PHILOSOPHY PATHWAYS ISSN 2043-0728
Issue number 17 14th October 2001
I. Report on the European Education Technology Forum
II. 'Have We Really Changed So Much?' by Andreas Margaritis
III. Local Groups News
I. REPORT ON THE EUROPEAN EDUCATION TECHNOLOGY FORUM
The focus of the conference on education technology, held at University College Dublin on 27th September, was on on the practical problems of getting to grips with developments in computer technology and the use of the internet - the opportunities which the technology opened up as well as the pitfalls. The audience of senior academics, library and computing staff from universities North and South of the border had come seeking sound, authoritative advice. They did not go away disappointed.
The Forum opened with Dr David Cavallo, from the Epistemology and Learning Group at MIT, on 'Emergent Design and Learning Environments: Facilitating Change on Micro and Macro Scales'. Dr Cavallo described educational experiments which he and his team had conducted in villages in Indonesia and Mexico, which pointed the way to a radical rethink of educational methods. Children from their early teens showed remarkable ability in using computer models to solve complex technical problems, when these problems were posed in a practical context, such as how to design a dam for the village irrigation system. University students who had learned the theory but never had the opportunity to put the theory into practice fared much worse. Dr Cavallo argued that the lessons from these experiments should be applied to school and university teaching. The traditional methods were failing to produce graduates with the inventiveness and mental agility that are needed to face a rapidly changing world.
Dr Paul Blackmore from the Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick, UK talked about 'Using ICT to support research-based learning'. In British Universities there has been an increasing gulf between the activities of teaching and research. In his government-funded project, 'Technology Enhanced Learning in Research-Led Institutions' Dr Blackmore and his team have sought to counter that trend. "Good researchers are innovative, independent and analytical. They are problem setters and solvers, and may handle large quantities of information from many sources. Undergraduates also need these capabilities if they are to fulfil their learning potential in their studies and in later life." Working with both staff and students, the team had designed simple but effective tools for document sharing and discussion in virtual learning environments, to enable students to learn in a more research-oriented way.
After coffee, the second session began with Law Professors Robert Clark from University College Dublin and Norma Dawson from Queens University of Belfast talking about the minefield of 'Copyright and Intellectual Property Rights in Relation to the Use of Educational Technology'. One of the many contentious issues raised was the common practice of Universities claiming copyright for work done by their teaching staff in the course of their research. Another was the strict law of copyright regarding information assembled in databases, which restricted the publication of information culled from those databases, even when the information itself was widely available. Professor Clark ended his talk with with a slide saying, 'Sorry to be the bearer of such bad news'.
Dr Nick Heap from the Open University, UK, in 'Issues of Authentication in University Virtual Learning Environments' described a number of methods which have been tried to confirm the identities of students to allow them access to restricted information such as course materials and online databases. Usernames and passwords were not a 100 per cent effective solution, especially where students were required to sit live online examinations for distance learning courses. Ideas which had been canvassed included smart cards, live video cameras and even retinal scans.
The third session, after lunch, opened with Professor Gordon Graham from Aberdeen University, Scotland on 'The Ethics of IT'. Is it possible to formulate an ethical code for professionals working in information technology, along similar lines to the professional code for lawyers or doctors? "Generally speaking...professional codes of conduct suffer from at least two important defects. First, the need to secure profession-wide agreement produces a strong tendency to arrive at the 'lowest common denominator'...Second, the resulting formulations have a generality that leaves open to interpretation their precise application, and thus deprives them of real action guiding force." Unfortunately, Professor Graham was not able to offer the audience a solution to these problems. It was the duty of those working in the field of information technology to be aware of the moral issues, howsoever such issues might arise.
Finally, I got my chance to talk about Pathways to Philosophy. While the other speakers used Powerpoint slides, I had arranged beforehand to give the audience an on-screen tour of the Pathways web sites. I had deliberately left open my options in order to gauge the mood of the conference. In the end, I opted for a personal approach, telling the story of how I first conceived of the Pathways project, how I came to launch the Pathways web site, and how the Pathways sites have developed and multiplied. "I had no interest in writing for an audience of academic philosophers. Yet I realized I needed an audience for my work. Pathways was launched as a quest to find that audience...In terms of my initial goal, I have succeeded. I have found a way of working in philosophy which I love and would never give up. Now I am looking for more philosophers to join me."
Afterwards, during tea, a number of the delegates came up to me to congratulate me on my presentation, and asking advice about web site design.
The fourth session, after tea, began with a satellite link up with Professor Maria Amata Garito at Rome University, talking about her project NETTUNO which delivers distance learning via two digital satellite television channels. Professor Garito had been scheduled to appear in person, but was prevented at the last minute by the unexpected cancellation of her flight from Rome. So we had the first chance to test the technology. On the big screen, sitting in her office with two co-workers by her side, Professor Garito described the aims of the NETTUNO project and their wide range of digital television programs, while on a second screen, we were able to see one of the programs currently being shown to audiences in Italy and elsewhere in Europe. It was an impressive display.
In the final talk of the afternoon, Michael Horgan from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, described his online program, 'Basic Electronic Surgical Training' produced with the help of over 100 technicians and advisors, at a cost running to millions of Pounds. The course covered all that the surgeon needs to know apart from the actual skill in wielding the knife (although when I questioned him later, Michael Horgan said they were working on that aspect too). Beautiful, detailed graphics, clever animations and up-to-date information combined to make a package that embodied the distilled essence of two years' basic surgical training, which could be taken at the student's own pace, in their own time. The program is continually updated as new papers are published in the medical journals, so students can be sure of getting up-to-the-minute information.
The day ended with a reception where the wine flowed freely, followed by a dinner accompanied by music from a string quartet hired specially for the occasion. Speakers and conference delegates were treated royally by organizer David Jennings of the Audio Visual Centre and his assistant Ellie McKeown. I sat at the table with David and Ellie, and we left only after every bottle had been drunk dry.
I still had two days in Dublin before my flight on Sunday evening. On Friday, I visited the Guinness factory, and am pleased to report Irish Guinness really does taste better than the product from 'the neighbouring isle'. After the first pint, however, I needed to taste a few more just to make sure. I spent Saturday lunch time in a crowded pub in the bohemian Temple Bar district where the resident Saturday folk group 'City Fair' produced an excellent two hour set of traditional Irish folk tunes and contemporary music which they belted out at the tops of their voices. They had another two sets to perform that day, and so had sensibly restricted their drinking to water with a slice of lemon.
II. 'HAVE WE REALLY CHANGED SO MUCH?' BY ANDREAS MARGARITIS
While discussing pressing events with friends concerning the Near and Middle East, I was reminded of the following moment in history.
Influencing public opinion via misinformation and spin doctors are not instruments forged and refined during the twentieth century. Rather the means with which to disseminate have vastly improved. It was not until the middle of the last century a web of falsehoods was exposed regarding one of the most decisive battles of the civilized world.
In 1296 B.C. the two greatest armies of their time clashed at the Battle of Kadesh. The Hittite King Muwatallis severely routed the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II with Pharaoh escaping with his life only by near miracle. Each king fielded 20,000 troops; however Pharaoh faced one of the foremost powers of antiquity. Egyptian forces approached the city of Kadesh in four columns. Believing misinformation from tales carried by Muwatallis' men posing as deserters that the Hittites were fleeing before his mighty army, Ramses rode at the front of his first column. The Hittites were the first to hone the effectiveness of the light war chariot. A contingency of these fiercesome chariots each holding one driver and two warriors swept around the far side of Kadesh, descended upon Ramses second column, and decimated the Egyptian forces. The surviving fleeing troops sent the third column into terror. Ramses II, god king of Egypt, was cut off and would have been confronted by his own mortality had not a contingency of Egyptian cadets landed to spirit their monarch to safety.
Egyptian survivors were few and the spin doctors set about their duties. For three thousand years it was widely believed Pharaoh Ramses II had soundly defeated Muwatallis at Kadesh and the Hittites were little more than a border annoyance. In truth they were a nation which adeptly wielded for an extended period more power, territory, and influence than Ancient Egypt.
Today records are routinely sealed by Congress and misinformation peddled by the doctors of spin to sway public opinion and secure political aspirations. While we have become technologically superior I think not we have become so much more civilized as to be appreciably measurable from those nations embattled at Kadesh.
(c) 2001 Andreas Margaritis
III. LOCAL GROUPS NEWS
Following the fascinating report from Justin Woods in Pathways News Issue 13 on the activities of the Philosophical Melbourne Group, here are the forthcoming meetings to be held at Border's Bookshop Cafe, Melbourne:
Tuesday, 16th October 'A Dingo Stole My Baby' speaker: Mr. Steven Higson
Tuesday, 20 November 'Philosophy and Terrorism' Speaker: Mr. Justin Woods
For further information e-mail Justin Woods at: email@example.com or telephone (03) 9416-7620, 0411-763076 (mobile).
Hong Kong Group
One of the latest recruits to Pathways to Philosophy, Zandra Chan, a lawyer from Hong Kong wrote to me a couple of weeks ago asking if there were any other Pathways students in Hong Kong who would like to form a local philosophy group. I contacted the other Pathways students in Hong Kong and within 24 hours received three enthusiastic replies.
The best of luck to the Hong Kong group of the Philosophical Society. We all hope it will be a great success. Keep us informed!
Would you like to start a local group?
The latest recruits to Pathways to Philosophy, from South Korea and Venezuela, bring the total number of countries with Philosophical Society members to forty, distributed around five continents.
If you are interested in forming a local group of the Philosophical Society, wherever you happen to be in the world, write to me and I will contact all the Philosophical Society students and members in your area. If you have any questions about organizing a local group, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to help.