Sunday 26 June 2016

Europe, post-truth, and the role of education

I had a blog post written on democracy and the common good, that tried to link the Brexit vote with e-learning and digital citizenship in a positive way. I'll post it soon. But for now, as the real meaning of what has just happened sinks in, I find myself as worried about the quality of the debate we have just had than the actual outcome.

I'm assuming we can all take for granted now that the referendum was a cynical exercise in Conservative party politics. None of the key players on either wing of that party ever believed Brexit would win, so they used the British electorate as a tool in their political games. (If they'd looked a bit harder at the history of referenda they might have been more cautious about the outcome.)

Their political goals were various: to do down their rivals in their own party, to drag our national debate further to the right, to direct people's anger at 8 years of austerity and wage decline towards immigrants and 'Brussels', and to disempower other parties by forcing them to play second fiddle in a broad front coalition. These goals really shouldn't matter to us now. No party that lies, cheats, manipulates and plays Russian roulette with our future to sort out its own differences should be allowed to govern again for a generation. Unfortunately that isn't how this will play out.

It is difficult to blame the majority of people who voted to leave. As is clear from the number who are now regretting the outcome - at least in its details - Brexit was a protest vote against a governing class that has failed to deliver. Job security, housing, public services, standards of living have all declined since the crash of 2008 and the Tory government has ensured that the most vulnerable pay for the greed and recklessness of the financial elite they largely represent.

And we were lied to. The lies are unravelling already, but they were persuasive, and pervasive. Like other big lies we've been told, such as the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, we can only revisit them from a world that has been re-shaped by their consequences. So it's difficult to know - and we are discouraged from asking - how differently things might have turned out. The right wing press lied, and lied, and lied, as they always have done, as they always will. But the mainstream press and media were negligent. They seemed so fascinated by the opinions falling out of people's mouths that they forgot they had a responsibility to report the truth. I don't remember a single serious analysis of what Leave would actually look like, or challenge to the motives of the main players. I don't remember any attempt to educate us about the institutions of Europe, their history and constitution, their real political powers and economic role. Other people were taking the BBC to task for this on Feedback just this evening.

But it would be patronising to say that people who voted for Brexit had no idea what they were doing. If we are in favour of universal suffrage, and of more rather than a less participative forms of democracy - as I am -  we have to give people credit for their own decisions. There are millions of disadvantaged people in other parts of the continent who continue to support the collective project that is Europe, recognising that it is imperfect and compromised, and most days of the week works in the interests of big business rather than their own. But that it's better than the alternatives. It's better than beating your nationalist breast and going it alone. You don't need a huge stake in society to want to stay with an international arrangement that has brought Eastern Europe out of communism and Southern Europe out of its infatuation with fascist dictatorships, that has looked after the most disadvantaged countries, regions and people of a whole continent as a matter of principle (not of elected government whim), that established the first and best international agreements about workers' rights and the environment, and that has kept the peace in a fractious part of the world for 70 years.
(I say this in the unhappy knowledge that the UK result is giving comfort to populist far-right organisations across Europe, and that what I've just written may not be true for much longer).

So what have we got wrong? Does my own sector - Higher Education - share any of the blame, or have any of the answers?

We're going to be hit harder than most by the Brexit result, even though we're one of the few sectors of the economy where the UK can realistically still claim to be a world leader. (Financial services and the arts are the other two - and it's not looking good for them either.) We in HE are completely inter-dependent with other EU countries for research funding, collaborative opportunities, and bright young people wanting to travel and learn. Today we are frightened for our jobs, for the free exchange of ideas, about what will happen to our many colleagues from other nations. We are, perhaps, feeling a particular fear when we see 'liberal intellectuals' held up everywhere for disparagement, even among the people who voted Remain. Immigrants are far, far ahead of intellectuals in the queue for bigotry, and we will stand up for them wherever they are threatened or made to feel unwelcome, because it's the right thing to do. But the kind of anti-rationalism, paranoia and fear of the other that is walking our streets this weekend has never, historically, been kind to thinkers either.

There are things we can be proud of. In every part of England and Wales where people have had the opportunity of higher education, the vote was to Remain. University towns (with one or two exceptions - Sheffield?!) were solidly pro-Europe: so were 90% of HE staff (note: not just the academics). More than four in five (81%) of those still in full time education voted to stay. Education works. It gives us a stake in the wider world, it makes us more likely to question the lies, damned lies and statistics. It makes us more tolerant and open to other cultures and ideas. But the same voting patterns show us that higher education is just one of many opportunities that the same half of society enjoys, and that the other half doesn't. That's why it would be a tragedy if the new White Paper on HE and the creeping privatisation agenda make it even harder for people to move across the divide, and send to the wall those universities that have taken the most local students and done the most to advance their own regional economies.

As educators we also have to deal with the fact that millions of people turned their backs not only on the liberal values that the intelligentsia hold dear but on rational argument and informed debate as well. Why are so many people actively hostile to evidence and reasoning, turned off by 'experts' (in the main, people who have studied a subject deeply and know what they are talking about) and unable to deal with any admission of complexity, uncertainty or nuance?

It was manifestly untrue that leaving the EU would pop millions of pounds a week back into the British exchequer. It was incredible that right wing conservatives would use any extra public money to pay for public services like the NHS - and has indeed proved to have been a lie. It turns out not to be true that we can just slip out of the European door and start 'making our own laws' again - at least, not if we want to trade with the rest of the world. Nor is it true that the problems in our public services are caused by immigration, though it's a lie with a very long history. It isn't even true that the European Commission is larger, less efficient and less accountable than our own civil service. And yet, rather than go on explaining and illustrating these truths, we are supposed to make way for the people who espouse the opposite because opinion, 'passion', belief, is all that counts.

At this point I could go consider the many the post-isms we have endured and enjoyed over the last 30 years, but it is crediting academia with far too much influence to suggest that people have been turned off the truth by continental philosophy. It has more to do with poverty. The voting patterns for Leave correspond very exactly to levels of poverty - and hardly at all with patterns of actual immigration. Our voting system doesn't help - the fact that once every five years, a fraction of the electorate living in marginal constituencies get to decide which of two varieties of capitalism we will all live under. There was a profound nihilism in the decision to put a cross by 'leave' in defiance not just of the present establishment but of the whole rational, post-enlightenment settlement - the idea that from rational collective decisions, collective solutions will flow.

And perhaps there is something more going on. These last few days I've started to wonder if social media isn't partly to blame. I hear Leave voters wringing their hands because they never thought their vote would actually make a difference in the real world, and I see not only decades of political cynicism draining them of self-determination, but an array of facebook polls and pop-up petitions. No wonder people struggle to take voting seriously. We have become a culture of endless, irrelevant choice and no power or capacity to make decisions. In other dark nights of the soul I remember that paranoia and unreason, of the kind shown in the panic over voting with pencils, have always been the bedfellows of extremism.

So if we're going to have democracy, we need democratic education. Out leafleting and just talking to people I know, I've been shocked by how little understanding there is of the basic idea behind taxation and public spending, of democratic decision making, and of international trade. In other European countries and America, citizenship is a compulsory part of the curriculum. In our country you can be a well-educated grown-up and not know how our own government works, let alone the institutions of Europe. Ironically, the only way to be certain of a citizenship education is to come to the UK as an immigrant

To come full circle back to my usual topic, surely there is a role that e-learning can play. If the advantages of higher education lead people to make good decisions, not just on their own behalf but in all of our interests, then it is in all of our interests to make it as widely available as possible. There are no short cuts to a stake in society, or the skills to think critically about evidence, as Stephane Goldstein observes in this post about Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy. But we can develop and make freely available resources for citizenship education. I am particularly thinking of the work of all my colleagues in the Open Education movement who are motivated by this every day of their working lives. We need resources that encourage people to develop their facility with digital media into a deeper engagement with political ideas and civic movements. Resources that can be shared and added to by political and community organisations of all kinds. And as people who understand the power of digital media to change minds and lives, we can use it to call to account those who have abused us. Not with opinion, not with post-truth confections, but with lies.

A few blog posts along similar lines that have come to my attention since posting this: 
Lorna Campbell: This time it's Different (i read this after writing my own blog post, which is probably as well or I'd just have said -> this)
Why open data is the key to democracy and citizenship

Stephane Goldstein's post on Brexit and the costs of information illiteracy
Positive thinking from Martin Weller 
Frances Bell: Processing our grief

Thursday 24 March 2016

What is 'Digital Wellbeing'?

This is the first of a few posts on digital wellbeing. The term is one I coined - or at least brought into the education space - while I was working on a new Digital Capabillities framework for UK HE and FE (funded by Jisc) in 2015. Here, from the framework, is my definition.

To care for our 'digital wellbeing' is to:
  • look after personal health, safety, relationships and work-life balance in digital settings; 
  • act safely and responsibly in digital environments; 
  • manage digital stress, workload and distraction; 
  • use digital media to participate in political and community actions;
  • use personal digital data for wellbeing benefits;
  • act with concern for the human and natural environment when using digital tools; 
  • balance digital with real-world interactions appropriately in relationships;
  • ...
There are diverse issues here, and more could be added. What links them is an understanding that digital technology saturates our lives, including our embodied lives. Our digital and physical identities are constantly passing into one another through the devices we carry, the data we shed, and the representations we capture and share. Our bodies and brains, our knowledge of self and world, our working lives and our personal relationships are all radically transformed in this process. (Different subject areas have different ways of framing these transformations, and the responsibilities of educators surely include exploring what each knowledge / practice area adds to our understanding of the digital revolution and outlining what kinds of knowledgeable/capable selves can develop within that subject space.)

It was challenging to insert wellbeing into a framework of individual capabilities, especially as I don't think being well is only or mainly an individual responsibility. The design of learning systems, the contents of digital curricula, the distribution of digital know-how, the business models of digital development, the globalisation of digital labour... these are issues with profound impact on our capacity to thrive, over which no individual has  control. But I think it's useful, and potentially radical, to suggest that digital capability includes self-care, and that self-care requires a critical awareness of how digital technologies act on us and sometimes against us, as well as allowing us to pursue our personal and collective aspirations in new ways.

In using the terms 'capbility' and 'wellbeing' in a digital space I am consciously drawing on Martha Nussbaum's work on human development. Too rich to summarise here, her ideas are opened out nicely from an online review of her 2011 book Creating Capabilities: the human development approach.

My own work on the experiences of digital students had already led me to question what it means to thrive in a learning environment that is saturated with digital technologies. Students have many concerns about the impact of digital technology on their wellbeing, if we listen. This goes back to my original definition of digital literacy for Jisc (2010):
those capabilities that enable an individual to thrive (live, learn and work) in a digital society.

In 2015 I was also conducting interviews with a wide range of staff, and considering the future of work both inside and outside education. I summarised these findings in my report Deepening Digital Knowhow: Building Digital Talent (first two sections) and in much more detail in Employability and the Future of Digital Work, part of a symposium for the Networked Learning Conference 2016.

Since delivering the framework, blogging about it on the Jisc site, and producing this podcast, I have had a positive reaction from different sectors and from different parts of the world. For example:

1. I presented keynotes on digital wellbeing at the UCISA Spotlight on Digital Capability event and at EdTech15 in Galway, and at a range of events since then (see my slideshare account). An #LTHEchat about the subject resulted in this re-drawing of Maslow's hierarchy of needs by Simon Rae (thank you Simon).


The link with Maslow is a reminder that digitally-mediated learning still happens between human beings with human needs for safety, nurture and care, for a sense of belonging and for personal attention. Other writers such as Laura Czerniewicz, Catherine Cronin and Gardner Campbell are raising the question of what love and care for learners might look like in digital settings.

2. 'Digital identity and wellbeing' was included prominently in the Irish National Forum's new (2015) framework of digital skills for HE, after conversations between myself and Jim Devine. You can see  the final frameworks on pp. 35 and 36 of this report.

Elsewhere in the report there is a useful account of how conceptions of digital literacy have evolved in the UK and Ireland, with evidence of how widely used are the digital literacy development pyramid (myself and Rhona Sharpe, 2009), the Jisc definition of digital literacies (myself and Allison Littlejohn and Lou McGill, 2010) and the two frameworks I developed for Jisc in 2010 and 2015.

3. 'Digital wellbeing' is a theme for the 2016 Designs on e-Learning conference in New York City, with the call for papers using a definition that closely follows mine in the Jisc framework. I like the connection between 'design' and wellbeing, because the two have often been antithetical in accounts of how people learn.  'Learning design' has tended to treat learners as rational users of a rational system or - worse - as components of the system to be known through measurement and tracking. Here they are treated as embodied, socially-connected and potentially vulnerable human beings, whose learning involves investment and risk as well as cognitive effort.

4. I was invited to talk about the framework with universities across Australia, which has led to the formation of a community of practice in digital capability development. Digital wellbeing was the area that elicited the most interest and excitement over there. The term 'wellbeing' resonates immediately with professional staff - librarians, careers advisers, learning skills professionals and other student-facing specialists - who support learners in ways that are not directly concerned with their subject knowledge or assessments. But teaching in its traditional sense also involves care: acknowledgement of everything learners bring to the experience of learning, including their motivations, challenges, and prior experiences, and an interest in their specific paths of development.

5. I was invited to contribute to a European framework on developing Digitally Capable Organisations which is being further developed into tools for use in schools. I have more recently been invited to contribute to a Commonwealth of Learning framework on Digital Education Leadership (forthcoming 2016). In both cases I think my contribution is to stress the responsibility that educational organisations have for the wellbeing of all staff and learners as they rely more on digital systems and introduce more digitally-based practices.

6. I've also been approached by health education bodies to consider developing a common framework. The wellbeing aspect of the Jisc framework is particularly appealing to this sector.

7. I've been approached to work collaboratively with specialists in e-safety and cyberbullying, who feel that 'digital wellbeing' is a particularly helpful term to use in post-compulsory education. Adult learners may not see themselves as needing support to be 'safe' or 'respectful' online, despite the fact that cyberbullying is an increasing problem in universities. But they are interested in how to live, learn and work effectively in digital spaces - for example to understand different norms and cultures of online expression. They also have legitimate concerns about how living, learning and working relationships play out differently in those spaces.

One of the joys of working and publishing openly in a digital community is to watch ideas taken up in diverse ways, taking on their own lives and meaning different things to different people. As I've argued elsewhere, terms such as 'digital wellbeing', 'digital literacy' or 'digital capability', are useful only if they allow new conversations to happen, and ultimately if they usher in new forms of practice or critique. They belong to whoever can make use of them, and once they are no longer useful they fall away (though if they have had any traction, they leave changes behind them).

For me the important thing is for there to be an open dialogue, recognising that ideas have a history and provenance, and that their contexts of production and sharing deserve some attention.

Thanks for bearing with me. In further posts I'll look at different aspects of digital wellbeing, depending on interest.

Wednesday 30 September 2015

Occupying digital space

Thanks to the enlightened policy of the Open University Press I can make available the text of my recent chapter Occupying Digital Space, originally one half of a chapter (the other half written by the wonderful Mike Neary) in John Lea's edited book Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. If you enjoy my piece I encourage you to buy (or ask your institution to buy) the book.  It includes lots of wonderful practice-based case studies and opinion pieces alongside academic points of view on pedagogy in the C21st. Plus as an academic writer I want to promote a publishing house that allows me to make my work openly available to everyone who can benefit. Here's my conclusion.

Enhancing Learning and Teaching in Higher Education: Engaging with the Dimensions of Practice
Virtual space is continuous but not identical with real-world space. As educators, we are particularly interested in how meanings, feelings and identities, social actions and economic values are transacted in digital space, and as I have tried to show, these
transactions reproduce the inequalities, power dynamics and oppressive institutional practices of real-world space. Some aspects of virtual space disguise these continuities and make it difficult to adopt a critical stance. These include the radical separation of designers from end-users, the fact that actions are narrowly constrained but alternatives
are literally unthinkable within the interface, and the ‘natural’ and ‘frictionless’design ideal. All are good reasons why we should foster in our institutions, among our colleagues, and most importantly in our students, a critical approach to digital technologies
and their uses. How we approach this will depend on our disciplinary resources, but we should be in no doubt that it will become more difficult for students to do this with their own resources, as they become more naturalised to living in a hybrid world.

Just like real-world spaces, virtual spaces can be co-opted against their original designs, or can be designed differently – collaboratively with students, for example, or in ways that are radically incomplete. And while real-world spaces can only be redesigned after much investment and long processes of consultation, in which radical ideas can easily be lost, virtual spaces are agile and reconfigurable. Personal learning environments, cloud services, community solutions and peer-to-peer networks are already deeply connected into the institutional infrastructure, introducing potential fault-lines and spaces of alternative play. Alongside virtual environments that reproduce
an instrumental and managerial idea of the university, we can set alternative virtual spaces such as Coventry’s Disruptive Media Lab or the Ragged University project and its various affiliates, online and physically located. Against the virtual pantechnicon we can imagine the hybrid university as a network of loosely affiliated spaces, some allowing for safe exploration and identity work (‘walled gardens’), but with doors always opening onto other institutions and cultures, onto different ways of
knowing, and onto an open landscape of knowledge in public use.

Read my chapter in full here.

Thursday 17 September 2015

Conference reflections: digital work and political futures

This was meant to be my reflections on last week's ALT conference: Shaping the Future of Learning Together, but like many people I know I've been distracted by the outcome of another conference, the Labour Party Special Conference to announce the winner of its leadership contest. My twitter stream has been a double-stranded flow of excitement about digital and political futures, with not much exchange between them. Some friends have even suggested that it would be good for me - and my twitter followers - if I kept my political views running in a separate channel to my work on digital literacies and digital education.

But it's hard not to notice how many people in the world of e-learning are dipping into the Corbyn stream. Hard not to be excited - if you care about education - that we have a Leader of the Opposition who wants to reintroduce student grants, who promises to reverse this Government's savage cuts to FE and adult/skills, and who views education as a 'collective good' that demands investment and safeguarding through a lifelong 'national education service'. Whether or not Jeremy Corbyn can deliver on these promises, debates that we thought were dead and buried are coming back to life in front of our eyes.

And the unexpectedness of Corbyn's win, the loss of any certainty about how electors will respond to continued austerity at home and war/misery/emigration overseas, the questioning of apparently unshakeable economic verities by serious economists as well as climate change and anti-capitalist protestors - these should make us all very nervous of current 'futures thinking', or at least the kind that talks up the 'digital economy' as though we know exactly what that means. It might mean the dog-eat-dog of neo-liberal entrepreneurialism, or the 'sharing economy' that would have us monetise every skill we gain, every interest we entertain, and all the space in our homes and cars we aren't actually using to breathe in. It might look like the mechanical turk writ large, with human brain space rented out to projects determined by the demands of data. Or it might look like old-fashioned collectivism with the emphasis on digital participation and decision making. It might look like a lot of paid and unpaid work in caring for others, with the help of personal data services, the digital world a beautiful collaborative playground where we spend much of the leisure time we have on our hands. It might look like a world of infinitely permeable borders, or one of constant surveillance and control, or most likely both at once. We know it will be digital, or 'post-digital' if you must, but beyond that there's still everything to play for.

So perhaps I am working and thinking in a space where digital and political futures are intertwined. At the moment I'd call this space 'the changing world of work', and mean by that both the lived experience of working inside UK HE and FE, and the 'world of work' as reified in current education policy - as the entire rationale and telos of our students' learning, the 'real' against which our intellectual and pedagogical labour must finally be reckoned.

This year I have mainly been working on a project called Framing the Digital Capabilities of Staff in UK HE and FE. The project was funded by Jisc who will be publishing my report and other deliverables shortly. I've already used this work to inform a revised Digital Capabilities Framework which I hope will be useful to people working in this space. What I have to say here is in no way endorsed by Jisc and it arises from only a small area of my work for them - my review of the changing nature of work inside and outside the academy. I was lucky enough to talk with more than 60 professionals in HE and FE about their work and the role digital technology plays in it, and their thoughts have certainly informed my own. But the interviews ranged widely and none of the people I spoke to would necessarily draw the same conclusions that I do. With that important disclaimer, here are my thoughts on...

The changing world of work

Some people I know, looking as if they are working (CC Jisc 2014)

Many excellent researchers have studied work inside academic organisations: I have been particularly influenced by Lynne Gornall and her co-editors of Academic Working Lives (2014). Go read it if you want to know more. (This and all my other references can be found online here along with key stats, facts and quotes). According to this and other sources, academic and professional work is becoming:

  • less secure – rise of short-term contracts, constant restructuring, funding constraints;
  • shorter term – defined by short/medium term initiatives, often organised in flexible project teams (e.g. task and finish);
  • more goal-driven – KPIs, personal performance management, citation index, REF, NSS, teaching quality measures, service level agreements;
  • uncertainly located – open offices, hot desking, working from home, working across multiple campuses, working online;
  • more self-directed – rise of self-employment, consultancy, project-based working and enterpreneurship; also the individual's responsibility to constantly improve (the self as project);
  • multiple/hybrid – people doing more than one job (split contracts), roles crossing professions or specialisms;
  • technology-based – core processes carried out within institutional IT systems, some aspects entirely automated, rise in roles with IT-related responsibilities e.g. in learning technology, organisational data (NB this list is my summary of multiple sources).
Of course not all of these changes can be associated directly with the impact of digital technologies in education. They have arisen in a political context of constrained finances, increased competition for students and commodification of the student experience, an interest in the quantification of outcomes, and the favouring of managerial over collegial modes of governance. However, digital technologies have played a role both instrumentally - enabling governments and organisations to carry through some of these agendas - and also contextually, for example supporting the development of cheaper alternatives against which the 'value' of traditional courses is now to be measured.

Employability and the 'world of work' also penetrate every aspect of the student experience via part-time work, work placements, internships, sponsorships, and co-curricular activities reframed as tokens of employability. Employment is widely seen as making sense and ascribing value to the whole experience of education. And this wider world of work is also changing in comparable ways. It is becoming:

  • less secure, with multiple job and career changes and the rise of casual, part-time, informal and self-employment;
  • more entrepreneurial, via the 'gig' or 'sharing' economy (uber, AMT, clickworker, workfusion, mechanical turk) on the one hand, and on the other the rise of project-based working teams and internal marketisation (intrapreneurship) within relatively secure forms of employment;
  • fragmented in terms of attention, tasks, work-time and work-space, working teams;
  • multiple and hybrid, with simultaneous contracts/roles/projects/commitments in work and the monetisation of previously private pursuits, hobbies, personal time and space;
  • uncertainly located through disclocation from the traditional workplace and a rise in home working;
  • automated and/or at risk from automation, with up to 36% UK jobs likely to be lost in next 20 years; cognitive work is being done by a smaller number of people working collaboratively with IT and data systems.

Key career assets are now a person's immediately relevant capabilities, rather than (say) length of service, and these must be constantly updated, especially where digital technologies are concerned. So digital capabilities are essential to finding and retaining work and to managing multiple work roles. This is equally true of staff as it is of the students who are being supported to enhance their employability. 

Many people, perhaps especially women, find the flexibility of digital work a liberation. This has certainly been my own experience as a long-time single mother. I've also been lucky enough to work with many educators who are inspired by digital opportunities for learning and have shared that inspiration with their students. Across disciplines, digital technology is both an exciting new subject of scholarship and a whole new toolbox for discovery, exploration and the communication of ideas. But aspects of digital academic work cause frustration and stress. Staff worry about keeping 'up to date' (the self as project again), about growing demands on their time and attention, about information overload and the loss of boundaries between work and home. People who went into teaching because they preferred face-to-face contact with students to life in the archive or laboratory find they spend most of their time sitting at a screen.

Students too worry about the loss of face-to-face contact time, but perhaps more acutely about their own working futures. For a majority of graduates, the 'digital economy' has not meant high-value 'knowledge' work but white-collar labour in call centres and data departments, insecure self-employment, or piecemeal work in a hybrid (human/computer) service economy. Most graduates are exercising their entrepreneurialism to find, retain and stitch together opportunities to earn, rather than leading digital start-ups. Dougald Hine has spoken powerfully about the new graduate 'precariat', who have 'done everything right' but are still struggling to find meaningful work. And whatever their work, it is likely to take place in a largely digital setting, which brings its own stresses - cyberbullying, information overload, repetitive strain and other health risks, loss of face-to-face relationships - as well as new opportunities and new networks of support.

This precariat, and the young people on the brink of entering it, are significant among the people who have elected Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party. (If his detractors are to be believed, the rest are 'intellectuals', which puts education professionals squarely in the frame as well.)

Our relationship with 'work' as educators
Students Hold Up a Sign that Says "Free Education."
CC Michael Fleshman:

At this point I want to suggest that we have a responsibility, as educators, to involve ourselves in what it means to work in a digital age. This is true both of our own work and the work for which we are preparing our students. So far from being removed from the pressures acting on the wider economy, educators are in some ways in the vanguard (or firing line). Our work is quintessentially 'knowledge' work. Our workplaces are among the most hybrid (real/virtual) in the world, as I have argued recently in Lea's Enhancing Learning and Teaching in HE. Rightly or wrongly, a 'passion' for our subject has long been held up as the defining quality of a lecturer, which makes us in some ways the archetype of the 'passionate' amateur who is C21st capitalism's fantasy worker. Unless we understand ourselves as particular kinds of worker - and producer - in the C21st economy, we risk being disempowered in relation to our own working lives, and failing to theorise and organise on our own behalf, let alone on behalf of others who are caught up in the same nexus of forces.

As far as our students are concerned, the employability agenda has for too long been handed down into the curriculum as a given, rather than opened up within the curriculum as a set of questions about what it means to be productive in a C21st society: what value particular subject areas bring to the defining challenges of our times, what it means to live (and work) well, and how work might best be organised. As well as enabling students to cope with their immediate economic realities, it is also our place to develop critical people who can question the technologies and technology-based roles they are offered, and find new solutions to the conundrum of how to work and live in a digital society.

There has been important work around the idea of students-as-producers of knowledge, for example at the University of Lincoln and behind the NUS' Manifesto for Partnership. As educators we can support that work through our teaching and curriculum practices. But we can also support it by putting our own working lives under a critical lens. Over the last decade the 'students as consumers' narrative has reframed our work as service provision to learning consumers and - more importantly - to their future employers through students as agents of productivity. Research has been obsessively quantified for its impact on measurable outcomes, ideally transferable into monetary terms. The fetish for quantity has obscured some of the qualities that really matter in educational work, such as the quality of relationships in a community of knowledge and understanding, or the quality of the relationship between teachers and students. 

Jonathan Worth’s keynote at Alt-C returned us to that relationship. He spoke about the vulnerability of learners, the trust they place in us, and the attention we must pay constantly to the workings of power in teaching/learning as in other close human engagements (photographer/subject, seer/seen, designer/user). He also alerted us to the changes of meaning and the altered nuances of power when these relationships are mediated online. Hidden in his talk I felt were some deep questions about the nature of professional work - photography, teaching, design - when technology equips and then exhorts people to 'do it themselves'. Whether taking selfies or taking part in self-directed learning, we are dispensing with a whole class of relationships with more capable others, or defining them as a supplement - a premium service - instead of a critical term in what was once a relational activity. To 'work' as an educator increasingly means to facilitate learners' engagements with various systems within which their identities, their knowledge and their capabilities are distributed, and not to engage with them in a relationship of concern for who they are becoming.

Laura's keynote, Inequality in Higher Education, offered us a wide-ranging interrogation of learning technology through the lens of social justice. She showed us how the question of what kind of society we want to live in is continually posed and (partially) answered by the work we do as educators. To give an example with which Laura and I have both been involved, we can ask how our work as open educators impacts on the distribution of educational opportunity. When we ask that question we quickly realise that open is not enough - that the wealth of new opportunities to learn are being taken up overwhelmingly by people who are already well resourced and well motivated. Where there is systemic inequality only systemic redress - organised investment in those who have been disadvantaged - can change the balance. Laura reminds us that while our day-to-day work rightly focuses on helping individuals to meet their aspirations, in the long view we are also helping to build a world in which everyone can thrive. She reminds us that education is care, and that care costs.

Whether our work as educators moves in the direction of social justice and human wellbeing is not something we can fully determine as individuals. Our actions are constrained by political and economic - and nowadays by associated technical - systems. But those contexts change, sometimes in extraordinary ways. The Corbyn train arrives, unannounced. Endlessly-announced transformations fail to arrive (see David Kernohan's brilliant recent post on the e-learning hype industry) or when they do arrive fail to take anyone where they want to go. There is nothing inevitable about how work will be organised ten or twenty years from now - that is for political action to determine. In how our work as educators is valued, the victory of quantity over quality is not pre-determined either. There is always hope. It's all to play for.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #4: 'in recovery from' the digital

I'm feeling lucky today. Just as i was preparing to write this final provocation and wondering 'what kind of recovery can I possibly offer?' a wonderful pdf landed in my intray. This report from the National Union of Students is called 'Radical Interventions in Teaching and Learning: How the partnership agenda can help create radical and inclusive learning spaces'. Alongside quotes from Paolo Freire and Nelson Mandela, it argues that:
  • a focus on students as consumers undermines the learning/teaching relationship, the ethos of collaborative knowledge-building and the capacity of learners to develop as human beings;
  • our current system of quality assurance in HE - driven by marketisation, standardisation, and human resource management - is measuring the wrong things and does not value radical, inclusive (or indeed any truly transformative) approaches to learning;
  • innovative technologies have a role to play but 'it is not the technology in itself that is transforming education and society; it is, rather, the creative ways in which people are using technology to educate and drive change'
  • 'We are moving towards a more open access environment, where access to research and teaching is more egalitarian, but also more open to abuse by market forces... the potential benefits of open and mobile access to learning resources could be marred by the profiteering of private providers or by the unfair exploitation of academic labour.'
You see how I just gave up summarising and started quoting. I am hoping to find out where this report is hosted so I can put in the link and you can read it in its entirety for yourself. I promise you, it will be time well spent.

Meanwhile, how does this tie in with what I originally planned to say today (my slides are here)? 

CC Perry McKenna:
My main message was (and is) this: if 'post-digital' means attending to agendas other than technology in education, that is surely what we need to be. There are much more important and - frankly - interesting things for developers to commit ourselves to. The NUS report highlights one of them: post-compulsory education has lost the democratising aspirations it had - however weakly theorised they may have been - as recently as ten years ago. We must ask how our institutions redress rather than entrenching inequalities of opportunity and outcome. 'Inclusivity' is the term used in the NUS report. Inclusivity (and again I'm quoting because I can't put it any better) 'not only means that teaching and learning takes account of students’ diverse backgrounds, but that we should be embracing this diversity by valuing and utilising the many different capabilities, expectations, aspirations and prior knowledge that students bring to their course'. Now digital technology can play a role here. Some kinds of disadvantage can be positively addressed in digitally rich spaces, such as sensory and accessibility problems, and problems of confidence in speaking out face to face. Providing of course there are appropriate resources, and the educational will and know-how to use technologies in this way. But other kinds of disadvantage are likely to be exacerbated, such as access to educational capital. Put simply, better-off learners come to college with better digital devices and better home-based experiences of using them for learning. So we can't afford to be blind to the role of technology, but technology is not the end-point of our development work: inclusivity is.

Looking beyond the crisis in education itself, we should be developing people who can tackle our most pressing human, economic and environmental problems, and who believe these to be their concern. As I argued in my first set of slides ('in the wake'), digital technologies are relevant to many of these probems. And as with inequalities of opportunity, we need to understand the contribution that digital technologies make to amplifying or dampening the crises around us. But as developers we need to move on from asking 'are there digital technologies in the curriculum?' to asking: does the curriculum foster an awareness of sustainability? of fairness and justice? of global citizenship? And then: what role do digital technologies play in this? We need to move on from delivering 'digital literacy' as a set of competences and ask how are students are becoming critical (and creative and empowered) in relation to practices of knowledge, and in relation to the tools they are offered to accomplish that.
 So if we better understand the ways in which digital technologies change the context for learning and development, how can we (do we need to) get over our obsession with the digital as an agenda for change? That is the last of the three questions I will ask delegates to discuss with me on Friday and that I have tried to open up in these posts:
  1. What real changes have digital technologies brought about in educational practice? ('in the wake')
  2. How do those accord with our values as educational developers? ('in response')
  3. (If we need to), how do we move on from 'digital' as a positive agenda for educational change? ('in recovery')
  Tune in to Collaborate at 0930 to follow live, or catch up with the outcomes here.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #3: 'in response to' the digital

In the previous two posts I talked about the digital 'mode of knowledge production' and the kinds of change it has brought about in educational relationships and practice. I argued that changes to the contexts of learning affect learners' relationships to their institutions and to each other and to us as educators. That changes in theory and method in academic practice, and in the content of curricula and in what is expected of graduates, are all influencing how we come to know things and to value what we know. I summarised these changes as generally making knowledge more fluid, and situations of learning more porous or 'leaky'. And I considered how traces of learning and development are easier to make and more persistent, both in the kind of records that learners make themselves and in the data trails that organisations (educational and commercial) make of them. A recent Times Higher article, for example, shows that academics and students alike are waking up to the implications of learner analytics for the relationships between students and institutions.

There are changes that I think time has shown to be less profound. The interactivity of digital media would for me be one, or the different terms used for independent learning when digital technologies are involved, though these have at various moments in the digital 'wave' seemed essential to its forward momentum. In my slides I also cautioned against substituting developments in digital technologies for political engagement with issues of equality and power, in the belief that entities such as 'the internet' or practices such as 'open sharing' necessarily entail more equal access to learning opportunity or more democratic institutions.

In this post I want to consider our response to digital transformations, and to do that in two moods, though I don't see them as distinct. One is an intellectual response or critique, and  the other is a felt response to the experience of living/teaching/learning in a world saturated with digital technologies. I wasn't originally planning to bring the second kind of response so fully into view, but a recent keynote by Audrey Watters at the ALT conference, followed by a seminar with Bonnie Stewart as part of the #scholar14 MOOC, have convinced me that it is necessary. That is, we must acknowledge our own feelings including fear, vulnerability, boredom and compulsion in relation to digital technology if we are to support students and staff in the same space. We must practice rigorous critique of the technologies we are offered to use, but also speak from our consciences and hearts, especially when we experience digital spaces being colonised by values that are antithetical to educational (and human) development.

My second set of slides is now available on slideshare. In the following slide I am wondering aloud what it feels like to think/act/be in online spaces that are simultaneously private and public, that are porous in ways we might not feel we have consented to. There is no one response, and one of the points I am making is that this feels very different depending on whether you are a man or a woman, from the global north or south, digitally and/or educationally empowered or not, and in other very personal ways.

For each of these there are negative feelings associated with either end of the axis. There is of course a middle ground where we are thoughtful, balanced, in control of our relationship with technology. Where I might feel (for example) neither fearful of interacting online, nor liable to behave disrespectfully to others. However, increasingly I seem to be able to experience both negative ends of the spectrum at the same time. In writing this keynote, for example, I am working obsessively on my slides, using Keynote and Google advanced image search, and cycling between them like my daughter's hamster on its little mouse wheel. I've just noticed that it's after midnight and I probably haven't got up from the laptop in three hours. At the same time I feel ungrounded and dispersed through the various media I am using and through the different sources I have open. I am slightly in despair at the impossible task of keeping up with all the exciting people who are blogging in this area (see my blogs to watch on the right). I also feel some guilt that I am dipping into various online discussions in order to snatch at what is useful to me immediately, rather than making my own stance visible or committing to participate over time.

I have hardly made myself vulnerable through this confession and I feel lucky that I participate online as regularly as I do without (yet) meeting with any significant abuse or trolling. But I see that many many women do experience this, from below the line responses to female columnists such as Hadley Freeman in the Guardian, to the reaction Audrey Watter received when she posted that 'Gamergate is an EdTech issue' on Hack Education. And in similar vein I understand that participating online, especially in academic spaces, feels very different if you are not English, not from the global North, not from an elite institution such as most UK universities (in a global context) are, not from a particular educational culture, not physically able, not digitally able, not a 'proper' student, (not a 'proper' academic)... Maha Bali's blog is an upbeat but sobering read on many of these issues.

So, as Bonnie Stewart has argued, we need to take care of each other in digital spaces, recognising that they engender vulnerabilities as well as opportunities. How much truer that is when the others are our students. In my final provocation tomorrow I will ask how we might recover from digital fall-out, and help our students to recover too, in ways that make us all more resilient.

Monday 10 November 2014

Post-digital provocations #2: 'in the wake of' the digital

In this post I introduce the first of three sets of slides that would have been the backdrop to my keynote, had I been doing a standard keynote at the SEDA conference. However, as this is a flipped format I am making the lecture material available in advance, so that we can use the live session for discussion. The first topic I have called 'in the wake of' the digital, exploring the idea of 'post' to mean 'after' but 'not yet done with'.
You will find my slides on slideshare and my slides with audio on youtube. In these slides I look at some specific features of networked digital technologies from the perspective of their development up until 2014. I review the impact of these new means of production on academic practice, thinking in terms of educational content, context, theory and method. Finally I conclude that - while there are specific affordances of digital media for learning and communicating ideas, and specific opportunities presented by digital data at scale - the most significant overall impact for educators is to make learning settings and events more porous (leaky).
CC0 public domain license:
In my next post and slide set I continue the water theme and look at what that feels like - for learners and for educators - and how we develop a critical response to these changes.