'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Virtual academies

As mobile phone networks expand in Afghanistan and hence mobile phone usage increases, al-Arabiya and the World Service have run a story on a collaboration between teachers in the country and US interests, of which the United States government provided funds. It is a mobile phone called Ustad Mobile (Mobile Teacher). Distributed free to students the phones contain audo-visual lessons on writing, pronunciation and phrases. Women have largely been denied the right to education under the restrictive policies of the incumbent Taliban rule from the middle of the 90s until their fall in 2001. Since then, war has once again ravaged the country, making education less of a priority than security.

Mobile Teacher was developed by an Afghan company Paiwastoon, with US$80 000 of United States aid. The current literacy rate is 12.5 percent for Afghan women, compared with 39.3 percent for Afghan men.

The company managed Nicholas Negraponte's One Laptop One Child programme, in distributing 3000 laptops to women and children in Afghanistan. But mobiles are seen as better - they are cheaper, more mobile, and people are familiar with their operating protocols.

Education is fundamental to the propagation not just of society, but the human race. It is a lofty consideration. We must spend serious time considering the nature of education, its trajectory and what we want it to be for future generations. Perhaps the single greatest loss for mankind was the burning of the library at Alexandria. No-one is quite sure who is to blame. We can never know the loss of such a body of knowledge from antiquity. Often in the surviving classical literature, names and books are referenced which are no longer known to us. Even specific titles evoke our interest today to such an extent that a book and film are made of tomes whose content we can only speculate about. (in this instance, Aristotle's lost volume of Poetics). Such was the dangerous nature of the knowledge therein that the book was hidden in an elaborate maze within a tower.

Perhaps it is not knowledge which is dangerous but instead the limiting of its proliferation. It is an uneasy concept - allowing the global spread of knowledge untrammeled would for example, see Waltz's hypothesis tested that a nuclear Iran would be a safe prospect. But untrammeled, knowledge would lead to greater understanding. The CTC at West Point has made much of al-Qaeda's primary source material available, translated, online. The result has been greater understanding and innoculation rather than a proliferation of English speaking jihadists.

We must consider the nature of online teaching, which is expanding at a great rate. Below are YouTube clips from leading online teaching resources.

Khan Academy (TED talk)



MIT Media Lab

The Future

The future of teaching, if not learning, is the virtual environment. Learning for the foreseeable future may still take place in the classroom but it is not a stretch to see the virtual sphere take over the learning aspects as well as the teaching aspects. Quite what this would entail for the traditional model of paid physical attendance is open to debate but it would in theory place greater emphasis on research as a means to achieve funding. Or, if teaching was available free online, learning would be on a pay-per-submission basis. The Internet is changing the way knowledge diffuses. My niece can now watch the philosophy lectures of Michael Sandel at Harvard whilst in a hotel in Mumbai, a beach in Thailand, a cafe in Paris; course reading lists are occasionally available free-to-view online, meaning that she can, still in Mumbai, read the necessary works and get podcasts of lectures, pdfs or ppts of lecture handouts.

When Victor Frankenstein created a female partner for his male creation, he had to journey across Europe to London with all of his laboratory equipment, in order to consult with the professors in the city who alone possessed the necessary expertise to ensure his success. The length of his time abroad was of such consternation to his sweetheart that she grew angry at the prospect. Today, Victor Frankenstein would flick a switch on his Macbook and Skype with the academics in between breakfast and lunch. No equipment had to be moved, no time abroad considered.

The information flow is not yet fully virtual. Physical movements are still necessary. Over 36 000 Chinese students are in Higher Education establishments in the UK. But this is learning as much as teaching - studying abroad is not solely about excellence in teaching but also about learning - languages, cultural expertise. The virtual academy, as Negroponte notes, is still a teaching tool and not yet a learning one.  

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