This article was published in Intrepid Ed News on 23 March 2022.
This is the first installment of a longer series, a long conversation. It builds on the idea that there is no one future of education because we are all on our own journeys and this includes schools. With not even one-fourth of the way through 2022, we are in an even deeper crisis: COVID, conflict, climate. Will we pause to do the inner work to understand who we are, as individuals, organizations, collectives? How will schools respond to the systemic changes, for school is not isolated from the system? How will our relationships and connections be transformed through possibilities and necessities?
People used to live in worlds that were only as big as the physical distances they could travel. These worlds were place-dependent. Whether one rode a horse, sailed a ship, or walked on foot, the world stretched only as far as one could take one’s physical body. Trade with far-off lands allowed people to consume goods that they couldn’t produce in their worlds, but these goods were only accessible at the physical point of exchange with a third party, the merchant. Without merchants, access to those goods dried up, and the connection to faraway lands severed. Those who were willing to risk long voyages had more expansive worlds than those who remained in their villages. That is why the worlds in which people lived differed in size.
Beyond the physical worlds were the imaginary worlds. Bards, government officials, and other providers of information would come to tell stories and impose laws from afar, but for most, the place where these tales and laws originated and the heroes or rulers who drove them remained mental constructs. There were few opportunities to access any of them physically. This is why what lay beyond the physical remained the imaginary world, a world people constructed from their interpretations of the information they received. Connections to these imaginary worlds were like the number of links on a chain: the greater the number of people connecting one physical world to the next, the more people through whom information had to pass to get to us, the nature of which affected our imagination (which was built on the information we received). Anything beyond that first link was the imaginary world and if you’ve ever played telephone, you can see how myths and legends are born.
Such was the way for thousands of years. People depended on information received from every linking person along the information chain. The Gutenberg printing press was such a significant technological advancement because, all of a sudden, information could flow with greater speed, consistency, and homogeneity than ever before. Benedict Anderson highlights the importance of newspapers in creating Imagined Communities as the first building blocks of nation-building. Suddenly, people from different parts of a geographic space saw themselves connected to others far away through an increasingly common language, shared struggles, and dominant narratives: nations exist based on a common identity (hence, communities). Even within the most powerful nations, physical worlds offered limited physical access as the imaginary world found clarity through increasingly consistent and homogenous information. People’s ability to connect with others remained constrained by communication systems linked to the physical world. Sometimes those systems were roads or maritime routes, sometimes they were post offices or couriers. No matter the case, the exchange of information—connections—relied on the same chain links, even though the chain might have been shorter.
The telephone allowed people, for the first time ever*, to get rid of all the connecting links in the chain and communicate directly with anyone in the world. No more relying on bards or couriers, no more intermediaries: a direct connection to anyone in the world with a telephone. Picture how much the mythical red telephone sitting on the presidents’ desks in the White House and the Kremlin did to change diplomatic relations—and perhaps systems. Yet even with the efficiencies it created, the telephone remained a fixed point system where one had to know the exact time at which the person to whom one wanted to speak was going to be at a specific location (again, place-dependent). If you called and I wasn’t at the other end of the line, you wouldn’t be able to speak to me. With the telephone, there were suddenly many more chains available, each with fewer links, but the imaginary world survived because we still had to reach someone or go somewhere in a manner that was place-dependent.
Then came the mobile phone, the invention that spurred the merger between physical and imaginary worlds. The mobile phone made it so that you could contact anyone anytime, no matter where they were in the world, so long as you have the phone number and both mobile phones had a signal and battery. For the past 25 years or so, you can dial my number and reach me no matter where I am. Our connection is no longer place-based. Before mobile phones, I used to call my friends at home to set a time and place for us to meet: say, the Northeast corner of such and such intersection. If he wasn’t there, that was a problem. Now it’s enough to tell my friend I’ll text you when I get to the neighborhood. I could be in Mexico and tell you I was in Moscow and you probably wouldn’t know unless you heard background noise.
The Internet liberated information in the same way. Since the prominence of broadband, you can access almost any information you could ever want. The smartphone freed us from the computer terminal and gave us access to all the information in the world at any time. We can communicate through Social Media platforms with anyone. No need to have a phone number, you can tweet the POTUS. Think of the impact that the digitization of every text (source) in the world will have on research, communication, application, and—government censorship permitting—the dissemination of information**. The statistics are mind-boggling: The amount of data in the world was around 44 zettabytes at the dawn of 2020. By 2025, it will be 175 zettabytes and the amount of data generated globally each day in 2025 is expected to reach 463 exabytes. We used to have an information scarcity problem, and now we have an information abundance problem.
And this is why school is approaching the end of its life cycle. With so much information available anywhere, anytime, on anything, how can we pretend that schools built on static, uniform, and standardized curricula will remain relevant in a few years? How can we continue to see value in an education system that defines success based on the mastery of a particular set of content modules? For how long will we still feel good about ourselves because we’re teaching the 4, 6, or however many Cs that are supposed to be 21st century skills but have always been important skills? If anything, the Cs are becoming less important because we are able to compensate for those we haven’t mastered through global networks. If I am very creative but not so great with communication, I can work with someone else anywhere in the world who can take on the communication efforts necessary to implement my creativity.
Because even if anyone tries to brush aside these (somewhat teleological) questions or finds them contentious and jarring, there is one question that students will soon ask—if they aren’t already—because they have access to dozens of zettabytes’ worth of information to quench their thirsts:
Why do I need to learn from you?
When there is so much curated, quality, and engaging content, created in multimedia forms from teams of experts and referenced, sourced, verified many times, laser-focused on the specific interests that a learner has in that specific moment, why would anyone still need to acquire content from a human? Do I need to point out that the digital world can be repeated, fast-forwarded, and skipped as necessary? Or that I can discover something I didn’t know I’d be interested in thanks to an algorithm that knows me†? If teachers are there to deliver content, test, rinse, and repeat, most kids would be better off learning from an android. Of course, teachers are more than this, and I am not calling to replace teachers, I am calling for a re-design of the system to value other qualities and goals, based on guidance and care.
This is already happening. Kids learn about what they want while they turn down the volume on their teachers—literally and figuratively. Kids know that they can learn anything they’re curious about and that there is so much more out there than the curriculum they are fed. When they don’t understand what the teacher tried to explain, they look online. My son Nico says he has learned more about the content taught in class from YouTube than from teachers who weren’t very clear. He just looks it up††.
And it’s just going to get worse for traditional school.
The Metaverse presents possibilities—still unclear, still exciting, still dangerous—to converge data with mind-body experiences that remove distinctions between the physical and the virtual. When we put the headset on, wrap ourselves in the bodysuit, we will see, hear, feel, and perhaps (depending on whether the headset can stimulate specific parts of our brains) smell and taste our virtual experiences as if they were physical. Reality will be subsumed by our conscious experiences which will be detached from what we have understood to be our physical experiences. Yet these experiences will be just as real because our brains will interpret them as real. After all, reality is the one we create through interpretation of stimuli.
This may take decades, but it’s coming.
This shift means that there are two forces pulling in different directions, two forces that are in fact complementary. On the one hand, our physical world has subsumed our imaginary world (where our consciousness goes). There are no limits to where we can go, what we can do, or with whom we can converse. This physical world dissipates into the virtual. The boundaries of our reach no longer exist as the links of the chain dissipate.
On the other hand, the only hope we may have to survive climate disaster may be to limit our physical world (where our bodies go) to the local. Where we used to have external constraints to travel and commerce (e.g. transportation, food, dangers), we may have to place constraints on ourselves in order to ensure the survival of the planet. We will most likely have to re-design our systems to be local rather than global, circular rather than extractive, abundant rather than scarce. This opens up possibilities to re-connect with our bio-locality, the community, the collective that lives around us: humans of course, but also animals and plants.
(I am not perpetuating Cartesian dualism that separates mind and body, I am proposing that the bounds of our consciousness will go beyond the body and into the collective through shared digital experiences. We may be able to have the same stimulations at the same time within the Metaverse, merging the consciousnesses of many. To be continued in a future chapter.)
It is this dual tension that poses the real threat to all organizations, but schools in particular. Learning is liberated when we are released from our physical constraints, when the physical world subsumes the imaginary world and we can access anything, anyone, anytime. The walls of school come down and the world is our classroom. The number of people from whom we can learn, with whom we can share, whom we can teach (no matter our age!) are no longer limited to those around us physically. Soon, we will be able to interact with everyone as if we were there. The Metaverse will allow us to go anywhere, do anything, and access the world instantaneously.
Most powerfully, the Metaverse will cultivate wonder. In the Metaverse, we will be able to admire the architecture of Prague, hear the sound of leaves under our feet as we trek the Amazon forest, peruse the books in the Library of Congress, sit with authors around a table with others who share a passion for her books. No more physical restraints. The imaginary world becomes the world of all the possibilities we can imagine and we will be there physically. It is as close to teleportation and time travel as we may ever get.
How can a system based on a teacher imparting and then assessing knowledge survive?
It can’t. And so we redesign the system. We rewrite the narrative of school to be a place for relationships, not just with people around us, but with the bio-locality. School transforms into places of becoming, where everyone, no matter their age, is at the convergence of their past and their future, taking the experiences they have had and charting the course of their learning to come because they are liberated from the traditional grammar of school (scope & sequence).
This is not a call to bring back the Wild West. The dual tension’s counteracting force is the cultivation of connection with bio-locality, and with this connection comes responsibility. This responsibility to the community of life (the bio-collective) around us physically asks us to embrace collective consciousness over egocentrism, more of a worldview of abundance than a scarcity. This serves as a guide for our thinking and action. This is ethics that emerges as we recognize that we are nested wholes within a living ecosystem, not fragmented individuals in a zero-sum game. When we appreciate that we are ourselves living ecosystems within larger living ecosystems, we can base our interactions on this one question:
How do my thinking and actions help the ecosystem thrive?
This question transcends the physical, imaginary, and digital worlds. It is the ethics of caring, love, kindness, and health.
Let us re-design the ecosystem so that all nested wholes can thrive, rewriting the goals, reconsidering what is important. Let us take action now to ensure that the worlds of tomorrow are those that allow the ecosystem to thrive.
In the next installment, we will explore why schools may have to become smaller in order to leverage the space created by the Metaverse. More to the point, a school may have to become smaller to be repurposed, to stay relevant.
*The telegraph required knowing Morse code, which created friction in the communication system.
** This isn’t always a good thing and I don’t need to comment on fake news and the importance of critical thinking.
† I am putting aside the nefarious side of algorithms; not that this isn’t a deep concern, but there is no reason to accept that corporations have to own the data that make algorithms function, and making it illegal to monetize data is one way out of the trap.
†† Of course, this does create an imperative to teach about the evaluation of sources and sharpen critical thinking, but critical thinking is a timeless competency not owned by the 21st century, though more people use it than ever before—it’s a quantitative not qualitative issue. How critical thinking is taught and by whom is the real matter.