Popular Cultures #edcmooc

Day 9

In week 2, we are urged to look to the future of technology and education and consider how utopian and dystopian ideas shape our understanding of learning technology. We are also encouraged to consider the significance of metaphor in our thinking about the internet – two topics that interest me very much.

Among the course materials are two promotional videos for commercial companies showing their vision of future technology: A Day Made of Glass 2, from Corning, and Bridging our Future, from Intel.

Watching these films while thinking about metaphors put my mind in a complete spin. I found myself caught in a philosophical spiral going around and around until I felt quite giddy. So much so, that the words refused to flow and typing today’s blog was like swimming in treacle (see what I did there?).

A Day Made of Glass 2 shows how the next generation of touchscreen technology could be shaping our lives from dawn till dusk. Given its promotional status, their vision of the future must surely be intended to be utopian. But watching the children spend their day gazing upon and interacting through glass reminded me once again of the prisoners in Plato’s Cave watching the shadows dance upon the walls.

This, in turn, reminded me of one of my favourite science fiction films – Logan’s Run. Set in the 23rd century, man has destroyed the ecosystem with war, overpopulation and pollution. The people now live in a great domed city, controlled by a powerful computer. In this life, they are completely removed from the natural processes of life. Babies are incubated in nurseries and raised without parents. They know nothing of the outside world beyond that which the computer tells them.

With their every need provided for by machines, they live hedonistic and pleasure-seeking lives. The only catch – everybody is put to death in a ‘carousel’ on their 30th birthday. No spoilers – I won’t say how the story plays out (although the film was released in 1976, so go watch it already!). Suffice it to say, the paradise of sensual delights beneath the dome is really just a gilded cage.

In a chain of events manipulated by the central computer itself, the film’s protagonist, Logan, escapes from the dome with Jessica, a young woman from a rebel movement that helps ‘runners’ to get out of the city. There’s a great scene in the film where a gecko crawls up Jessica’s skirt and she leaps up saying “I hate outside, I hate it,” so perhaps there is hope for the kids in Corning’s world after all. At least they get to visit the great outside – albeit with tablet in hand. Still, their experience seems largely limited to a transmission model of learning, in which they are treated as passive vessels to be filled with knowledge.

Speaking of vessels waiting to be filled brings me back around to metaphors again. It’s no coincidence that we use metaphors to explain modes of learning. Metaphors are a crucial part of the way we communicate because they convey a huge amount of abstract and intangible information in a concise and memorable package that is easy for others to interpret and understand. Metaphors are such an integral part of the way we make sense of the world that it is impossible to separate metaphor use from learning itself.

New knowledge germinates in old knowledge so that an understanding rooted in past experience can grow, blossom and bear metaphorical fruit. But this has consequences for the way that we perceive the world. To paraphrase Anna Sfard in her paper ‘On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One'[1], “We live by the metaphors we use. They make abstract thought possible, but they keep human imagination confined to the limits of former experience and conceptions.” Hardly surprising, then, that the ideas expressed in science fiction have changed so little over the past 30 years.

The problem with the whole transmission model of learning is that different people relate to different metaphors and other people’s presentation of information will always be limited compared with direct experience. In the words of Malcom Gladwell [2]: “We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.”

An alternative model of education is the constructivist model, which views learners as active participants in the construction of their own understanding. This is something that the second of this week’s films promotes, with their ‘Design a bridge’ assignment. Here, students ‘do the theory’ in the traditional teacher-led way (albeit enhanced with technology), but ultimately construct a physical model of their bridge using a 3D printer to give physical form to the components they imagined on the computer. Somehow, the Intel video seems less futuristic – not a million miles away from a classic lab-based physics lesson – and yet, I know which vision of the future I’d prefer for my own daughter.

Bridge building… now there’s a metaphor I can aspire to.


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