Sunday, February 24, 2008

Do we need gatekeepers in a virtual world?

I woke up this morning very clear on something that has been a vague feeling until now, and knew I had to write about it. I am passionate about the uses and applications of Second Life as a platform, and one of my sadnesses is that currently the teen grid and the adult grid are separate. I am slightly uneasy about the number of sims which are collected under the New Media Consortium umbrella, and I resent terribly the fact that one has to join a group in order to even visit them. Until now, I have only had a slight feeling that sims ought not to be closed off to the general public, especially if run by instutions which ought to want the widest possible dissemination of the knowledge and information that they contain, because they are educational establishments, dedicated to education.

I realised this morning that it is gatekeeping that I feel uneasy about, the way in which this extends the role of colleges and universities as educational gatekeepers into the virtual space of Second Life.

In real life, Universities and Colleges restrict access to the places on their courses, and there is a link between your ability to pay for tuition and your intellectual ability to cope with the demands of the course that you have applied to study. In real life people make terrible mistakes in choosing their subjects for study, or the course or college that they choose to study at, and changing from one subject to another or one course or another is difficult, may be costly, or may be impossible if the course you wish to take is oversubscribed or needs qualifications that you lack.

My vision for the virtual world is that people could have free and open access to anything that they might wish to learn, and that there would be no need for gatekeepers at all. To be honest this is my vision for the future of all education, this ability to pick up subjects and courses at a level to suit the individual, which puts the individual in charge of their own education and learning.

For well over a hundred years in the UK, the scientific theory of education has held sway, which puts experts in education in charge of the schools and colleges, and leads them to suppose that they can control what children learn. Here our children have been subjected to more and more testing, delivered at earlier and earlier ages, to the point that many children are now expert in ways in which to gain more marks in order to pass the tests.

Children are exhorted to work hard and get good marks in school, as though these were ends in themselves, instead of what they used to be, a reflection of the level of knowledge, interest and ability in a subject.

Meanwhile, the transformation of many jobs like nursing into all-graduate professions has diminished the importance of vocation and on-the-job training in favour of theoretical study.

My vision for the future of Second Life, is that it could be a virtual reality where there is universal access to learning. Where people do not act as gatekeepers to knowledge and there is no need to fill in forms, and to get people to assert that you are clever and dedicated enough to attend lectures, you simply have to attend.

I'd like that space to be a place where collaboration, and assisting those who are less able or struggling with ideas is not seen as the latter "cheating" but is a natural part of our humanity. A place where difference is celebrated and not condemned.

I suddenly realised that this would require sacrifice on the part of Universities and Colleges who have, until now, controlled who gets access to knowledge and training. Who have had a vested interest in restricting access, and in making obtaining a place in the hierarchy ever more difficult to obtain. I wonder if they are ready to meet that challenge, ready to throw open their doors to the public? Or whether they are currently devising ways in which to restrict access in the virtual world in the way that they do in the real world.

This then, is my uneasiness with the fact that one has to join a special group to visit the sims of the NMC, which are generally run by educational institutions: I wonder if it is the first step in shutting us out.

Peter Senge, from MIT, said that schools are generally not learning institutions. What he meant by that is that they do not change and adapt as the result of experience or current circumstances, the institution works hard to stay the same no matter what happens, or who the pupils are. I believe that if we are to have the best possible future in virtual spaces, it is very important that schools, colleges and universities should become learning institutions, and should begin to respond to the needs and requirements of the people who use them.

Perhaps that's the source of the fear that I sometimes sense around professional educators: the fear that by opening up their doors, academic study will be diminished, that the great unwashed do not value the things that they value, and the gatekeeping works to keep those who might change or attack the institution as institution outside the gates.

I think that maybe they need to look at the general effect of 130 years of compulsory education, compare the knowledge and interests of your average big brother housemate with the knowledge and erudition of the soldiers in the (English) civil war who gave evidence in court, and whose verbatim testimony still exists. I don't think that formal education can be said to have improved the personal development of the majority of people, despite the money that has been spent on it, and the fact that we live in an information age. Those soldiers were illiterate, but they were anything but ignorant, and had a far better grasp on the politics and history of their age than most people do now.

I think that we are at a pivotal point in human history, and that decisions made now may have resonances for thousands of years to come. I am hoping that we can open up access to learning and information in the virtual world of Second Life, in the way that it has been opened up on the internet. I want to see a world where the only limitation to learning is how much an individual wishes to know.

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