Virtually Speaking…

| May 14, 2010

Just getting ready for my talk this weekend at the TCETC 2010: Technology, Media & Designs for Learning conference. Although who knows what I’ll actual manage to say at 9:50am on a Sunday morning! These are not philosopher’s hours. Anyway, stop on by. I’ll be by the coffee pot.

Here’s the abstract. I promise I won’t be so (tantalizingly) cryptic on Sunday…

Virtually Learning: Imagining the Virtual as Techno-Educational Practice

The “virtual” refers to at least three educational characteristics: spatial, temporal, and qualitative.

Spatially, it never takes place as such. It is a simulation, one possible world amongst many. This is the space of multiplicity and array, the parading display of potential worlds to select from. Parallel universes. The browser, and hypertext. But also, earlier, chalkboards, the entries in an encyclopedia, the wax tablet. Educational space is an array of potential options, explored virtually. It is also an interior space: a classroom, Plato’s cave, the inside of a book, a pigeon-hole, a factory, the interior of one’s skull, womb, or gut. Out of sight, cordoned off from the real and the light of day, anything might be happening. Combining these two spatial characteristics—the array of multiplicity and the hidden interior—we arrive at the hybrid space of the modern classroom, a closed space oriented to the screen or blackboard. This hybrid educational space is the space of the theater, the play of shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave. Representations of a world found outside. And this is its larger context: educational space is largely the shadowy other of “the real world” outside and above.

Temporally, the time of education is never now. What one does “now” is for later. Education is the quintessential space of excess speed, ahead of what is really possible. It is a promise, virtually here. But one accesses this future by looking back. The content of education is presented as established, marking our trajectory into the future. Educational time thus holds forth a vision of the future from which the present takes its cues. Education is Utopian if one understands that the presence of Utopia is perpetually deferred. It is coming, but only if one is prepared. Thus the classic question of virtual education is one of storage: how do I hold onto what is already done so that it will be available in the future? And the preferred solution is repetition and fidelity. In other words, good habits. Indeed, the notion of habits has a long history of relating to pathways and grooves, the potential space of future transit. The track is laid, setting the scene for modern network theory. And always it is a question of proper pending selections. Witness Google—serving up the inter-net, or super-highway—honing its algorithms with a techno-moral calling.

This brings us to the third educational characteristic of the virtual. It is a question of quality. One does not rehearse any old thing. It is a question of value. Here we would have to look to the shared etymological roots of both “virtual” and “virtue.” Modern pedagogic practices might be more pragmatic, behaviorist even, but the classic question of virtue haunts the halls of education. We cannot underestimate perhaps the most influential dream of virtual spaces to date, that of Heaven and Hell. Oriented along the axis of sin and virtue, this spiritual narrative serves as an edifying tale situating our behavior in the present in a larger context of value. “Where are you going?” is not a neutral question. It is only when we see this that the imagery of No Child Left Behind, and now Race to the Top, begin to come into focus. Whether the notion of Purgatory—a place of sacrifice, suffering, work, and eventual transformation—is predicated on educational spaces, or vice versa, the function is the same. And as Margaret Wertheim notes, in The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,  the modern vision of cyberspace does not leave this dream behind so much as carry its utopian virtual space forth into the techno-future.


We often dream of bringing the wonders of technology to bear on the practices of education. There appears to be an almost magical ability of new media technology to enliven our somewhat drab and slow educational lives with rich, interactive representations and virtual worlds. What is less apparent is the way in which this image of technology is itself indebted to the long history of educational practices and images. Education has been a privileged site of the virtual from its beginnings in early Mesopotamia, with the rise of Urban centers some thousands of years ago. Educational space has long been the cavernous space of gestation, a hypothetical world promising a shortcut, or a high road, to future gain in the “real” world. The modern dream of technological advance, of virtual worlds, is the natural extension of the educational project. That it seems to come from a place beyond the scope of Education, is a reflection of the educational dream, always ahead of its own reality, holding forth a future that seems to beckon us from afar. This is the fundamental working hypothesis of education: that the real is elsewhere and pending. The domain proper to education is the virtual.

It is only when we situate the virtual within this larger educational domain that we can begin to see what we are doing. For media technology to bear effectively on educational practices we must understand their shared heritage in the virtual, with all of the issues and possibilities that this poses. It is when we start to understand what we are already doing, that we can do what we want.