ICT, Online Education, Culture and Society

Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado

ICT, information and communications technology, is a powerful tool, transforming education, culture and society. We in online education have a vital role to play, and choices to make. What kind of education, culture and society do we want? How shall we use the power in our hands to achieve them?

First, let us consider the power in our hands. ICT enables digital research and publication. Putting education online, it takes teaching and learning outside brick and mortar institutions. This transforms education, quantitatively and qualitatively. Like writing, print, film and broadcasting before it, online education is transforming not only education, but also culture and society. How is this so?

Information technology, used for data sorting, analysis and processing, greatly extends the range, scope, volume, density and speed of research, leading to quicker, greater, deeper growth of knowledge, skills and opinion than ever before. Knowledge, skills and opinion are the currency of education. Education is a system of exchange. While money enables this system of exchange, it is not itself the product traded. Education trades in knowledge, skills and opinions. Thus research, increasing knowledge, honing skills, and challenging opinions, is a form of capital investment.

Communications technology allows transmission and discussion, teaching and learning of knowledge, skills and opinion to reach more people than ever before; both inside and outside the spatial, temporal, cultural, social and economic boundaries of bricks and mortar education. When research done with information technology is transmitted by communications technology, using ICT, unimagined possibilities become realities. Academics cooperate in global research, plumbing the secrets of the universe. Myriads watch recorded lectures online, and participate in massive open online courses.  One to one, face to face tutorials span latitudes and longitudes. This leads to a quantitative leap in the spread of knowledge, skills and opinion, transforming education.

Education is a major vector of culture. Culture is transmitted and developed by education. Culture has three aspects: material, natural and notional. Material culture includes ever improving hardware and ever spreading infrastructure in ICT. Natural culture includes people with specialised skills, knowledge and opinions in ICT. Notional culture includes ever developing software, and an ever growing quantity and quality of data processed and transmitted by ICT, generating knowledge, skills and opinions. So, by transforming education, ICT transforms material, natural and notional culture.

Culture defines social identity. Without culture, society is just a random mass of people. A society is defined by its culture. So, transforming culture, ICT, used in online education, transforms society. Transformation occurs when, as previously with writing, print, film and broadcasting, quantitative growth, reaching critical mass, leads to qualitative change.

Writing, enabling accurate, definitive transmission of instructions, laws and commands, led to the development from tribal villages to city states, to nation states and global empires. Print, spreading knowledge, skills and opinions among diverse levels of society, led to the development of national and international economic and cultural elites. Film and broadcasting, spreading elite culture to the masses, and bringing folk culture to the elite, led to the development of mass popular culture.

What will online education lead to? It is up to us to decide. To do so, we must answer two questions: 

·         What kind of society and culture do we want?

·         How can we use ICT and online education to achieve them?   

The first question is subjective, concerning will and ends. The second is objective, concerning facts and means. While I cannot answer the first question for everyone, I can do for myself, and share my preferences with you, for your consideration. I can also say how to achieve them. But before I do either, I should explain how society and culture work, in relation with each other and to education. Though society and culture are aspects of each other, they differ, and work in a particular structural and procedural relationship to one another. A crucial part of that relationship consists of education. 

Society is not just a plurality of individuals. It is a plurality of individuals in a given time and place, living a certain way of life. To live a certain way of life means sharing something in common. What societies share in common, as well as a given time and place, is culture. Culture is the set of tools, material, natural and notional, used to live a certain way of life. Material tools are everything man-made, from hand-axes to laser beams, campfires to atomic bombs, slates to tablets. Natural tools are all forms of life genetically engineered, knowingly or not, by man, using man’s culture, from cultivated plants to domesticated animals, to the modern human brain, evolved by and for language. Notional tools include language, in all its forms, and develop into skills, protocols and ideologies.

The use by a society, in a given place and time, of a certain set of material, natural and notional tools constitutes a culture. The concerted use of material, natural and notional tools generates complex structures and processes, such as economies, polities and ideologies, involving all three elements.

A culture may be shared by a society, and so define it. Gatherers in the forest share a culture with hunters on the savannah; tillers of the fields with killers in the armies; makers, spenders and savers in factories and shops with bosses in boardrooms and predators on trading floors. Their relations with each other are managed through their shared notional culture, generating economies and polities based on systems of belief in notional sources of authority: gods, laws, or the market.

Authority, a tool for managing social relations, is built into society by the nature of its smallest unit: the nuclear family. The family transmits notional culture, including social identity, obedience to authority, and shared ideology, from generation to generation, through teaching and learning in primary education. In more advanced societies, this is continued by institutions of secondary and tertiary education. Society depends for its identity, order, and sense of common purpose on transmitting its culture from generation to generation, by education. This means that any novelty in education may transform culture, and thus society. This, as I shall presently show, is the case with online education. But first let me finish explaining how culture works with society, and vice-versa. 

Culture defines society. Society does not define culture. A culture may easily define more than one society at once, but a society cannot easily be defined by more than one culture at once. A culture may spread from one society to another, adapting in the process, yet still retain its cultural identity. But a society that comes to be defined by more than one culture at once may lose its social identity and disintegrate into separate societies. This is because society and culture are differently based. Society is based mainly on nature. Culture is equally based on matter, nature and notions. The difference between them therefore lies between how nature works, and how matter and notions work. Nature evolves only gradually, combining genes between sexes and races. Matter and notions can change, and be exchanged, instantaneously. Nature is slow. Matter and notions can be quick.   

Societies are, to begin with, genetically based. Genes are inherited, and, for individuals, are unchangeable. They constitute a permanent and basic element of individual identity. The natural web of individuals sharing genes initially constitutes, and so defines, a society. Natural identity may be combined with material and notional cultural identities. A given genetic society may adopt a certain culture. Genes plus culture constitute ethnicity. Ethnicity’s cultural elements, however, are more quickly and easily changed, or exchanged, than its genes. A genetically homogeneous society may, over time, change or exchange its language, economy, polity and ideology. Over time, through vicissitudes of history, societies may also become genetically mixed. But to the extent that they retain a sense of genetic identity, whether self- or other-defined, they remain genetically defined. 

Even societies that become highly mixed, genetically, may continue to define themselves, and to construct their polity, economy and ideology in terms of their complex genetic identity. The Indian caste system is a case in point. But societies, genetically mixed or not, can define themselves materially or ideologically, and thus transcend their sense of genetic identity. They may then come to be defined, both by themselves and by others, materially or ideologically, rather than genetically.

This is arguably the case with the culture of modernity. Modernity is notionally and materially defined.  Materially, it is defined by its achievements: science, engineering, manufactures and medicine. Notionally, it is defined by its preferences. It prefers knowledge over belief, reason over emotion, and achievement over tradition. Modernity comes in two main forms: authoritarian and liberal. While both share the above, authoritarianism prefers will over law; liberalism law over will.

Though generated in the West, the culture of modernity has spread, and is spreading, globally, to many societies, adapting to them, yet retaining cultural identity, as forms of modernity. While there are still societies, and groups within them, resisting modernity, its advance appears unstoppable. Modernity delivers the physical benefits of science, engineering, manufacturing and medicine, in place of the metaphysical consolations of righteous indignation, eternal salvation, or damnation.

The main struggle today is between authoritarian and liberal modernity. Authoritarianism is older, more rooted in pre-modern society, and has certain tactical advantages over liberalism. One is its capacity for quick, decisive action, as opposed to the slow, dialectical processes of liberal democracy. The contrast between authoritarian China and relatively democratic India is a case in point. Authoritarianism seems to deliver quicker results. But its internal structure, based on command and obedience, rather than informed consent, is far more fragile, and one wonders how long it can last.

Just as modernity’s advance over pre-and anti-modern cultures is probably unstoppable, liberalism’s eventual triumph over authoritarianism is, if not necessarily inevitable, certainly quite likely. The reasons for this are both material and notional. One material reason is that liberal modernity tends, over time, to produce more than authoritarian. One notional reason is that liberalism makes better use of modernity’s preferences for knowledge over belief, reason over emotion, and achievement over tradition. It does so because of its additional preference for law over will. Will, unchecked by law, tends to make stupid mistakes. Its choices often turn out counterproductive.

Recent events in Ukraine show how authoritarianism appeals to pre-modern self-definition, based on ethnicity. Its ostensible goal is to constitute an ethnically and linguistically defined nation state. (Its real goal is to maintain a kleptocracy that benefits its kleptocrats.) Liberalism, in contrast, appeals to peoples’ hopes for material and notional change. Its real goal is to constitute a state defined, not by ethnicity, but by ideology, leading to widespread prosperity and liberty. We have seen that while nature is slow, matter and notions are quick. So authoritarianism’s appeal to nature, rather than to matter and notions, is doomed. Nature cannot match material and notional change.

One reason for this is online education, and all the rest of the information and communications revolution currently in progress. This is a material and notional revolution, originally generated by liberal modernity, bearing its values, assumptions, and capabilities in all its structures and protocols. It has already spread worldwide, and continues to deepen its penetration. Like modernity itself, it is unstoppable. The ICT revolution challenges authoritarianism, and will eventually topple kleptocracy.  

Now I can answer both our original questions: What kind of society and culture do I want, and how can online education help me to achieve them? The kind of society and culture I want is one that is not defined by ethnicity, nor by authority, let alone by kleptocracy, but by the preferences of liberal modernity: knowledge over belief; reason over emotion; achievement over tradition; law over will. This does not mean that I wish to eliminate belief, emotion, tradition or will; merely that I wish to subject them to, and control them under the rule of knowledge, reason, achievement and law.

How can online education help me to achieve this goal? By providing an alternative to authoritarian modes of teaching and learning. By making the quest for knowledge more easily and quickly and thoroughly achievable and widely available. By stimulating and satisfying individual wills to learn, as a way to liberation, rather than forcing institutional education on unwilling individuals, as a means of social control. Online education, with its potential for autonomy and self-direction, is eminently suited to reducing the role of authority in education, and balancing it with intellectual curiosity.

So long as human generations and families exist there will always be authority. Just like belief, emotion, tradition and will, authority is necessary for human survival, and is good in its right place. That is a law of nature. But it is also a law of nature that the new must eventually supplant the old, and that societies, as natural phenomena, evolve by gradual change. With any luck, such change is for the better, but it can also lead to extinction. So there are grounds for hope, but also for fear.

This challenging prospect raises further questions: What will online education lead to in our hands? How shall we ensure that it delivers change for the better? How is academic quality to be assured, outside the walls of a brick and mortar educational institution? How are we to counter misinformation and disinformation, explode urban myths and stymie malware? How are we to fight the threat posed to our culture and society, materially, naturally and notionally, by enemies of liberal modernity who use information and communications technology against us?

To conclude, let me say that I have answered two questions: I have said what I want, and why I want it. I have shown that what I want is possible, and how to get it, specifically with online education. I invite you to discuss whether you want the same, or ‘something completely different’. A remaining question to consider is:  How shall we ensure that the information and communications revolution produces change for the better, and does not, like previous revolutions, devour its own children?