Bernard Stiegler on MOOCs and education

The website Inriality has published a brief interview, in French, with Bernard Stiegler on the theme of the digital requiring us to, collectively – as a society, rethink education. In particular, Stiegler addresses the idea and implementation of MOOCs, with the charge that current uses of the technology are insufficient–being primarily concerned with distribution–and do not play to the strengths of networked technologies as a medium: namely interaction. Stiegler’s contention is that the digital is principally a means, or ‘affordance’, of research behaviour and in this way challenges us to rethink education as a more inquisitive and discursive endeavour, in which we encourage one another as peers (in the sense that, for example, the ‘gold standard’ of knowledge production and dissemination is ‘peer review’). He seems to suggest a fairly institutional approach, with the research-intensive university as its model.

Please find below a translation of the interview. I have followed usual conventions of adding clarifications or original French terms in square brackets. I have retained the links included in the original interview, which largely point to French language websites, with the exception of having changed the link to the French wikipedia article on Stiegler to the article in English.

Bernard Stiegler: “The digital obliges us to rethink education”

To introduce our series devoted to the theme of “how the digital changes education”, we asked the philosopher Bernard Stiegler* to reposition the debate in a broader context, that of our societies and their future…

* Bernard Stiegler teaches philosophy at the universities of Compiègne and London, he is president of the Ars Industrialis Association, he is Director of the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou Centre, and he is a member of the National Council for the Digital.

Why must education change?

Education must change because knowledge has changed. This profound change is visible in the sciences such as mathematics, astrophysics and nanoscience to name but a few… It is also true in the realm of language as in knowledge, insofar as Google is upsetting the traditional structures [of language] as shown notably by Frederic Kaplan.

And it’s not just academic knowledge that is changed in this way: our know-how [savoir-faire] is being revised, by the ecosystem of fablabs for example, and this is equally so with our life skills [savoir-vivre], they are both simultaneously destroyed by social networks and rebuilt on those new foundations…

In passing, I note that my position concerning all technics is that it must be considered as both good and bad [–a pharmakon]. A technique cannot be good when it has not been cultivated, it requires a purpose, a technique is wrong if we are not educated in it. We are therefore obliged to rethink education, because the digital changes all forms of knowledge, including family education.

Why should familial education be rethought?

Quite simply because it is difficult for parents to educate their children in the digital age! So this area is worth giving thought to because it is actually a very big problem, which risks being poisoned by massive anti-digital reactions that the Snowden case, and others, seem to attract. There is a fear, I think, that the positivity that surrounded Internet until recently will be compromised in the near future.

What can we expect from the MOOC platforms for delivering open courses over the Internet?

I am actively interested in MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], particularly in the key group [cadre] that includes Plan FUN (France Universités Numérique ~ France Digital Universities) – having myself experienced this type of platform for over three years (see www.pharmakon.fr).

On the theme of MOOCs, I have noticed that the [pedagogical] problem is often taken the wrong way round. The process is this: we have [existing] courses and use the digital domain for their distribution. This is indeed necessary but not sufficient, because digital technology is primarily a research tool – which includes even philosophy.

I am a philosopher – that is my job – and on a day-to-day basis [au quotidien] I work on many textual sources: the digital has completely changed the way I work. I produce further texts, and not at all in the same way. I share them on networks with many people that I frequently have never [physically] encountered. Intellectual objects themselves are profoundly changed…

As a consequence, in the case of MOOCs and within the framework of higher education, it should be understood that MOOCs can only be properly developed through research activity. I have therefore undertaken to petition the Ministry [of Education?] to support those research activities – in large numbers and in all disciplines – specifically devoted to the digital in a given discipline. In all disciplines, it is no longer possible to conduct research as in the past.

In summary, it is necessary to conduct research on digital technology at the very same time it transforms knowledge itself, and precisely because it is an instrument to conduct research and communicate about it. I think we need to mount institutional responses to these issues.

What support mechanisms are best suited to these developments?

We need to create rapid [knowledge/technology] transfer processes [processus de transfert rapide], of an entirely new kind(1). I work at the Compiègne University of Technology, which has had a [knowledge/technology] transfer centre since its establishment – for about 40 years. We believe that this is a basic function of a university. But it also requires new models, such as the one we offer here at the Institute for Research and Innovation (IRI) at the Georges Pompidou Centre, on the theme of contributive research.

This framework for research and action also reaches beyond the academic sphere, with the ability to involve teachers and pupils, for example. So there may be transfer across the scholarly world, which has great need of the digital…

What do you think about digital technologies in schools?

The introduction of digital technologies [du numérique] into schools is certainly a good thing… but the reality is that what goes into schools today with digital technologies is the market! Digital knowledge [la savoir numérique] comes from the universities and not the market. But as universities themselves do not produce it, there is a gap that the market comes to fill.

It is therefore necessary to create action-research processes [processus de recherche-action] that would produce very quick [knowledge/technology] transfer and acculturation [l’acculturation]. Support processes that bring together parents, teachers, elected officials…

More generally, most of the value of this contributory approach rests outside the field of education, in particular economically, with vocational training etc.

What relationship do you establish between education and the economy?

I recently spoke about this at the ministry [of education?]: knowledge and education, more generally rational knowledge, only works if it is exposed to critique that enables Reason. This applies to many areas where the logical argument is central, and which range from political debate, art criticism to [legal] justice… This practice of argumentation is formalized with the advent of a technics of publishing – writing – that made the comparison of points of view possible. Everyone knows that the printing press proliferated this phenomenon and its influence on science, economics and modern democracy was crucial. Thus the digital as a new space for publishing enables radically new capabilities.

One can, for example, create a television channel – which I have done with my wife, without technical difficulties and without any investment. In the online school that I have created more than 17,000 people are interested in courses, seminars and summer schools, thousands of people have regularly visited the collection of courses since its creation, and a hundred researchers from fifteen different countries have participated in the online seminars and the summer school… This is possible precisely because the digital opens out public debate. And I emphasize that science is primarily a public debate – between peers.

It seems necessary to me to open today a new organology of knowledge [organologie des savoirs]. This is because the digital tools used in this field are designed and owned by major economic players, such as Google, YouTube, Facebook … I use them but of course they are insufficient. For example, they do not allow you to organize and trace the confrontation of ideas – even though the processes of categorisation that are fundamental to science are based in such disputation, and the computer is primarily a technology for categorisation. Search engines that are capable of mapping, creating historiographies and organising responses [to research] that could nurture debate constitute the future of the web and should become the basic tools of a digital university.

It seems very likely to me that the reinvention of digital tools from an educational perspective will lead to a reinvention of the web itself. Because it is the debate – of ideas, knowledge , businesses , etc. – Which is the source of dynamism and progress. That’s why I think Europe should aim to support a new industrial politics based on digital a new politics of education.

Translation notes

1. I am not familiar with the term ‘transfert’ but the use of ‘transfert de technologie’ seems to map on to what is called technology transfer in the anglophone academy, thus I have made the assumption that ‘transfert’ gestures towards something like knowledge or technology transfer. I use this translation throughout.

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One Reply to “Bernard Stiegler on MOOCs and education”

  1. Thanks for the translation of this. It’s a good resource to refer to when the neoliberal model of MOOCs is rolled out in the UK and academics are labelled ‘luddites’ for not enthusiastically embracing them. MOOCs by all means, but as institutionally supported research practices not automated redundancy-generators.

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