Thursday, 8 July 2010

Thinking the future with/and/of/as technology

This post is in response/dialogue with Richard Hall's post Educational Futures, Educational Technology, and Digital Social Media. I was lucky enough to be involved in the Beyond Current Horizons work that he refers to and it was one of the best experiences I've had of working in e-learning. It was a space in which expertise and human values really came together. Thanks to Keri, Richard S, and others at FutureLab :-)

In challenging the imaginary future which so much e-learning rhetoric assumes, we were not only challenging a positivist view of technology but also challenging some political and economic assumptions, particularly the 'digital economy' rhetoric of New Labour at that time. Rather than UK graduates riding high on a global knowledge revolution, the BCH economists drew our attention to the stronger possibility that high value knowledge work would be outsourced to emergent economies where labour costs remain relatively low but higher education and skills training are rapidly catching up with and even overtaking our own. Globalisation means it really doesn't matter where your expertise is located, and as/if the value of a Western university degree falls, UK graduates can't assume their place in the global digital economy will be at the top. More likely will be a restratification of the UK middle class, with lots of middle-level management and administrative jobs involving digital knowledge work, while the innovating and decision-making is confined to a small globally-mobile elite. As these middle-level jobs are likely to be on a piecemeal, results-driven basis, one impact of global digital technology may be that white-collar work becomes less well paid, less rewarding, and less secure.

Another issue we have all stubbed our toes against since BCH reported is that the 'real' economy is... real. People with i-phones still need to be fed, sheltered, taken care of, and while in times of relative affluence it may be nice to imagine us all working somewhere like this, the demands of sustainability and peak oil mean that more rather than less human labour will probably be needed to keep the bare necessities coming.

I'm not really qualified to comment on the role of technology in saving us from disaster - many others are doing this brilliantly well. But in my world I think having values-led discussions about technology in education means constantly undermining the rhetoric. So, against the rhetoric, I'd want to say:

* Graduates are not all going to be working in the global knowledge economy and not all of them would want to anyway.

*Social media spaces are fabulous ways of extending our social life in time and space, potentially breaking down boundaries. They are also fabulous ways of reinforcing prejudice, bullying, lying, breaking reputations. They are amplifiers of our social existence, not another social existence, and they demand a new thoughtfulness about how we relate to one another, including in relationships of learning.

*Technologies are tools designed by human beings for use by other human beings, which is a relationship of power. It is essential to develop a critical awareness of the designs that tools have on us as users. An education in technology use must be augmented by an education in critiquing the ends for which technology offers itself as the means.

*Knowledge, like money, can circulate, play, enhance reputations, generate celebrity, transform itself. This is its exchange value i.e. how far people are prepared to give it their attention and credence. Knowledge, like money, acquires use value when it is applied to solve pressing human problems. Which don't only include STEM discipline problems but for example how we relate to one another, organise our societies and communities, learn to be happy with less. Our education should be focusing on the use values of knowledge, IMO, and 'the wisdom to know the difference'.

*Technology is an amazing sign of our human genius and a tool for enhancing it, including our genius for learning and for developing others. It has no genius of its own. Technology neither teaches nor learns.

*When we value system-readable, standardised, generic, instant, context-independent knowledge over human-knowable, situational, local, tacit, long-grown and particular knowledge we risk forgetting much that we need to save us.

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