Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Illinois Online Education Report (2)

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jan 25, 2000

Posted to WWWDEV, 26 January, 2000.

"Michael R. Meyer" wrote, in response to Martin Holmes:

No way will I attack the tradition of all night, beer powered Beowulf discussions....

Allow me to reframe this point:

Ought we - society in general, or taxpayers specifically - to be funding "all night, beer powered Beowulf discussions..."...?

It's one thing to fund learning; it is quite another to fund an individual's efforts to spend an enjoyable if beery evening of socialization and discussion.

Allow me to reframe it again:

Is the traditional university the only place where one may have "all night, beer powered Beowulf discussions..."...?

I can say categorically that people aged 18-24 who did not attend traditional universities still spend a significant number of their evenings solving the world's problems. They do this at the local pub.

Indeed: is it better for society to cloister people interested in Beowulf into segregated (if beery) communities, or is it better for people interested in Beowulf to discuss and display this knowledge in their own communities?

Those have a very real place in the fully rounded academic experience.

As my rotundness will attest, no person is more of a devotee of informal after-hours educational experience. But folks, there is life outside the university campus.

Now when Martin Holmes remarks,

The thought of millions of students all over the nation (or the world) sitting in their lonely bedrooms posting madly at each other on bulletin boards is a pretty sad one.

he is playing to a (media-inspired) geek-like description of online activity in general, and of online learning in particular. But the real world isn't like that. People who communicate - and form communities - online live, love and learn in much the same way as people who stay up all night at frat parties.

Martin asks,

Does this mean an end to the idea of higher education as a character-rounding, socializing experience for students?

Again, reframe this:

Isn't it healthier for students to develop their social and character skills in a rounded environment, one in which they rub shoulders with bus drivers, nurses, factory workers and social workers? Does the current practise of segregating a large portion of the population - calling them 'students', removing them from the workforce, insulating them from workaday reality - produce well-rounded socially adept individuals?

It is probably not a coincidence that our image of people "sitting in their lonely bedrooms posting madly at each other on bulletin boards" is in fact an image of contemporary university students. Certainly we do not think of our geeky nerdish online community as being composed of bus drivers.

One more quote from Martin:

All-night parties, forming bands, getting politically active and all that stuff was a major part of my education

Mine too, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But: I almost did. I managed to sneak into universities when tuitions were low and spaces were available. Had I waited another ten years, I might not have been able to afford the tuition. Even so, I attended university (and studied philosophy (Boethius, not Beowulf) no less) knowing full well that I would never escape the debt load (and I never did).

So the question is: is it ethically and morally defensible to support a system which allocates to only a small, well-to-do component of the population the important experiences of "all-night parties, forming bands, getting politically active and all that stuff"... ?

Or alternatively: do we not have a moral and ethical obligation to structure learning and society in such a way that these educational experiences and opportunities are available to all our citizens, and not merely those who can afford a hand-crafted Rolls Royce education?

I do not agree with Michael R. Meyer's point that

most students would be better served by focusing on shorter term occupation skills taught creatively online

because such skills are useful only once one has (a) the capacity to learn them quickly, (b) the capacity to assess them for relevance and accuracy, and (c) an occupation in which to apply them.

People need the networking, interaction and even the excess we normally associate with a university education. They need the events and experiences in their lives which build well-rounded, thinking, compassionate minds and characters.

But we need to come up with a more broad-based and egalitarian approach to this, which means we need to re-assess the traditional approach to education, which serves only a minority of the population (a tiny minority, when viewed from a global perspective).

What we want is a symbiosis between our online and our offline lives. What we want is for the steady - almost uninterrupted - stream of work and play related information available to us through emerging wireless and wearable (or even implanted) access to merge in a constructive way with our lives at home, at work and in the pub.

We need to:

  1. design a global system in which context-specific and personalized information and learning is available on-demand no matter who the person is and no matter where they are

    but also to

  2. design an cultural and social environment in which access and interaction with online information and community becomes part of and merges with traditional activities of working and playing.

And that, to summarize, is what is wrong with the Illinois report: they do not even conceive of a world with no barriers separating learning and living, working and playing, local and global, online and offline. But that, my global friends, is where we are heading.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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