeping his game score below the thousand point level.

The problem, argues Roger, is Plato's insistence on order and discipline. But anyone who knows anything about ten-year-old boys, or people generally, know that order is something that is only imposed by necessity, an external constraint to abandoned wherever the opportunity presents itself. Consider this course, urges Roger. In a Platonic world we would be arrayed in rows, each diligently staring at our computer, our lives a series of scrolls and clicks, our conversation terminated because of such arbitrary constraints as times zones and teachers.

That would be pretty stupid, agrees Fraser. Nobody would imagine a world mired in 1990s technology - would they? Scrollbars, mouse clicks - we may as well say that the future of the telephone was limited to rotary dials or unhelpful operators. Or that the future of books was limited to those large leather-bound volumes you had to read in dust-filled monasteries. We have unlimited wireless bandwidth, multi-layered simulations, full voice access and control - why would we tie ourselves to desktops?

My point exactly, rejoins Roger. But people in the past believed that the future would continue to resemble the past. Plato envisions the Republic as an ideal society, but only because he could not trust the people of his day to govern themselves. He could no more imagine a world in which every man and woman was fully educated than the people of the nineties could imagine a world were every man and woman was fully connected. Just as Plato proposed a strict regime on society, so those people of the nineties proposed a strict regime of education on children.

Well if you force a strict regime on me, continued Roger, I'm not going to play in your game. I want to be more than what your praetor says I can be.

Archon, corrected Fraser. But that's not the point. Because you have so much freedom, we have to impose limits and boundaries on you. We have to force you to learn as the ancients did, according to a state-approved curriculum, with qualified teachers, in clusters of your peers, providing pockets of genuine experience.

But what fun is the game if I don't get any choices? And with a quick chirrup (a predefined macro code) he activated his pre-defined revolution sequence, sending Fraser's Sim-Civ army into the streets in a series of running battles with a rock-throwing populace. Fraser's Civ index dropped sharply at the turmoil and he turned away from the conversation to manage his forces and increase the entertainment stability index.

Hey! Quit throwing rocks! The melodious Irish lilt did not disguise the hard edge behind the voice as Katie's angry face appeared on the screen, pushing Fraser's perplexed features into a corner. I've got a store to run, she said, and you're scaring away all the customers. More names appeared in the queue as other Sim-Civ residents called in to voice their disapproval.

It's not a real store anyways, countered Roger (and he used a hand gesture to intensify the rock-throwing routine in the simulation).

It's real to me, said Katie, and anyways I need to balance my books to move to the next M-level. Bright morning sunlight streamed through the kitchen window, reflecting gold through her gently curled reddish locks. You're going to keep me here another month. Why don't you find some other Civ to throw rocks in?

All the other Civs have already booted him out, said Fraser, his face popping back into prominence. And if he keeps this up I'll call the moderator and have him removed from this one.

All right, said Roger, and he thumbed a cut-off button on his screen. But I'm still right. You can't force me into a predefined role, not even in a Sim-Civ.

Roger cast another line into the water and watched as the sunlight reflected off the widening ripples. A loon - the same one? He wondered - circled in the fading afternoon sky. The frogs, momentarily silenced by the vocal outburst, resumed their outdoor anthem. Roger slowly reeled in the line, not expecting to catch a fish, and not catching one either.

The days of learning were long and sometimes, like this one, sluggish. And they would never end, as his work gradually eased from the domain of simulation to the domain of real life. He would hang his pad from his belt, slowly trudge down the long dirt road to the townsite, fishing pole in one hand, kit in the other, and settle into the armchair, dirty as a ten-year-old on a summer day ever gets, his mind racing from the possibilities of Sim-Civ to the realities of washing his face and his hands (the very least he could do).

Education? Indoors? In rows?

Nobody really believed that, did they? He would wonder, and with a terse command, called up a hist-vid. His hand (still dirty) smudged the clear plastic screen as he looked at old silent footage of thirty children, seated at attention, listening to a one dimensional adult - a teacher, they were called - repeat the lesson again. A boy, much like him, sat near the window, looking longingly outside, and wished he could experience life a little before leaving school and going to work.

You can take the best of the past and the best of the future, he mused as he watched the sun sink beneath the sentry pines, and make a dream, or you can take the worst of the past and the worst of the future and make a nightmare.

In the dream, an education follows a child as he or she matures into an adult, and follows further through life in a learning society. A child starts young in what we would call real life, but the choices made are of little consequence, the experiences a combination of simulation and reality, and always, there is a warm living room to return home to and a gentle voice with whom he can share his doubts, his hopes and his fears.

In the nightmare, today's technology removes the child even further from real life, intensifying the artificial environment we call 'schools', adding to the list of mechanical chores which must be performed, removing from the child's life any pretense of danger or challenge, substituting for all things a mechanical voice and relentless silicon mentor.

But nobody would choose to live in the nightmare society, just as nobody would choose to live in a regimented Platonic republic or a Big Brother controlled 1984. Where possible, people choose freedom over restrictions, experience over simulation, real contact over artificial. Where these choices were made in the history of education, the choices were made which favoured the human factor, not the machine: thus the technology enables for Roger - and Fraser, and Katie - a realm of possibilities, not necessities.

As his mother called him to supper, he thumbed open the statistics matrix (thumbed, so his mother wouldn't hear) and, his hands still dirty, smudged the screen again as he ran an analysis and standard deviation check. He would be ready for the pitching in tonight's baseball game, and on looking at the scatter diagram, realized he had better be ready in the field as well.

His mother called again and he leapt from the chair and raced to the sink to clean up, finally. His pad slipped off the chair and clattered on the hardwood floor; abandoned and obviously lost, it would chirp quietly until retrieved.

Or replaced, as pads - cheap as sheets of paper - could be obtained at any corner store. At any corner. Anywhere in the world.

Nguyen watched the sun slowly rise from beyond the Mekong delta, his flat-bottomed boat slipping silently through the rows of rice. As his father inspected the growing crop, Nguyen voiced open his current Sim-Civ to check on his portfolio. Not good; people had been throwing rocks again...


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