When I first started working in higher education it was a culture shock. The way things were run and the methods employed were just so different from what I began to term – “the real world”. Over time I’ve come to appreciate that universities are unique places that should run and operate differently- almost as an alternate reality if you will. In a perfect world the two realities could function in the way most suited to them and abide by their own rules and conventions, and this would be fine if the two realities operated completely independent of each other. Unfortunately thats not the way it works and there is conflict when the two realities touch and converge. They operate co-dependently, relying on shared resources, people, societal context, community and location. It is through this process of convergence that we create – borrowing the term – the Reality Distortion Field.
The Reality Distortion Field is a lens that warps and hinders the ability to see one reality from the other. It’s tinted with our context and it bends and twists our view of the reality on the other side. It polarises and changes the light and the way we process the image. It mirrors, reverses and changes perspectives – warping and reshaping the world to fit and align with our context and our reality.
The Reality Distortion Field hinders us from seeing and understanding the other side and conflict arises when ideas, concepts, laws and protocols are transplanted from one reality to the other without their corresponding context. It makes us believe that ‘our’ way of seeing and doing things is the best, without the ability to truly comprehend why the alternative exists. There are many things both realities share and can learn from each other, but to do this we need to move beyond the Reality Distortion Field and Cross Over, to experience and explore the other side ourselves. We need to open conduits that allow both sides to openly share, collaborate and learn – not through dialogue or diplomacy – but through actions and working together. Not with the aim of obliterating or merging the two realities, but to allow them to coexist and flourish not through competition but collaboration.
For those of you who are into their SciFi you may have recognised some elements above from the TV show Fringe – I’d recommend anyone watch this fantastically absorbing show. Its basic plot is developed around two alternate universes competing with each other. I don’t want to spoil the show anymore that that, but the central team of characters work at the FBI under the banner of Fringe Division. They’re a collection of assorted characters with quite different and unique skills who work in what I described above – the Reality Distortion Field – the fringes of the two realities.
The Fringe Division have come to understand the intricacies of the two worlds and are able to transverse them to find meaning and apply it to solve the various issues they face. They are a collection of vastly different abilities, backgrounds, skills and experience and it is only through this diversity that they are able to counter and comprehend the Reality Distortion Field. They have come to understand the differences in realities – what works in one won’t work in another. Its not bizarro world, just that different methods and solutions can only apply in certain contexts.
If I had to put a label on what I considered the ‘real world’ I’d say it was that of Commercial Industry. That reality had a simple aim – to make money. The ideas, processes, methods, measures and investments had a single goal – to make money. I never entered a truly big corporate environment so the work wasn’t driven by profit, most of the time it was just to cover costs so that everyone had jobs and enough in their pocket to pay the bills. So when I entered the university I had to get a handle on the fact that this alternate reality was driven by a completely different purpose – learning.
Learning is not something that is easy to understand or pin down. For example, it is not the process of education, thats just what we do to earn it, the same as selling an object for money. It is not the act of teaching, researching or publishing – those are merely some of the actions that enable learning to occur. It’s not the buildings, the desks, the chairs, the computers, the stationary or any of the infrastructure – but they all help to create an environment for it to happen. No, learning is a subjective, personal and sometimes spiritual event. An intangible, ephemeral and immeasurable object. It is something that is perceivable only by its consequence and affect. We can measure it through testing and demonstrating knowledge, skills, application and process – but it is measurement by proxy, not of the learning itself.
When you understand these two key concepts you can better recognise the contexts of these realities – how they developed and how they operate. You can also see the issues that the Reality Distortion Field creates particularly when we start to transplant ideas, methods, measures and conventions from one reality to another. A dependance on a specific context means a lack of applicability to another context. So the ideas and concepts that relate to money have little relevance for a context that is driven by learning. Money is a number, and yes we can reduce the effect of learning to a measurable number, say a click or a multiple-choice answer, but in doing so you have abstracted the fact that learning isn’t of itself measurable.
A Badge, a Gun & a Black SUV
Over the last year I’ve come to realise that I work at the nexus of technology and education, and along with many others, tend to operate at the fringe – inside the Reality Distortion Field. I somehow have to straddle the two realities, each with completely different contexts, to try and ascertain how they can mutually benefit each other. So if that’s the case I want to be part of the Fringe Division, mostly because I want the badge and the gun and the black SUV.
There are many more people out there who do similar jobs and act as conduits operating across realities, not just in education or technology – but other fields and realties driven by different purposes. I want to invite all the others out there working on the fringe – educators, technologists, programmers, coders, hackers, teachers, professionals, philosophers, managers and those that have really difficult to pigeonhole positions – to form our own Fringe Division.
I believe that a Fringe Division can see the opportunities we have to learn and benefit from different realties, not through the lens of the Reality Distortion Field but through an understanding of contexts. This understanding allows us also to see how we can hurt and be detrimental trying to merge realities together and incorporate ideologies without the correct context. For example, we shouldn’t be applying commercial conventions in a wholesale manner, as we need to better understand their impacts in a different context. Cutting costs by reducing staff or casualising them seems intuitive in a business context, but in education it leads to poor service and disenfranchisement that severely impacts the learning potential. Those at the fringe understand these fact, they understand the complexities of the different contexts and the fact that there is crossover. We don’t operate independently and the need to be efficient, practical and effective isn’t exclusive to one reality. These are shared problems and we should collaborate rather than compete, be creative in our answers and accept that a fix in one reality sometimes won’t work in another. We can have dual realities, because in essence we are better for it – but we need a Fringe Division!