Sunday, March 04, 2012

Day 0/100: Ideas of Progress

When one thinks about progress, the images that come to mind may be of moving forward on a straight road, or moving up a flight of stairs, or a level on the elevator. But, with experience, it really feels like a subtle dance sequence, which may mean only going around in the same confined space, but with a set of nuanced steps, forward and sideways, performed with purpose. It is not the distance covered but the impact created that seems to matter, and often, the movements seem less relevant to the message left behind.

It may be that I think this way because of my training in humanities rather than science, my native space being in libraries rather than laboratories. Stefan Collini makes an interesting point about how they represent different ideas of progress. In the laboratory, the past is behind us and a search for the future is all that matters. In the library, and equally in the museums, the past is in front of us and preparing the minds with the past, for an unknown and unknowable future, is all that matters.

At this time, I am inextricably caught between these various perspectives and is trying to make sense of various options available. Two years ago, I wanted to have some experience of Higher Education 'industry' as I wanted to use technology to make higher education affordable and accessible. That point of time, I had a somewhat straightforward view: I saw the walled garden of knowledge inside the Western universities, and thought access to this knowledge can change the lives of the people across the world - and thought information technology, with which I am familiar, presented the perfect solution to this problem.

Two years of being in the sharp end, as well as studying the field consciously, has altered these perspectives. First, I have come to realize that technology isn't value neutral: It wouldn't just transport education to where it is needed, but would change it irreversibly. These changes wouldn't just be superficial and manifested in design of learning as such, which would have been non-controversial. However, the implementation of technology goes deeper than this, and may make education look like an object - information rather than a process of transformation - to be consumed rather than lived through.

I am also having to question whether this transformation will be more fundamental, that of values and outcomes of education, and whether spreading Western Education to meet the demands of developing nations is actually an act of collaboration in spreading the consumer values, rather than that of freedom and inquiry. It is timely that Olugbemiro Jegede, the Founding VC of the Open University of Nigeria, is talking about ending the 'slave trade' in education. I am at a somewhat similar point of realization that possibly one can not transport an education from one society to another, and the act of doing so is an act of cultural impoverishment of the recipient society and the implication will not be to create new capacities but subjugation of one thought to another.

However, truth be told, I rather like to be in this confusion, which, seen another way, can be defined as the process of knowing. This, I shall argue, a sort of progress: I have not just learned a trade with two years of involvement and work, but decided to interrogate my starting assumptions. It now seems, with reflection, I believed too much in my own sales pitch - that learning technologies are the solution to all the learning problems there is - and have not critically engaged with the issue at hand. I am doing this now.

Time is short, though, as I reach a critical juncture in my career. The two years I allocated myself to be inside Higher Education, before I take the entrepreneurial leap, is almost over. I am therefore engaging myself in a new 100 day plan - a plan to transform my life, work, relationships, learning and health - and hope that living through this, rather than reaching some kind of epiphany, which is bound to be temporal, is the best way I can move forward.

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