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Posted by on Feb 25, 2013

Need for guides in open learning: Virgil and Fitzgerald as instructional facilitation

Curiosity is never stunted; learning will continue and so will the instructional presence. We just look for models to follow into these new ages.

I think it is important to think holistically about the field of elearning, mlearning, and open learning (particularly of the massive variety) as it undergoes significant evolution. I am not talking specifically about the market forces, the economic realities, the affordances, etc. of these shifts and how the effect education in general; there are certainly smarter and more capable people doing that already. I think there is room in this discussion for thinking of how we, as learners, imagine these spaces, imagine the learning taking place within them, and imagine how learning can be best facilitated in these spaces. We know there is potential, but we need models for realizing that potential. Much work has been done here, but I am looking more for conceptual/metaphorical models here; something linking our past with our present and providing some mechanism for proceeding into the future. So, I turn to art, writing, and science and how the past navigated periods of change.

I was reading a wonderful book recently on the intersection between romanticism and science and how the two conspired in the 18th-19th centuries to produce some impressive breakthroughs in our understanding of the world. The book is worth a look, particularly the chapter on the young Joseph Banks. The citation is below.

Banks is an impressive figure, one I had become familiar with my time on this project. He was a young, impressively wealthy, highly motivated naturalist of the time (ie, without any specific university training in the sciences-much of what he learned, he sought out outside the formal educational system). He accompanied Captain Cook on his famous expeditions in the 1770s aboard the HMS Endeavor charting, among other places, the coasts of Australia (hence the name of Botany Bay). He possessed a voracious curiosity and managed  to pen his name throughout the annals of naturalism. To see some of the specimens he collected, be sure to give this a look. He traveled with Daniel Solander, a disciple of the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. But the naturalism isn’t why I posted this here. It was the way that Holmes described Banks and his affect on the scientific community (and the burgeoning scientific process of the 18th and 19th centuries). A sort of guide through the morass, a compass of sorts. I thought this is another in a long line of potential models for the role of instructional influence in elearning and open learning.

Cook’s first expedition. C.lingg at de.wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license.

Virgil as model for instructional presence

Back to the book. Some impressive passages on what Banks meant to the age, an age of dramatic change. Within a decade or so, we see the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859), Marx’s Dask Kapital (1867), accompanied by other revolutionary achievements in science, medicine, engineering. The world grew smaller and more equally more terrifying and the pillars of society looked a little less sturdy. Throughout all of that, there is this figure of Banks navigating the landscape with vision and curiosity, providing a guide of sorts for those in his community.

It is also held together by, as a kind of chorus figure or guide, a scientific Virgil. It is no coincidence that he began his career a young and naïve scientific traveller, an adventurer and secret journal-keeper. However, he ended it as the longest-serving, most experienced and most domineering President of the Royal Society: the botanist, diplomat and éminence grise Sir Joseph Banks. As a young man Banks sailed with Captain Cook round the world, setting out in 1768 on that perilous three-year voyage into the unknown. This voyage may count as one of the earliest distinctive exploits of Romantic science, not least because it involved a long stay in a beautiful but ambiguous version of Paradise-Otaheite, or the South Pacific island of Tahiti.- Holmes, Richard (2009-10-15). The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Kindle Locations 149-154). Harper Perennial. Kindle Edition.

So, a nice model (a chorus figure or scientific guide, a Virgil) in presented. Leading by example and pronouncement, leading by leading others. I thought this represents a particularly good model for the chaotic, yet potentially fruitful landscape of open learning. We look for guides through this morass not just in the big picture (“thought leaders”, best practices, charismatic opponents and proponents), but also in the smaller one as well (Virgil as instructional model). So what role do teachers play in this landscape of open learning, this intersection of romanticism and science, of emotion and intellect? I think a fairly significant one, if they embrace it.

For the time being (a process repeated throughout history), the shifts in the landscape of learning communities have been reorganized or  loosened a bit by technology. Technology mediates and is mediated by the learning community. In this instance, we have the rise of open learning and technolog floods into the cracks and crevices of the foundation looking to reorganize the structure for maximum effect. There is nothing inherently wrong with this process and it is the fact that organizations (more so than individuals) work towards their own best interests that makes the process borderline predictable. However, along with the technology comes the rise of the efficiency mantras and maxims, the “inevitable” march towards automation and redundancy, the red herrings of accessibility (as used in the MOOC context). It is quite literally history repeating itself. The human element is cast aside (at least temporarily) as people fiddle with the outer edges of the environment.

At some point, however (and this is already happening), we begin imagining these spaces as we want them to be. Not just as limitless prairies of possibility (I have never met an alliterative opportunity that I passed over) or as sequestered slices of capitalism, but as imagined spaces embedded with emotional substance. The stuff that community depends upon. These human elements always flood into the spaces afforded by technology. If there are humans interacting there, there is human substance. It is the glue of collaborative interaction. But we need markers and models, guides to act as interlopers in these spaces, to walk us through the more impassable bits.

  • The execution of a learning task
  • The linkage of that learning activity to theory
  • The mores of academic interaction or community etiquette
  • The presentation of a challenging juxtaposition

Some of these learning activities we can perform ourselves (and often do); the process, however, is enriched with instructional presence. Heightened, augmented, what have you. Dante had two models in his wondrous and terrifying journey. The conceptual Beatrice, a conceptual apparition supporting his emotional quest and Virgil supporting his intellectual one. These two are the instructional presence. The guide. Not a bad model for open learning.

Fitzgerald and old currents

The dust hasn’t settled on this phenomena yet, but I suspect a strong instructional presence will be a large part of whatever artifact is produced on the other end of this process. And I suspect we will continue to look for metaphoric models for navigating these environments of great possibility set in these epochs of great change. I always return to Fitzgerald as the ending of the Great Gatbsy stuns me every time. Beautiful prose and immense application to the modern moment (whenever that modern happens to be).

Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning —

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past

I don’t believe in that line “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (although it is stunning). I suspect we find this wonder in each and every stimulus we take in and emotionally appropriate. Whether we turn this gaze on art or science, on outer space or our inner worlds, this capacity for human wonder will roll and roll on. It becomes a matter of adding emotional content to these spaces, to prime them for intellectual discovery. The guide helps us here as well.  We can remix Fitzgerald here for this current phenomena and the role that instructors can play in it by saying we are borne ceaselessly into the future by our past, using these old currents to catapult us into a space of comprehension and perception for the future.

Seo Sang Don, Rock Art, and me


Using the past (Seo Sang Don and rock art) to inform my future. The role of guides in periods of great change.

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