Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The personal touch

It is tempting to think that with advances in technology that we don’t really need

 -live lectures and tutorials. Students can just watch videos of the worlds best lecturers at their convenience and in the comfort of their home. Tutorials can be done online, i.e. MOOCs. 

-conferences. they can be done virtually with video conferencing.

-for students doing non-experimental Ph.Ds to ever come on campus.

-visits to collaborators. It can be done via email and Skype.

This will save lots of money and time (and carbon footprint), particularly that associated with international travel.

But, we should be nervous that the loudest proponents of these initiatives are mostly politicians, neoliberal “managers”, and commercial outfits, most of whom are not (and sometimes never have been) actual teachers or researchers.

With regard to collaborations, I continue to be surprised at how effective personal visits and informal discussions are. Even when it is not clear to me that a face to face meeting is necessary, things usually get moved forward significantly, sometimes in unanticipated directions.

I should also say that some conferences and visits are not particularly productive. But, I think it is hard to predict these things in advance. Again, often the significant events are new insights from "random" interactions.

I have been at a few conferences where some “big shot” did not personally attend but gave a talk via a video link. At worst, it was a complete waste of time. At best, it was a marginal contribution to the meeting. It never had the same engaging dynamic as when the speaker is actually physically present in the room.

I think we are blessed with these technological innovations and they do have a role to play. But, it is a limited role. Furthermore, they are most effective when there is already a strong personal relationship between highly motivated individual parties and the common project is well defined. Mostly the technologies enhance and complement old fashioned “face to face” methods.

It is interesting [weird] that I have co-authored several papers with people I have never personally met. But, it is also noteworthy that this has just been one or two papers, and there has been no long term collaboration.

I think ultimately an individuals view on these matters is determined by deep underlying (and often unquestioned) anthropological assumptions. What is the nature of humanity? Are people “economic units”, “biological machines”, “social animals”, or is there something intrinsically and profoundly relational at the heart of who we are?

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