"The Art of Learning with Technology: Spiritual, Mystical and Paradoxical Memories of the Future"
One of the challenges in learning with new technologies in the coming decades will be the temptation to forget that learning itself is not a technique, but an ancient process that is essential and unique in the human experience, that calls for a contemplative attitude, a sense of compassion and a love of wisdom, without which the technologies offer little of enduring worth. Technology does not "do" anything until humans engage and wrestle with it, interpreting, evaluating and integrating their experience with it.
I propose to address a radical need to recall forgotten, buy necessary, visions of learning if learning technologies are to be more than constantly passing innovations leading nowhere on a deadening, though spectacular, information superhighway. My paper has several points of reference.
First, the best use of technology in learning is to transcend that very technology. Traditional spiritual experience has been described as a process in stages and learning to use technology in the learning process has analogies to those stages. Secondly, technology can be used to regenerate a degenerated imagination in learning. Thirdly, educational technology that is well used is a paradox in that it can be used to find in the activities a more meditative still point for learning. Finally, technology is changing our sense of ourselves, of being with others in the world and of the world itself and all of this is part of learning the learning process.
The challenge for learning with technology in the coming years will not be the technology itself, but the spirit and vision of learning itself by those who use the technology, a spirit that can be strangely rediscovered in the use of that very technology. Thus, what are needed are wise memories of that future.
Primal and Contemporary: Learning with and without Technology
We can barely stay even with the innovations in the use of technology in education, but I do not think we are necessarily more intelligent, or wiser, than ancient peoples simply because we have created and use such amazing electronic and digital machines. It is too easy to become so submerged in the avalanche of knowledge, theories of learning and the latest versions of learning software that we can forget to ask pivotal questions about not only the technologies, but about the spirit of learning itself. Alan Jones wrote that "we receive 'answers' to fit the kinds of 'questions' we pose. If our questions are narrowly and unimaginatively conceived, the answers will be too."
Learning is not a technology, nor a technique, but a human experience of the human spirit in action. My own understanding of learning has been dramatically affected by the opportunities that technology has given, but those opportunities are variations of very old themes that humans have known for aeons. I appreciate the variations, but do not want to forget that what I am doing in mentoring students to become learners is not new at all, but puts me in connection with our ancestors who may not have had a scientific way to talk about the world, but could experience the world in ways we seem to have lost to our diminishment.
Primal learning, old or new, is a process of "seeing," of developing a contemplative attitude of sustained attention. Technology allows us to shift our attention drastically from moment to moment. Primal learning, old or new, is a process of living into wisdom. Technology provides us with monumental and exponentially expanding volumes of information and knowledge. But the danger is that in a rush to use ever newer technology in learning, the soul of learning can be lost:
And wisdom is that soul.
When I to primarily lecture in courses, the students assumed they were learning and I assumed I was teaching, but were we? Now I lecture far less and let students learn to learn, maybe even gain in wisdom, through the use of technologies that put them in contact with people around the world, in their own class and with themselves.
Technology does not do anything. Humans are the doers and learners and always have been, no matter what technology (clay shard, papyrus, printed book, film, TV, video, Internet) was around at the time. Those of us who use technology in learning and mentoring/teaching have an obligation not to forget that today's learning is part of a continuum with all those who have gone before us and whose experience and experiments in learning should not be ignored because they were P.C. (Pre-CyberAge).
Learning as Spiritual
The scholar of comparative religion, Huston Smith, says that "traditionally men had honored, even venerated, their ancestors as being essentially wiser than themselves because closer to the source of things," to the time and action of sacred origins. I would like to use this idea analogously to say that humility in the learning process helps learning and that learning itself draws us closer to the center of our being human. Learning is what humans do and are and is, thus, a spiritual heritage and continuous activity. Learning is a spiritual experience at the heart of of being human, of the human story.
New technologies are not contrary to learning as spiritual and can even be used to enhance it. It is only when learning is reduced to being just a gathering and gleaning of information that the spirit of learning is lost in the accumulation of facts. Many students seem to have experienced only one model of learning from the time of 1st grade: gather the facts, remember them for the exams and move on to the next gathering module. Over the years since being children, the spirit of learning has been replaced by the solemn ceremony of formal education often to the exclusion of any concern for growing in imaginative understanding or wisdom.
Yet learning is more than preparation for employment or careers and if it is only such preparation, then it is a dis-spirited and shallow preparation for that very work. Learning must have a dimension of being profoundly useless if it is have enduring worth and we may miss the mark if we use the latest, amazing technologies in such a way that is, strangely, too useful. Learning is a mystery, perhaps almost as much a one as computers were to me in my days of near cyberphobia.
Technology is a guiding pattern in our lives and mentality today and can be thought of as a central modern mythos. Just like for ancient peoples for whom myths gave insights into the potentials of life, the modern myth of technology gives us ways of seeing who we are and what we can do. The use of technology in learning is a particularly exciting aspect of that myth that can serve to remind us that learning is a universal and spiritual pattern.
ZOOM: LEARNING EXPERIMENT
Over the years I have regularly placed my students in both individual email and class-to-class email contact with students at colleges in Japan, China, Korea, Israel, Taiwan, Pakistan, the United States, etc. and with scholars in Israel, Italy and the United States. In such dialogue they have come to get glimpses of "foreign" cultures that brings the people in those cultures alive and more humanly dimensional. And in so doing, my students are prompted to see their own assumptions and practices from the view of the others. The connections made (and students are encouraged to continue individual email contact if they wish after the course ends) are virtual, but have the beginnings of reality about them. This fall I will work with a professor in Japan to have our classes collaborate on writings and projects and we will create course web pages with photos and comments by the students. Such connections are the threads of spirit. The site I use to make contact with professors about the world is Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections <http://www.iecc.org/>.
Technology to Transcend Technology
Technophobia and technophilia are great obstacles to learner-centered learning. The technology is not the problem, but the placing of technology in the center is. When that happens, it becomes just the latest deified gadget that is incapable of fulfilling the promises made for it.
Learning to use technology in the learning process parallels the classic stages of the spiritual life. First, there is a sense of illumination and enthusiasm from the new experience. There is the thrill and real electricity about it all. But then comes the stage of purgation where the initial excitement is tempered, or even lost, as the glitches and complexities and failed experiments and frozen cursors and down systems and increased work load set in. It is not quite academic salvation after all. Machines, even the best and brightest, are machines after all. Why did I ever give so much time trying to learn all this stuff? It changes so fast anyway. Oh, for the good old days of my typewriter and me! Oh, the cyberdarkness of this dark night of learning's soul!
But if one perseveres, one may prevail to the stage of union, of the marriage of learning and technology in an enduring union that can accept the times of distress and broken connections and ISP abandonment. The perception of the technology changes as one now uses technology in order to see past technology to the greater good of why the technology is being used at all. The professorial mystic of technology and learning is now ready to bring a meditative approach to the learners so that they can be more than calculative gatherers and become creative developers of their own learning.
ZOOM: LEARNING EXPERIMENT
All my courses have web sites loaded with links to resources for the study. The schedule page is a flexible, developing one, and the whole syllabus acquires a kind of organic life of its own, a nexus for students and an active example of learning as a continuing and continuous process. The syllabus, with the available resources for either classroom or online students, is itself part of that process. The students are also encouraged to voice their needs and interests and desire so that the syllabus is both my guidance to them for the study, but also is their syllabus which they can influence. These syllabi can be reached from my courses page <http://webpages.marshall.edu/~altany/courses.htm>. After a while, the technology is no longer the issue, but the content is.
New Technology and the Paradise of Imagination Regained
The new technologies can be used for far more than pushing information. By expanding contacts with others, other cultures, other worldviews, one is given the opportunity to see one's own views, beliefs, culture in a new and imaginative way. By allowing students the opportunity for asynchronous, reflective communication with their peers in the same class, there is an open-ended discussion that lasts the entire course and that can be training in imaginative and deep listening to the ideas of others. By ready Internet access on topics, students can experience a great variety of perspectives on a topic and learn how to discern the good, the bad and the ugly. By giving learners the means to further direct their own learning and time, they can acquire a more contemplative understanding of learning itself.
By magnifying the voice of the learners, the very learning itself can become more enjoyable and less of a grind it out, academic assembly line, thus restoring life's juices to that central aspect of learning, imagination, which often seems to have been squeezed dry by the very process of formal education. When students can begin to envision what they are doing as not only for a grade or a degree, but for their very quality of living and well-being, then their imaginations are being resuscitated, even resurrected, and that is the beginning of students taking the initiative and responsibility for finding ways to use technology for their own benefit, academic and personal. In such use, students and professors are, as Thomas Merton said in connection with the spiritual life, all beginners, but that some are just more beginners that others.
ZOOM: LEARNING EXPERIMENT
My students are given the opportunity to volunteer to form teams that are to collaborate in writing, producing and publishing issues of a course journal to that course's electronic discussion list that is archived on a web site. They can make the issue be and do what they want, using text, hypertext, multimedia, etc. in connection with a course related topic of their own selection and development. It allows them to work closely with others, perhaps improve their technology skills, be creatively critical, mentor the rest of the class in the topic selected for the journal and strengthen the evaluation of their work in the course.
The Learner as CyberContemplative
The world of educational technologies is fast-paced and many faceted. The electronic galaxy of a computer connected to the Internet moves at nearly at the speed of light (when the server is working). Yet, it seems that a wise use of those technologies can, paradoxically, help the learner find a meditative still point for learning in the center of all that dazzling energy and constantly expanding and updated information tide. Asynchronous discussion lists or individual email to a course peer or to the professor or looking at a work of art or thought online can take place at any time and is usually done when one is working alone.
In the writings from the ancient Christian Desert Fathers is found this story: "A certain brother went to Abbot Moses in Scete, and asked him for a good word. And the elder said to him: 'Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.'" Being able to think meditatively, not only in a calculative, quantitative way, would seem to be a good thing and while sitting at a computer at 3 PM or 3 AM is not exactly what Abbot Moses would have envisioned, perhaps it is a faint echo of having the need for a certain kind of solitude and stillness at times in the learning process. The technologies allow for the taking of time to respond or to question and for seeing one's own thoughts unfold on the monitor screen as one types the words. With so much emphasis in education on acquiring, accumulating and obtaining, learners can benefit from technology enhanced opportunities to become more receptively and creatively contemplative.
ZOOM: LEARNING EXPERIMENT
When sending email to the mentor, or to members of one's collaborative group, or to the class electronic discussion list, or to keypals at a college in another part of the world, the self-guided pace of asynchronous communication is as a "cell" for a student to listen deeply to the words and meanings of others and to listen more deeply to one's own words and meanings and see them with a new eye. Simply the act of sitting at a monitor and typing one's thoughts and being able to quickly delete or change what one is saying, gives the student the potential at least for a contemplative pause and meditative moment toward those ideas and their expression. I have found that this aspect of using the technology, in the framework of writing to others besides the professor, to a real "audience," stimulates students to be able to generate thought of a quality that is much rarer to find in a completely face to face, classroom situation where social or psychological inhibitions, as well as the lack of time and stillness for contemplative insight, present a different context and climate. While much that takes place in a classroom can not be fully replicated online, some very good things that can occur online do not often happen in a classroom.
Technology with Soul
In tribal or indigenous societies the shaman or the elder is the one who has traveled the geography of the spirit and is the personification of the community's tradition and wisdom, able to see and manifest the connections between humans, nature and the spiritual. Technology, if not red in tooth and claw, at least would seem to be gray in HTML and ISP, and not a likely candidate to be a virtual shaman for learning. But, if learning is essentially a spiritual activity that is of the essence of being human and human be-ing, then educational technologies in the hands of mentorial, professorial shamans can resonate with a kind of soulfulness.
Jack Kornfield wrote that "in undertaking a spiritual life, what matters is simple: We must make certain our path is connected with our heart." With the vision of learning being a manifestation of the spiritual life, those of us who use the new technologies need to be sure that their use is connected with both the ancient art of learning and with our own hearts. It can be easy to be swooped away in the cascade of technology and all the time and effort it requires to learn, use and experiment with it. But technology in learning is merely the latest pedagogical fad if it is done without the vision and compassion of the heart. The Tao Te Ching says, "I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion."
Technology is humbling. Ever write the Great Poem or THE essay, but forget to save it along the way and have your computer freeze up and lose it to the CyberTwilightZone? Technology is elusive. Ever feel that after years of learning it, it always seems somewhat beyond your grasp? Technology is strange. Ever have the sense that there is something nearly mystical about the way a computer chip can work? Humbling, elusive, strange and mysterious. Those are aspects of the spiritual life. With some heart, our use of technologies now and in the coming years can be with soul. How so?
The technologies are gradually, consciously or not, transforming our perception of the world and our place in it. We are able to communicate almost instantaneously with a person across the street or across the polar ice cap and seek to establish real contact and communion through text, graphics, photos, audio, video, all via the computer. We are no longer isolated by mountains, deserts and oceans, but the Internet has the potential to diminish social, cultural, religious, ethnic, economic, etc. barriers. Our students from an early age can experience the earth very differently than their professors did (or perhaps still do).
This sense of a webbed life and interconnection of people is changing why we learn and when we learn, as well as how we learn. Lifelong learning is becoming a chant today and the technologies are making it more available to more people. Not to be lost is that these changes affect, even transform, the way we see ourselves in this world.
I have already mentioned that having students become virtual colleagues and friends with students in different cultures and countries is a way to deepen the spirit of learning in such a way that the new technology helps students experience learning as soul and the soul of learning. In addition, synchronous and asynchronous collaborative work (in online courses or to enhance classroom ones) encourages a two-fold responsibility: the student can learn that she or he is really the one responsible for her or his learning, and that in a genuinely learner and learning centered community, a student shares in the responsibility for helping and mentoring others to learn. When technology is used with soul in experiments in active, collaborative learning, these slightly modified words associated with Lao Tzu can be realized:
When that happens in a course or study, that is raw and rare SOUL.
Unconcluding, Unscientific Postscript
The heart and soul of learning and the challenge for learning in the coming years will not be technology itself for that technology will continue to change, develop and astound, but the spirit and vision of learning itself by those who use the new technologies, a spirit that can be strangely rediscovered in the use of those same, inanimate technologies. Technology seems to silently call for us to transform and adapt our very concepts of teaching and learning into a radically learner-centered one, one that is a spiritual and paradoxical path for the future.
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