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COURSERA: Technology + Education = Peaceful Revolution

On the hunt for a TED Talk for our next “Three Fork” session I came across Stanford Professor Daphne Koller sharing an online education platform set to change the world…

You must visit the page: – so impressive! A massive network of FREE education from 16 of the world’s best universities.


Courses go for 6-10 weeks, include weekly videos to watch, homework, assignments and sometimes exams – but tailored to your needs, and all developed by 16 of the world’s top universities… what a gift to the world:
  • life-long education,
  • development of critical thinking skills,
  • encouraging and inspiring creative solutions to the world’s problems…

There are presently 116 courses, from Calculus to Social Network Analysis to Quantum Mechanics, Astronomy, History, Psychology and Photography.

This Introduction to Philosophy course looks interesting, starting in January 2013:

At the moment there are 16 categories:


While it’s exciting to see this platform it seems there are still many gaps:

1. getting technology (internet, computers/smart phones, etc) into the hands of people who lack access to the education

2. develop a much larger range of courses (language courses, writing courses, basic accounting, business, and others that would open the world market for all)… that will be most useful to those lacking education

3. increasing the interest, time availability and perceived value of these education services to those who might benefit from them

Barriers and pending challenges aside, it’s exciting to imagine how technology + education may lead to the evolution of a more peaceful and sustainable global society 🙂




Other Gaps in the Distribution of Knowledge

Last week I wrote about the gap between school and life-there-after, and I gather from the feedback quite a few of you agree.. Well today I’m going to write about some other gaps in our society’s distribution of knowledge that I’m sure many of you have noticed:

1. A gap between knowledge within the university and the rest of the world.

Deep and wonderful ideas that could inspire and improve the lives of many seem to get lost in the theoretical and abstract language, meticulous referencing and practically incomprehensible vocabulary and word games of the world of academia.

Not that these words and rules don’t have their purpose. I appreciate the ability to find a know exactly where an idea has come from, to know that the right person is getting their deserved credit and that the ideas being discussed have a history as opposed to being pulled out of thin air. Even the complicated language has its use, and brings with it much satisfaction once you actually “get it,” (after numerous readings, google searches and flicking between pages.) The world of academia serves an important purpose but it’s not for the layman, and if the ideas are not translated into an everyday language their potential goes unrealised.

So that’s one gap that I’d like to see bridged a little more.

2. A gap between disciplines within university walls

Politics can get in the way of sharing ideas between disciplines within the university walls.

For example in a class about historiography (the study of the different ways history has been written) I learned that history and archaeology rarely talk. The former looks at written stories, and the latter makes guesses at stories behind objects. To me, these are two parts required to tell one and the same story of our collective past, joined not only with archeology but with biology and and cosmology and philosophy as well.

Many new “inter-disciplinary” opportunities are arising. Working in “Peace and Conflict Studies”, which is consciously an mixed-discplinary discpline, I feel lucky to be one of a growing number that are seeking to bridge this gap through cross-discipline conferences, cross-discipline research opportunities, and cross-discipline subjects that look at sociology, philosophy, psychology, political science and religious studies all from a peace vs violence lens.

3. A gap between the exclusive fundamentalist brands of religion and inclusive ones

I’ll take Fundamentalist Christianity as my example, noting that the general points may apply to fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist versions of other religions too.  Fundamentalist Christians are brought up with the belief that either:

1. Their religion is completely, literally, absolutely true which means they better behave so they don’t be sent to hell; or,

2. Their religion is wrong, life is meaningless so they may as well steal, commit murder or just kill themselves. What’s the point in struggling through eighty years or so of life if when you die you end up in the same state of nothingness as everyone else?

It’s all or nothing. The bible is either all true, or it can be put out with the rubbish. But is the history, the books, and the ideas that religions are based upon really so black and white?

Does looking at religions in their historical context show, that as with any writing, the motivations of the writers, the limitations of their sources, and the limitations of our own interpretive techniques, render black and white as two ends of a continuum, with myriad grays and colours visible in between?

Might the writings that proved enlightening for a particular group of people at a particular point in time, contain more-than-literal meanings in the mythos and midrash that the writers used to convey these messages?

One result of this all or nothing – “we are saved, you are going to hell” – mentality, is that many people judge all religions on the rules and destructive exclusivity of the fundamentalist versions, and write-off religion altogether as a man-made power-hungry institution.

I think that if one goes back to the philosophical roots of the religions, reading the “holy books” in their intended historical context, filtering the words through today’s higher levels of post-slave and (in general) post-slaughter-the-enemy morality, and explores the ideas in combination with one’s own experience and our scientific understanding of the universe and evolution… well I think that in this combination, religion does have something to offer.

Fundamentalist versions of religions are not the mainstream, but it is from these extreme versions that many non-religious judge religious on. In Australia the largest Christian denominations are Catholics, Anglican and the Uniting Church, all who (except the “Sydney Anglicans”) are inclusive of other religions (ie believe all religions connect with the divine powers behind life), read the bible in historical context, and engage in interfaith dialogue (see:

I think that in order to bridge the gap between fundamentalism and non-fundamentalism, it is good for us to study the gray areas, and to comprehend the alternative interpretations and meanings for ourselves. This brings me to my next point:

4. The gap in distribution of knowledge about others’ religious traditions (without presenting them as “evil” and “wrong” – especially if you are brought up inside one religion, or atheist)

I think the cross over and sharing between different religious traditions is not encouraged enough. I also don’t think that the connection between religion and science doesn’t have to be explored as either/or, but both/and.

Why shouldn’t all religions learn from the connections that others have had with the divine powers at play behind life? Why would any be so arrogant to think they know it all and that, call it “God” or “Allah” or “The Great Unknown” wouldn’t reveal itself in different ways to different groups of people around the world?

Doesn’t it make sense that the nature of science would be to explain how the universe began and how we evolved, and religion and philosophy to contemplate why and what is good or bad about the various ways we can use this gift?

Even if the expansion of the universe is a completely random event, the fact that we exist in a state that is able to contemplate our own existence is pretty fantastic. For me the magic of life the whole evolutionary process in the realm of divine awe. Our psyche’s, our conscious and unconscious, and the relationship between my unconscious and your unconscious, is pretty amazing.

Just because we can put some names and describe the process of one particle becoming two doesn’t negate the spark of magic that this process involves. And from two particles, into atoms, into life forms, and into planets and into you and me… how can we not think “wow”!

Who is to say that science doesn’t put into words the processes that a macrocosm we personify and call “God” sets in motion? Not a man in the sky, but a live and conscious universe made up of smaller conscious beings including you and me? I don’t see the incompatibility between religion and science, I really don’t. This, again, leads to another gap:

5. A gap in terminology to describe non-religious people who still believe in “something”

I believe this is a big gap in our language – a name for the large and growing number of people who have rejected religion on moral grounds, and hence hesitate to identify with any particular religion however who also don’t consider themselves atheist, or even agnostic.

A name for (what seems to me to be) a growing majority of educated people who are happy to accept the unknowns, and still think themselves as something beyond the boundaries of their own skin and short lives.

This group doesn’t seem to feel a need to name it, to join any institution that tries to gain power over them from it, and who allow their intuitive senses to connect to the mysterious energies at play and use this connection (via meditation, prayer, intentions) to benefit their or other’s lives.

Drawn to philosophical ideas like Resolution Theory in the book Shantaram, Taoist notions of good and evil being two sides of the same coin, and what I am learning about in my studies of Panentheism and Process Theology. As you can probably tell, this is me. I like the word Panentheists – the belief that everything is inside “God” – that is, our universe is a macrocosm with a similar relationship to us, as we have to the organs and cells that make up our body.

5. A gap between the knowledge distributed to rich and the knowledge distributed to poor

Finally I just want to mention the gap in knowledge distributed to rich and poor, as I reflect on how education is used to keep the poor poor and make the rich richer.

Bridging the gaps…

The ability to bridge the above five gaps, I think, lies in the hands of those with power: religious authorities, governments, media, legal institutions, and economic regulators.

Like every idea I explore lately, particularly in relation to distribution of knowledge and hence control of power, I return to The Pyramid. That power-hungry annoying big monster pyramid that gets in the way of all my idealism. But more about these gaps and bridges and using the pyramid for good and not evil, some other day.

Photo: Machu Picchu, the “Lost city of the Incas” so high up in the mountains of Peru… just one example of the ingenuity of mankind. December 2008.

The gap between school and real-life

Does school prepare us for life in the real world? Is knowledge passed from academia to public spheres? Are we learning from the past, or do we continue to make the same mistakes? How well do we really understand ourselves and others in our geopolitical, social, and historical context?

It seems to me there are major gaps within our distribution of knowledge.

Today I want to focus on one of those gaps, the gap between life in school and life after school. Over the coming weeks I will look at other gaps, and then at ways they might bridged.

Schooling in Australia comes down to one result: the HSC. (For non-Australian readers, HSC = Higher School Certificate)

This seemingly life-determining series of exams is ridiculously stressful for students. Suicide, chronic fatigue and depression are among many of the disasterous mental and physical consequences.

After the HSC I have noticed that many students are left feeling high and dry.

The choices may seem too many, or too few, but either way many (including myself ten years ago) feel confused about what to do next. I mean, how many 17 year olds know what they want to do when they leave school? And of those who at the time thought they know, how many look back ten years later and realise that, well, they didn’t?

Whether motivated by guidance from friends, siblings or parents, by money-incentives, or some other not-very-well thought through reasoning, many of us go straight into university and waste 1-3 years doing, or starting to do, a degree in something irrelevant to our future.

Even if we are one of the new generation of Aussies who head overseas for a ‘gap year,’, most return home to face the same dilemma that they faced when they left: they still don’t ‘know what they want to do when they grow up.’

So the next stage of the majority’s life story ends up either drinking at university parties as they go to minimal classes to earn that obligatory piece of paper; or working a 9-5 job answering phones, waiting tables, or driving trucks, in order to pay off the credit card or HECS debt.

Maybe things have improved in the eight years since I finished school, or maybe the non-denominational (a la fundamentalist) Christian school I attended was an exception? If so please do point out my errs.

From my observation the gap between finishing high school and finding one’s role in society is a widely felt phenomenon in Australia, and maybe among other western-capitalist countries too.

Through trail and error of various degrees and jobs I have discovered many career options that at high school I never knew existed. Why didn’t I know about these things???

I think the problem with our schools comes down to one thing: The Pyramid. (See blog entry: Preserving-The-Pyramid-The-Reason-Things-Are-The-Way-They-Are).

Instead of encouraging a thirst for knowledge and the intrinsic rewards that comes from creativity, our schools seem to encourage a regurgitating of words and formulas in order to gain the extrinsic rewards of good marks, good university & eventually a good salary.

All of this so that you can pay back your university debts, get a mortgage and work towards the Australian Dream: owning your own house.

Translation: join the system, perpetuate The Pyramid.

Those who control the distribution of knowledge, controls the minds of the people.

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I’m not arguing against The Pyramid. Unless I have some visionary solution to power paradoxes of the human condition I don’t feel I am in a place to criticise.  The Pyramid might be the only way a society functions, so maybe our education system is the best it can be.

So let’s put The Pyramid in the parking lot for a moment. How could these gaps in education, should The Pyramid allow it, be bridged? These are some suggestions:

1. Empower children to think for themselves.

I think children could be more involved in the direction of their learning (as in Montessori schools). I think the focus should be on teaching them how to think rather than what to think, helping them develop the critical thinking skills that allow them to do this.

2. Encourage a desire to learn rather than presenting it as an obligatory task.

Learning shouldn’t be something forced upon you. It seems so negative that a child is told they have to do their homework or else get in trouble from the teacher.

Instead, learning should be presented as the luxury it is. It should be presented as the passing on of the cumulated knowledge of humanity, with which it is up to the students to expand and build upon during their lifetime.

Isn’t that a much more exciting proposition than punishment/reward scenarios of learning just to get good grades?

3. Value creativity over conformity

Learning opens up the gates for a child’s imagination, for them to discover their individual potential. Learning makes people more interesting, gives people a better sense of humour, and enhances one’s quality of life in ways that money can’t.

Creativity is a source of pleasure and purpose, but it requires children’s confidence in themselves – getting over the fear of peers, parents or teachers rejecting or ridiculing what they create.

4. Teach more practical & useful skills.

Decision making, goal setting, managing savings, investing in shares or property, avoiding accumulation of debts, solving conflicts, understanding politics and democracy, and the history of civilisation on the whole.

Why don’t schools teach students a general introduction to university disciplines including philosophy, theology, development studies, anthropology, peace studies, and the like?

5. Notify students that the roles that society defines are not the only roles. They can create their own role, their own box.

Students should be provided with a broad perspective of their place in the world, be able to see their perspective in the scheme of other people’s perspectives, and see the similarities and see what factors have influenced the differences. We can’t know everything, but we can develop an understanding of the general areas knowledge or skills that are available, and with an understanding that new areas of knowledge and skills are created every day.

Students should be given the opportunity to find jobs that they will enjoy, that are not a means to an ends but are a day-to-day source of personal growth and giving back to society.

Maybe I’m too idealistic. Yes, I’m sure I am.

I do understand that someone has to take out the trash…

Of course in my mind this is done by computerised machinery, all trash is biofriendly and so even this job is maintained by creative-thinking programmers.

I think if we were encouraged to have a desire to learn, an ability to critically evaluate our world, and to think creatively, we as a society would evolve in the most incredible ways.

Creativity, motivation and critical awareness have the potential to stimulate innovation to new levels, foster ongoing improvement in all areas of life, from local to global and beyond.

Check out what Ken Robinson has to say on the issue in the TED talk “schools kill creativity”:


Ah yes, if only the world could be recreated by creative minds…


With some other idealistic visionaries including Dr Vandana Shiva, winner of the Sydney Peace Prize 2010.


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