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Education and Technology:
Serendip's Experiences 1994-2004

Expanding the Conversation

Serendip was founded ten years ago in part as "a continually developing set of resources to explore and support intellectual and social change in education ...". Over the past decade, Serendip has been involved in an extended (and continuing) process of "trying out things" to see how the web can be used in education as have many others. This section of reflections on education and technology contains materials contributed by others reflecting on their own experiences.

Life is not really so difficult if you just follow the instructions.

Further Reflections on
Education and Technology: Serendip's Experiences

Anne Dalke

Building Two-Way Bridges:
A Conversation about Gender and Science

Jody and Paul have put together an impressive array of materials, and queries arising from them, about the uses of technology in contemporary education. I've made up here a page of my own thoughts on this intersection, thoughts that represent the experiences of someone who--until a couple of years ago--had no web experience whatsoever, and has since embraced, with a lot of gusto, the web as rich resource for her own teaching and learning, as well as that of her students. It's of considerable interest to me to reflect on just why I've found this form so compatible. I've been writing about that quite a bit over the past few years, have catalogued some of that material below, and surround those materials with a few thoughts which I offer here for whatever use they may be to others.

Now, I don't fit the prototype of the usual computer geek; I never liked computer games, and I had no scientific or technological inclinations. It is rather precisely because I am

  • a humanist who is a professional reader of texts,
  • a gender studies scholar who is interested in categorization and the all the means of getting around it, and
  • a woman who is interested in human relations and all the ways of facilitiating them
that I have found myself so engaged by the multiple ways in which the web extends teaching and learning.

I actually date my own interest in the web to a text published by MIT Press in 1998, Alucquere Roseanne Stone's The War of Desire and Technology at the Close of the Mechanical Age. Until I came across Stone's book (in a BMC faculty seminar on Cultural Studies), I thought computers were what my engineer brother and father told me they were: tools. Stone offered me a different paradigm, one that described how computers function as tools for creating an arena for social experience--and one that offered a play ethic instead of a work ethic as model for intellectual engagement.The keynotes of my own experiences on Serendip over the past few years, and of my argument for why the web is such a profound resource for contemporary education, are three: its

  • sociality
  • playfulness and
  • openendedness.
For those reasons, I was suprised that Paul and Jody's exhibit didn't highlight Serendip's Playground, which certainly lies at the center of my own series of reflections here, and serves as its first stepping-stone: These stories are all told (paradigmatically) in conversation with others, and they trace an increasing awareness not only of the ways in which web work can facilitate the work of independent thinkers, but might also contribute to forging connections among them, connections that, from where I stand, have far-reaching intellectual and political implications.

Serendip was originally intended and is for me a serious playground, a place for trying out new ideas, seeing if they fly, knowing that many won't, some will....and one key element here is not setting the bar too high, so anyone can get into the conversation (that's one important role that the forums play, as an informal place for thinking out loud, without any heavy requirements about having done the homework, read all the previous postings, etc.)

There are a number of books, like Hofstadter and Dennett's The Mind's I, which both describe and demonstrate (in their own form and content) a rational for the sort of meandering/sort of directed conversational "play" that occurs on these web forums. At the end of The Mind's I, in his reflections on "A Conversation with Einstein's Brain," Dennett observes that

science is an unparalleled playground of the imagination....Science advances haltingly, bumping against the boundaries of the unthinkable: the things declared impossible because they are currently unimaginable. It is at the speculative frontier of thought experiment and fantasy that these boundaries get adjusted....the storytelling side of science is not just peripheral, and not just pedagogy, but the very point of it all. Science properly done is one of the humanities. (457-460)

Of course, as an English professor, I'm particularly fond of that final line--and it is precisely that speculative, storytelling, "humanitizing" aspect of web work which draws me so powerfully, and keeps me playing here. I actually like the absence of in-the-flesh details on the web, which (being absent) open up space for more (to me) *interesting* and creative things to happen. I also like it that my engagement with and contributions to Serendip are motivated by my own story-construction (so the issue of its practical use-value quite neatly resolves itself). And I like it best of all that, in such on-line spaces of structured play, deliberative self-censure happens less frequently (than it may happen in a classroom or an academic conference, for instance)--so that I, in the company of others, can arrive more readily at some unexpected places, worth examining.

What matters most to me is that this process of ongoing and ever-revisable conversation becomes an open--and constantly edited--record both of the conversations we are conducting within ourselves, in our own heads, and of those we are having with one another, each of them continually altering the other. This, for me, is the key and core of the productivity of technologized education as Serendip enacts and represents it: taken together, those internal externalized conversations provide contributors (at least they provide this contributor, and the invitation is open to all others!) with a profound sense--and a record--of ourselves as thinking, re-thinking, ever-revisable beings--which means: as actors in, and contributors to, the shaping and re-shaping of the world.

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