Memento Mori

 

Having received the G4C invitation to rant, the next obvious and difficult question was what to rant about?  So many possible subjects :-).  The G4C conference, this year in particular, was an interesting mix of academics, game developers, government officials and various high end gaming and learning pundits, all there to discuss how games could be used to advance social good.  Now in its 9th iteration, and with the growing interest in the specific question of how games might promote learning, a large contingent of the speakers and audience were specifically intent on figuring out what role games might play (sic) in classrooms.

 

Having first designed a computer game involving a virtual corn farm (I kid you not) for a 3rd grade classroom in 1984, I have spent some time both considering and playing with this question: for the last 13 ½ years as one of the founders and directors of the virtual learning world Whyville.net.  Over those years, I have become more and more convinced that game-based learning and the larger educational opportunities provided by networked computers may be fundamentally miss-matched to the current structure of classrooms, curriculum and the educational system as a whole.   This, in turn, has led me to consider how pre-digital educational technology, and in particular the printing press and the university lecture hall have influenced the current system. Inevitably, this has meant a growing number of front and back of the room assertions that no part of the current structure of the educational system should be taken for granted, and in particular, that simple gamification of existing classrooms or curriculum misses the point and the real opportunity.  But how to present that thought in six minutes (or so  🙂 ) in a way that might cause some small segment of the audience to reflect on educational history.

I decided to appear before the G4C audience in the form of a 15th century Grand Guild Master addressing the crowd as if they too were Guild Masters making decisions about our educational future 600 years ago.  For reactions, search twitter for “James Bower” and “ Pirate”  🙂

The G4C Rant:

Hello and greetings my fellow Grand Gild Masters.  It is a privilege to be able to address you today.  I come before you, however, with a serious concern weighing on my countenance.  A concern born of a new technology now being wed to an institution whose marriage together will likely have long-term consequences we should consider.

That technology, based on moveable type, and recently demonstrated in Strasbourg by the serial entrepreneur (and I must say somewhat adventuresome) Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg, is at once a wondrous invention, with great potential for engagement, and on the other hand an invention, perhaps for that reason, that will likely pattern much of what we do and how we do it for generations to come.

I am here to remind you of “Memento Mori” – “remember we die”, but the structures we build often persist.

To put it in plain terms, my concern is not for the movable type itself, or the easy printing that it allows, although I predict considerable social and political disruption may well result.  Instead, I am concerned with what will likely happen as our universities, as they are wont to do, take this technology as their own and use it to solidify their hold on education.

Remember, my friends, that 400 years ago, it was we, the Grand Guild Masters who built the first University in Bologna as a universitas magistrorum et scholarium, a “community of teachers and scholars”, devoted to teaching in the old ways, one-on-one, “hands on” – the way that our own guilds have taught since and continue to teach.

But what happens my friends when these universities, as they are sure to do, fall in love with printed works.  Remember what the greatest teacher, Socrates said about learning from books. As recounted by Plato in Phaedrus, “written works are an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

My fear, my friends and colleagues is that the ability of printed books to capture and make legitimate the endless ruminations of academics, will create an edifice and an institution that feeds on itself, becomes more and more distant from real society and the real objectives of education and learning.  Learning will retreat within brick walls more and more separate from its causes and effects and more and more in the hands of academics around which to construct their own house of cards.

Will the ability to cheaply publish books, for example, mean that the academic disciplines that we have struggled to keep together, will inevitably divide and specialize, with books on Physics, Chemistry, Biology, and Art, separate and unrelated.  Will the Doctor of Philosophy we now hold in such high esteem, instead become broad in name only, with the actual training and focus and understanding of any one graduate far more limited?

And will the ability to require our students to READ our thoughts, now mean that we ourselves no longer have to interact with our students, instead, for example, standing in front of 10’s, or even hundreds of them, simply reading back our own words.  What will happen to fun – to the excitement and opportunity presented by the rhetorical games of Socrates, or other games that we humans have always played to learn and change?

And given the natural tendency for academics to self aggrandize, how much of that education will revolve around questions of what?, when? how?, and worse yet ‘who’?.  Will we build communities nothing more than What-villes, and When-villes and How-villes and again worse yet Who-villes?  What will happen to Why?  A much harder question to address in printed form and without real interaction.  How do we do Why-ville? within this new structure?  I ask you?

And won’t all of this change and transformation result in yet a further separation between education for its own sake, and the real ultimate objective of education, which is to train young people in skills valuable to our communities and to themselves so they can create a livelihood for themselves and their families?  Will there be a time in the future when a student graduating from our great universities and educated at a distance through books, will have no real skills but have paid a great cost?  Such a great distance from our great guilds who built the universities in the first place.

Of course I know and understand that our populations are beginning to grow and we must therefore use what technology we have to educate.  And of course, this new technology, the printing press, is infinitely scalable.  However, we must all know in our heart of hearts that this is not ultimately the right technology for this purpose.  For that reason, someone will, someday invent a new and more appropriate educational technology.  Whether that technology emerges from water or fire, soil or sand, it will emerge.

Unfortunately, I know not when, whether 200 years or 600 years.   And here is my greatest concern – that when that technology emerges, the institutions of education we have built around ourselves and around the printed press will be so strong and well established, that they will fight to coopt the new technology.  That they will attempt to bend it to their own image – use it as a new form of book, strive to maintain control of its use.  Seek to maintain their position at the controlling center.

We can only hope my friends that the technology, whatever it is, will be strong enough to force its own will and return learning and education back to its roots.  Let the games of Socrates and the learning games of children back in the door.  In fact, break down the doors altogether and once again link learning to its true purposes in human society.

So again I say, memento Mori, remember we die – but the things we build, especially in times of great change, often persist — with significant consequences.

Of Rants and Blogs

 

 

Three months ago, I received a call from soft spoken Michelle Byrd, the co-President of Games For Change (http://www.gamesforchange.org/), to inform me that in lieu of a presentation I had proposed on Why-Power, Whyville’s collaborative effort to explore the use of virtual worlds for career education (http://www.poweracrosstexas.org/projects/whypower-interactive-game), the program committee was instead considering adding a new presentation category to the Games for Change Festival called a ‘Rant’, and apparently had decided that I was an ideal inaugural candidate.  I was flattered.

In fact, looking back, the first public talk on education I gave at age 15 was actually a rant to the New York State School Board Association to adopt a state-wide Student Bill of Rights (they did).  In the many years and literally hundreds of talks (rants) since, I have never been explicitly asked to deliver “a rant”, but talking to Michelle realized that in fact, the G4C program board may have finally correctly identified a basic feature of most or all of my presentations, and certainly, the nature of most of my comments from the back of the room.

I am and probably always have been a ranter.  🙂

That was the good news, however, and probably for obvious reasons, the G4C program committee had also decided that rants should limited to no more than 6 minutes.  A problem!!  In the last year alone, I had managed to bull my way through strict time limits at both Jeff Pulver’s 140 conference (http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/15424033), and even stricter limits for TEDx  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pFxm1vLoBLU&lr=1).  The repartee between myself and the TED timer in the later case likely precluding an invitation to the big show.  🙂   However, those time limits were over 10 minutes:  a 6 minute talk so further lowered the bar that I decided to take it on as a challenge.  Michelle later told me that my position as the last ranter before lunch was intentional (I managed for finish in just over 7).

So, perhaps it is, or isn’t obvious what all this has to do with my decision, after years of hesitation, to now enter the blogosphere.  Well, there are many reasons of course, but the most practical is that my first entry is already written, as the text of aforementioned G4C rant.  In fact, in my opinion some of the best and most interesting blogs are in fact rants – which means that this may be the best format to express my newly self realized ranter personality.   Perhaps most importantly however, the recent growth in interest in games and learning may actually have generated an audience large enough that some of its more delusional members might actually find something I have to say interesting.  I guess time will tell, but for now, time to rant.