Learning with Technologies: A Virtual and Spiritual Paradox

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Einstein said that imagination was the greatest human faculty. Without it there is no creativity, no good art, science, literature, religious thought, learning itself. He also said that "the significant problems we face can not be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them." Imagination, especially a contemplative imagination, is essential for human learning to transcend merely an accumulation or rearrangement of factual information. It is such imagination that may open towards not only knowledge and understanding, but even wisdom.

T.S. Eliot asked "where is the knowledge we have lost in information / where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?" While educational technologies are sophisticated machines and software without any real or artificial wisdom of their own, their wise use in the learning process can help transform that very process from the perspective of those doing the learning. Technologies can, paradoxically, be a way to transcend any obsessive infatuation with those very technologies by being used as vehicles to restore to learners/students a contemplative imagination and, as a result, an enthusiasm for learning itself and for learning how to learn.

It can be said that this paradox is the heart of how educational technologies can become inanimate means for the development of animate wisdom, a wisdom that is inherently spiritual in the sense of being profoundly human and unique to being human. Through a discussion of specific activities, I will propose that technology can be used for purposes of humanization and for an increased effectiveness, enjoyment and enlivening of learning.

Getting There by Going Nowhere

In experimenting with technology I have learned that imaginative reflective can often be regenerated in students in whom the formal educational process has depleted of a creative and adventurous sense of learning. And it has not been by using multimedia extravaganza in either classroom or online learning, but basic email and web resources which I will now highlight as ways to allow students find their own contemplative imaginations in the learning process:

Intercultural contacts between my students and students at colleges in other parts of the world has been both frustrating and helpful. Problems can include computer access and fluency in English, but when the initial contact between the other teacher and myself is made, those issues can be discussed. My classes have been in both one-to-one and electronic discussion list dialogue with students at colleges in Japan, China, Taiwan, Israel and elsewhere on religion, culture, college life, etc. These kind of exchanges can actually transform a student’s (and professor’s) sense of the world, knowing that people of different religious traditions and historical cultures can ask questions and give responses nearly instantaneously. I find the use of asynchronous exchange better than synchronous ones because it gives the non-native English speaking students time to read and write in English and it gives everyone time for more reflective responses, in addition to the obvious difficulty of differing time zones.

Students begin to imagine what having a different worldview from their own would be like as they become virtual friends with the other students and the questions asked of them by the students in other countries prompt them to give some sustained attention (contemplation) to their own views, values, beliefs, activities, goals. The site I use to make these intercultural contacts with classes elsewhere is Intercultural E-Mail Classroom Connections at http://www.stolaf.edu/network/iecc/.

Virtual Guests on the course electronic discussion lists have allowed my students to communicate with scholars and others whose work and experience is directly connected with our study. For example, one semester in my "Teachings of Jesus" course I contacted several American biblical scholars to talk about the teachings of the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth. Dr. John Dominic Crossan and Dr. Luke Timothy Johnson were on the class list and my students were able to converse with them about their particular perspectives on our topic. They heard voices that gave them new angles from which to see that topic. Such contact says to the students that they are being taken seriously enough that major scholars are willing to take the time to speak with them and respond to their questions and comments. In a different course I arranged to have a scholar on religious experience have a fruitful discussion with my students from her location in Florence, Italy.

Collaborative writing projects where each group or team writes and publishes its work on the class discussion list enables students to work together, in and out of class, and to write for an actual audience of their peers, not just for the professor. Thus, everyone receives all the writings and benefits in that way from the different interpretations or analyses given. Also, since I create an archive for the discussion list, students can at any time reread the writings. It is just another way to question one’s answers and let each student come to decide if she or he is evaluating those interpretations from an ethnocentric point of view.

All my course syllabi are hypertext web sites with links to appropriate resources. In my course on world religions there are sites on interreligious dialogue, scriptures in the religions and sites expressing given to a particular religion. For students who know little about the major religious traditions, or whose knowledge is not so unbiased, such exposure and discussion (including on the class list) almost requires a time apart, a contemplative attitude with which to seriously consider the views of the "other" and how those views may directly challenge or stimulate one’s own, familiar (perhaps too familiar) views. Wordsworth said that imagination is the highest aspect of human reason and when what one considers to the truth is perceived in new lights, the best that human reflection has to offer is needed.

Issues of an electronic course journal are done by volunteers in a class who are responsible for selecting the theme or topics for the issue, writing and editing the issue and publishing it on the class discussion list. The activity allows students to fully take a creative initiative on themes that are not directly studied in the course, but are significant to the students involved, to work together towards a goal, and to serve as mentors towards their peers in the course.

It is this aspect of giving students more and more responsibility for their own learning and for helping one another learn that I value in my experimentations with technologies that expand opportunities by making for more self-directed, self-responsible, translocation, any time communications and reflection. All of these kinds of activities "get" the learner someplace, not by transporting her or him to another realm or location, but by bringing a virtual noosphere into the learners own intellectual world, thereby potentially being a source for intellectual development and experimentation. And, such thought experiments depend upon a contemplative imagination to form possible alternative interpretations and evaluations. It is critical thinking at its most creative and enjoyable. Well used to suit the specific goals and teaching or mentoring methods, educational technologies can take the leaner many-wheres by not taking her or him any where at all, only more deeply into one’s own reflective world.

Unconcluded Conclusions

Authentic learning is not a work without joy, not an academic assembly line of courses, credits and requirements, not an inertia accumulation of more and more information, not a labor without love, and definitely not the mere use of the latest, hottest, fastest, flashiest technologies. Learning is human and is vital to the human spirit, almost mystical in how it can transform people and cultures. When emerging technologies serve that learning spirit, they serve the people doing the learning which is what schools and colleges are to be. Being neither a technophobe, nor technophile, I do not think technology is the answer to learning, for only the mind and spirit can do that. However, wisely used technologies by unwizened mentors or teachers can create new and expansive opportunities for developing that mind and spirit through the fuller engagement of the contemplative imagination. Just imagine… being creative and contemplative enough to find ways to have machines and electricity deepen our enthusiasm for learning and for learning how to learn, to actually change our perspectives and perceptions of the world, cultures, ideas, others, ourselves!

The inert stuff of the Internet. Humans using technology for growth in mind and spirit. The makings of a hidden and obvious paradox.

Critical Reviews

Critic BBB

Since the author, for me, is preaching to the choir, how could I not applaud his writings? I agree that "...wisely used technologies by unwizened mentors or teachers can create new and expansive opportunities for developing that mind and spirit through the fuller engagement of the contemplative imagination."

Publish? If not this, then what. I loved the piece.

Critic X

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Critic QQ

This is a rambling article, hard to follow. There is limited connection between the opening paragraphs, examples of class instruction, and the closing paragraphs. The description of how the author teaches online classes provides nothing new or unusual in methodology. Technology in the form of computers entered the classroom 30 years ago. The topic of this article was debated in the late 1970s. The author provides no references to past studies or articles.

I recommend that it not be published.

Critic XX

Interesting ..

The premise -- that "technologies can, paradoxically, be a way to transcend any obsessive infatuation with those very technologies by being used as vehicles to restore to learners/students a contemplative imagination" --- is extremely interesting, but I think the piece lacks a coherent explanation of how this can happen.

I would not publish this piece without significant re-writes that go beyond editing. I'd need to see a deeper explanation of how the Internet can help students claim knowledge as their own than what is presented. The main presenting point seems to be that by connecting students from different cultures the Internet can spiritually infuse our knowledge in ways that residential learning could not. I don't find this one premise sufficient for support of the more sweeping main point.

Love the idea of this piece, but want to see it explored on a deeper level.