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.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

'Post-digital' provocation #1: mode of production

I've been asked to provide a 'flipped keynote' for the SEDA conference 2014, which this year is called 'Academic Development in a Post-Digital Age'. You can find the abstract for my keynote and more about the conference here.
As homework for the live keynote - and for interest if you have arrived here and don't plan to be at the live session at all - I will be posting three short slide sets with audio and notes. These will follow the three ideas I outline in my abstract: that we can understand 'post' to mean in the wake of the digital event, whatever that is/has been, in response to the digital, and/or in recovery from it.
Malene Thyssen,
By way of an introduction, today I want to examine my own assumption that the 'digital' (as in 'the Digital Age') is a mode of production. Economic theorists have coined the term 'cognitive capitalism' to distinguish today's economic relations from (say) mercantile or industrial capitalism, when - respectively - trade and conquest, and advances in industrial technologies, were the drivers of profit. Today, they argue, in a globalised economy and at an advanced stage of technologisation, innovation and information technologies are key. The same ideas may be more familiar as the 'knowledge economy', though I would question the optimism with which this term has generally been used (see for example this interview with Keri Facer from 2010). Whether or not we accept these overarching accounts of our C21st economy - which after all still has to produce real means of subsistence and shelter and good health as well as good ideas - still it seems to me beyond argument that digital technology is changing modes of academic and intellectual production. Research, sharing and disseminating ideas, putting ideas to use, teaching and developing new thinkers and innovators - none of the core functions of academic labour has failed to be radically changed.

These changes in the mode of academic production are accompanied by many social and organisational changes. I have argued before that digital technologies have been complicit in various political agendas for higher education and therefore in the present crisis of legitimacy that we face. Without digital systems, politicians might aspire to (but surely could not deliver) the degree of academic surveillance, rational planning, the obsession with metrics, or the casual assumption that our best measure of success is how well we provide 'skills for a knowledge economy'. (David Kernohan has blogged persuasively about this recently). Without their ease with just-in-time, just-for-me digital information, I wonder whether students would have been as quickly persuaded that higher education is essentially another customer service? These are the outcomes of policies, not technologies, but changes to the mode of production makes new kinds of policy possible. (New kinds of radical thought and action are also of course more possible, though I have deliberately chosen an article about the use of social media that is equivocal in its conclusions.)

I suppose what I am confessing to here is that I am a materialist. I'm still not sure exactly what that means in relation to a mode of production that is manifestly immaterial in most of its actions and effects. But I think it's to do with avoiding both idealism (thoughts and ideas exist independently of the medium in which they are expressed) and technological determinism (access to the internet will overturn educational disadvantage). It's attending to the specific technologies of this revolution, and the specific new educational arrangements and relationships that they are bringing about.
If we are 'post-digital' that cannot mean that the digital mode of production is over and done with, any more than industrial technologies are over and done with. We continue to depend on fossil fuels and mass production, even if they are deployed largely in distant lands, and we continue to increase our  reliance on digital networks and devices in everyday life. Perhaps, though, we are at the end of the beginning of the information age, equivalent to the point in the industrial revolution (about 1860?) when technologies that were no longer alarmingly new were adopted at scale (railways, electrification, production lines). Perhaps the first extraordinary digital wave has rolled over us and as we surface and catch breath we can see that this turbulence is the new reality - it is still rolling us forwards - and we have to find some other way of characterising what is new.

There will be more about academic development specifically in what follows, so please don't be put off by the theoretical flavour of this provocation. I'm just confessing my biases before I start. I welcome comments, contributions, tweets and emails, which I will incorporate into what follows. In particular I'd like to ask you: what do you understand the 'digital' in the 'digital age' to be?
Key influencers - though in no way responsible for my views - include Manuel Castells, Richard Hall, Laura Czerniewicz. Since first posting I've had my attention drawn to a recent SRHE conference on 'The Digital and the Material' - this twitter stream by Ibrar Bhatt references work by Martin Oliver, Donna Lanclos and Lesley Gourlay (among others) and considers how virtual technologies constraint/structure behaviours in the material world.