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.