Theory and practice

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 September 2004


Abeles, T. (2004), "Theory and practice", On the Horizon, Vol. 12 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Theory and practice

… we have no future because our present is too volatile … we have only risk management (William Gibson).

In the developed world, at one time, school through K-12 provided entrance into the world of work while professionals and intellectuals went to college, K-16, and often to advanced degrees. Often secondary school graduates also followed with post secondary vocational training. The university training was supposed to provide one with a more global vision, theory and philosophy as well as professional skills, while the more pragmatic K-14 was seen as required where hands-on experience was essential. An interesting phenomenon occurred during the 1960s when many university-bound students chose to become involved in development work, civil rights and social change, internationally. In the USA, the government sponsored programs which placed students and other “volunteers” into high poverty communities both within the USA and abroad.

The theory and philosophy met the reality of “praxis”. Not only were the participants confronted with technical problems, but also with the social and political issues for which there was little precedent. The enthusiasm inspired by an ideology met the cold steel of reality. Eventually engineering pragmatics replaced wind generators made from found materials and design/materials evolution yielded an acceptable solar cooker; yet the social and political theory never quite reached the same level of understanding. And, today, social change, in an emerging digital era, has become a moving target.

Today the problem has become even more interesting as the evolving digital world is yielding information and communication technologies (ICTs). This emergence has created what is commonly labeled as a “digital divide”, roughly along the same lines that are created by the economic disparity within countries and globally. We have both a technology cluster and a global society for which there is no precedent. Technical experts and applications providers do not understand the full capabilities of what has been introduced to the market, regardless of who is using it on either side of the digital divide; and there is little theory, though the academic community is scrambling to study the phenomenon. Simultaneously, much of the same spirit which inspired the movement in the 1960s is now emerging and refocused on bringing digital technology to the disenfranchised. Here we find two camps, those who want to make sure the technology is available so that there can be participation, pari passu, and those who have a larger social agenda where the technology provides a major contribution to the social change armamentarium.

Both groups, though, are hands-on oriented, while The Academy is hesitant, given its lack of study and the difficulty incurred as theories and information become obsolete, almost before the printing ink has dried on the downloaded reviews of the scholarly papers. Interestingly, a similar phenomenon is occurring within the classroom where digital natives, as students, seek just-in-time knowledge for their courses as opposed to expansion and depth beyond that needed to obtain the required credits. The curse and blessing of the Internet is the appearance of the ability to access information as needed while one, seemingly, is able to relegate the philosophical underpinnings to a just-in-case domain, interesting but not essential to the immediate needs.

What appears to be honored is pragmatism-driven philosophy or the shell of a philosophy-driven pragmatism. Digital natives are at home throwing a program into the CD drive and pushing buttons, while the traditional approach would be to read the instructions and create a well-formed approach to the problem at hand. Perhaps one of the issues here is that the academic divide between vocational education and a university degree is disappearing as the requirement for employment becomes K-16, or at minimum K-14. Interestingly even students with a K-16 education, to further their careers, rather than pursuing graduate school programs, are returning to the two-year institutions to acquire a more pragmatic set of tools in a variety of arenas from medicine to computers.

Thus, the advent of ICTs has spawned social action around the digital divide. It has also emerged in the education system itself where there is renewed emphasis around the idea of an outcome that has some definable consequences or opportunities. The “liberal studies” model has come into question with the rapid changes and, often, the ambiguity of the interpretation. The advent of Google and its anticipated progeny gives comfort that the Internet might yield a field fix for problems ranging from a technology hookup to defusing a specific social situation.

Where lies this boundary between theory and praxis? Currently, there are international meetings discussing how the spread of information and communication technologies is to be managed globally. There are no precedents and while the discussions progress, the technology continues to move inexorably forward, seemingly taking advantage of the problems created by the current geopolitical divisions in laws and philosophies. The pragmatists and the theoreticians on both sides of the digital divide create a dissonance which is as difficult to respond to as it is dynamic.

What we have, here, is not a “digital divide” but a “digital delusion”, an intellectual discontinuity, one which shifts the balance between “just-in-case” and “just-in-time” knowledge. The traditional, historical, approach to education (those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past) has been over ridden by a more pragmatic approach, one which depends more on networks of trusted individuals, each with their own domain of expertise. The network assumes that the connections are valid and complete, or that a simple extension can fill the gap. This is very similar to the idea of separating populations into digital natives and digital immigrants, where the latter see history as foundational while the former may see such knowledge of less than critical significance.

In such a world, what is the function of education? Has it, or will it, fundamentally change? If the semantic web evolves on schedule, allowing contextual searching, will the knowledge domain be available at the blink of an eye into a virtual head piece? Will such knowledge be transferable into simulations to test ideas before they are unleashed on an unsuspecting community? Imbedded herein are several critical issues. The first of these is the cautionary note raised by educators that e-learning denies a fundamental need for learning within a living community. Thus, the move to virtual space and technical solutions deny a fundamental principle defining humans.

This, of course, is a variance on the idea that technology, for all its capabilities and promises, can not solve what are, in the end, underlying human issues. It is, indirectly, an argument for “liberal studies”, particularly those disciplines which inform us of our past. In fact, it has been suggested that the default to a digital world may lead, or has led, to a fundamentalist backlash on both sides of the digital divide. It issues a cautionary note regarding the universality of technology as a magic bullet while simultaneously calling for a restoration of an historical perspective within the educational system, a revaluation of the value of “just-in-case” knowledge, not for its intrinsic value in problem solving but its foundational nature, a platform on which to build. Bruce Sterling, in his book, Tomorrow Now, says:

  • … in an information society, a formal education aimed at vocational success would not be about values or canons. It would lack eternal verities, moral codes … and good old fashioned national heritage. It would lack the very things that teachers and scholars traditionally considered the sacred torch that must be passed to the coming generation. An information society doesn’t have time for cultural continuity and bedrock moral fervor … For a child of the Internet epoch, only a temporary canon would work … Unfortunately … When you have no established canon … you have no place to take a permanent intellectual stand … you merely have clever acts of opportunistic contingency. These losses are serious. Honestly confronting this stark realization leads to intellectual crisis. It causes “canon panic”.

A critical issue, one raised, at the fringe, by the “Extropian” community, is the simple notion that human evolution has not stopped. The digital divide is not only between the enfranchised, knowledge rich, and those “on the other side of the economic and educational ‘railroad tracks’”, but between contemporary humans and, near term future, the technologically enhanced human, one whose capabilities are not only maintained, but also amplified by merging bio-based humans with extended, on-board, and externally enhanced features. Up to this point, much of this has been in the domain of science fiction/fantasy. With the emergence of the Internet and modern digital technologies, as well as both genetic modification and nanotechnologies, the speculation moves into the realm of praxis, today, and not some light years hence or in the dreams of Star Trek “groupies”.

The emergence increases the issues in education. First, we have the growing conflict between time defined knowledge (just-in-case versus just-in-time) and now we have added another time dimension, knowledge for a future that is emergent. In the past, the pace of change was slower, and basically continuous. Today the future is discontinuous. While some have had the idea that we were in a “rapids of change” and awaited the return to calmer waters, what we have come to understand is that the “rapids” are the norm, and the periods of calm, either illusionary, or transitional, at best. Education that taught for and certified mastery of past knowledge must now find a method for dealing with both a past that never was and a future that will never be.

First generation e-learning essentially mapped brick space, “old main”, into click space, the virtual classroom, enhanced by search engines, computer graphics, streaming video and similar tools. Second generation e-learning, games/simulations, attempt to bring past knowledge into a decision-making domain. It is the converse in that it maps click space back into brick space. The difference is that the environments are not mapping classrooms, but rather the experience, moved outside of the safety of the classroom. Here theory and praxis can meet, not just by example. To the extent that a pilot can walk from a simulator to a plane at the terminal gate, rhetoric and reality are congruent. To the extent that action in a virtual scenario maps into the real world, is the test of whether theory and praxis have high congruency. Performing volume integration in calculus class becomes relevant when the same action yields the answer to the amount of liquid in a glass of water.

In the past, there has been the cliché that educators were moving from the “sage on the stage” to the “guide on the side”. Second generation e-learning, de facto forces this hand. The test or certification of the student is based on the congruency of the mappings. Orson Scott Card’s novel, Ender’s Game, plays this scenario to the ultimate end where the game, itself, becomes the reality. In essence, this becomes 3rd generation e-learning.

We can now look back and see that the pressure to juxtapose praxis with theory was the edge of a transition where many students, given the perceived problems swirling around the issues of social justice and the environment, felt a need for relevance. Lacking a clear understanding of the larger issue, led to a repeat of the utopian movements of the past. Education, as an institution, was able to persist in its current paths as the energy was defused through a variety of external organizations, often within the NGO communities, as well as such efforts as “service learning”. The rise of the Internet gave new impetus, as well as a sense of empowerment, along with the illusion that connectivity could overcome naïve innocence. Education, the lagging indicator, followed.

How does one certify for the future? What is the value of the past? As William Gibson says:

  • The future is there, looking back at us. Trying to make sense of the fiction we will have become. And from where they are, the past behind us will look nothing at all like the past we imagine behind us now.

We see the past and the future through the eyes of the present. We take a small step towards the future and both the past and the future have changed, maybe just a little and maybe a lot. The merging of praxis with theory in these times forces education, K to Gray to reconsider its function in a global, dynamic society.

Tom Abeles