Thursday, 18 January 2018

An Educational Techno-Utopia

Last week, one of my favourite sociologists, Christian Smith, published an angry piece in the Chronical of Higher Education entitled "Higher Education is Drowning in BS" (see I've been fascinated by Smith's work for some time (see, and there are two things that strike me on reading his Chronical piece.
  • First, it is no ordinary rant from any ordinary academic: this is someone who is an authority on human experience.
  • Second, I doubt that the senior management of his institution have read his work or have anything like the high opinion I and many others have of him. Some of those senior managers will call themselves "professor" and consider themselves to be intellectual authorities (since this is what "professor" denotes). In reality they will simply have been ambitious enough to acquire the title of highest academic rank without having to have read or thought that much.

There are some serious qualitative distinctions that need to be made and which are becoming blurred. Smith says it in his piece:

BS is universities hijacked by the relentless pursuit of money and prestige, including chasing rankings that they know are deeply flawed, at the expense of genuine educational excellence (to be distinguished from the vacuous "excellence" peddled by recruitment and "advancement" offices in every run-of-the-mill university).
For me personally, I have this disaster coupled with a very bright 18-year old daughter who is adamant she doesn't want another "three years of school" - and that is pretty much how all universities have become. So the bright kids are starting to desert the academy. The intellectual authorities in the institutions (the ones who know their way around the library), have either retired or have "had enough". What hope is there?

Among the many factors which have fed this decline, confusion over what "educational experience" is is high on the list of culprits. Because of the sheer difficulty in examining experience, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the only reliable methods are "by proxy" - questionnaires, surveys, etc. Yet these things do nothing  to measure experience. As Roger Brown says, University is an "experience good". That means "you can't know it until you've experienced it" (after having parted with £9250). That's an experience in itself!

In truth, Universities do their best not to be honest about the experience of university. Everyone knows that photographs of smiling students are a lie. Universities never tell you what it's like to struggle to get assignments done (or even, exactly what assessed work will be expected) or be bored rigid in a lecture. Why don't they publish their assessments up-front and let students decide when they feel they are ready? Because that wouldn't be in the commercial interests of the institution, even if it clearly is in the interest of the students.

In Dennis Potter's play from the 1980s, Blind Lazarus, a dead man's experience is available for others to enjoy (or at least experience too). Might technology deliver something like this to us one day?

I'm beginning to wonder if its not impossible. I've been doing some experiments analysing the dimensions of real-time experience as a kind of "counterpoint". At the moment it takes a lot of processing power to produce a map of the interplay of different domains of experience (visual, auditory, haptic, kinaesthetic, proprioceptive, etc). But as with any data processing, it will get quicker to the point of becoming instant. That would change things.

There could be no hiding of experience. One person could know another's consciousness. Would we still talk? probably - but it would change. I don't think capitalism would survive this innovation, let alone universities. But it would usher in a completely new era of learning and communicating. We would have tools to amplify the tuning-in to one another that is essential to communication. Assessment and certification would disappear as trust (which is what those things are about) becomes an explicit pattern of consciousness. Would we still lie? Maybe - but equally, we would know that we do it, and understand it better in others.

This isn't as far away as I once thought. It is really the flip-side of AI and machine learning. Those tools (AI) contribute to objects which transform themselves, presenting automatically generated multiple descriptions of themselves to the consciousness of individuals. Individual experience, contextualises these automatic multiple descriptions, and situates them within the many other multiple descriptions which comprise the context of conscious life.

I doubt Christian Smith will be able to look into the crystal ball like this - he is, after all, longing for the disappeared old academy. But here we see a new academy. It's not a hierarchy of professors and managers, but a heterarchy of intersubjective insight.

Learning and teaching will take care of itself.

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