Education is to learning like ... (Towards the Becker attractor)

Martin Weller has an blog post entitled: "VLE is to Learning what PowerPoint is to Presentations". The title pretty much says it all but he elaborates:

The danger with both of them is that they represent not a potential stage on a journey for many, but the endpoint. Their ease of use and similarity to existing practice is seductive in this sense, you don’t really have to change what you do much.

This is absolutely the case. I like to quote a remark by a learning technologist colleague after a great demo of a lecture recording technology: "Well, this just makes us more likely to do lectures."

But the problem is that you ignore a much deeper issue which could be described by a paraphrase of Martin Weller's title: Education is to learning what PowerPoint is to Presentation.

I've been reading worries of exactly this same kind in Comenius, Rousseau, Dewey, etc. What is remarkable about all of these is that they all felt that a new age of education is just around the corner. What can we learn from the repeated failures of their predictions? 1. Our or any other predictions of a similar kind are likely to fail. 2. We need to look at different principles of what makes the educational system tick. I would suggest the research of Howard Becker on the collective organisation towards the achievement of institutional goals. Students and teachers will create collective and individual strategies to get to where they need to in order to pass the milestones set by the institution. But these milestones (e.g. submitted lesson plans or passed exams) are only models or approximations of the stated objectives (e.g. good teaching or deep transformative learning).

To elaborate on the analogy. A lot of people have heard and learned from the 'Death by PowerPoint' thesis. So I see (and occasionally create) more and more presentations that use illustrative and amusing pictures instead of bullet points. But often I wish for the bullet points to make it easier for me to take notes or to 'skip ahead' of a dull or overly 'entertaining' presentation. (And posting these on Slideshare is wasting my time.) We are headed for the 'new' PowerPoint age where everybody's PowerPoints look the same (just like if everyone has a tattoo or spiky hair, these becomes badges of group identity rather than expressions of individual identity). The reason this happens, because the 'collective' subconsciously (and with varying degrees of overt organisation) coallesces around strategies that make achieving the goald easier. I always admired people with 'telling' pictures in their presentations until I learned how easy it is to find them if you set this as your main aim and do it often enough.  I'm sure if everyone started using Prezi or Mindmaps instead of PowerPoint, the collective approach would coalesce around a similar standard. The same thing happened with early VLEs (no matter how primitive they were). The creative and driven people who wanted to use them used them. Now people who have to use them do so because of institutional demands, and they have become an analogue of the school: drab and largely uninspiring with occasionally exceptional moments of learning and growth.

As Weller says:

Thus we have boring courses in VLEs and boring, bullet pointed presentations in Powerpoint. There is nothing intrinsic in the tools that means boring is the only outcome – good presenters will have excellent Powerpoint presentations and good teachers will have excellent VLE courses. But nevertheless there is something about their proximity to standard practice that means boring is all too often the end result.

Yes. Good lecturers will give good lectures, and inspiring teachers will create inspiring learning experiences. But, they do it in spite of and rarely because of the institution they are in. (The "proximity" effect Weller mentions is pretty much inevitable). In fact, as I'm sure many students would agree, the constant attempts at making learning interesting are getting more and more boring. (Note: We should not forget that boredom may not always be  bad thing: http://research.edu.uea.ac.uk/educast.)

Learning is always a byproduct of education, the main product of education is passage (in whatever ritual form it happens to take in a given period). Trying to bring the diverse and dynamic ways in which people actually learn and transform back into the educational fold is not a bad idea in itself (and is inevitable given the proximity of the world of education and the real world) but these will always be molded by the participants of the system into a shape that still looks like education (or whatever other institution we try to replace 'education' with). I like to call this shape the "Becker attractor" following the chaos theory analogue. Meaning, we cannot predict when or how but eventually any institutional system of learning will look pretty much like a school (or a prison).