Educational futures, educational technology and digital social media

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 7 July 2010.

The application of Futures’ planning and thinking in the development of higher education is receiving more attention, and in particular is catalysing researchers and practitioners to discuss frames of reference, methods, and ethics for thinking about futures’ planning. The work of FutureLab on Beyond Current Horizons, was synthesised by Facer and Sandford in addressing technology futures. They critiqued much that was taken-for-granted in the use of educational technology, noting that (p. 75): “the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and continued progress towards a universal, technologically-rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric”. As I noted elsewhere in challenging positivist views of technology, Facer and Sandford ‘ask much more critical questions of “the chronological imperialism of accounts of inevitable and universal futures”. This accepts the complexity of the use of technology, of societal development, and of political economy, and asks us to consider some of the ethical imperatives. In addressing these we have a chance to re-think our values.’

Our humane values are critical in defining the theory, methods and ethics of futures-oriented research in education. In the introduction to his latest e-book, The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History, Richard Slaughter highlights the values-driven, hopeful opportunities that underpin an integral approach. An integral approach might enable societies to take a respectful and generous stance to the interpretation of and engagement with the “‘signals’ that are being constantly generated within the global system, [and therefore] as we become aware of their import and actively respond to them, then a deeper, richer, understanding emerges”. Slaughter’s work is important for education, and those who work with technology, because his integral approach highlights the importance of taking a proactive role in critique and action, around transitions to new ways of being and living, in the face of climate change, peak oil and the dominant, neoliberal ideology of political economy. Education has to work with these external issues in planning its possible futures. One strand of this that needs greater critique is technology and digital social media.

Slaughter asks two important questions in addressing these issues.

  1. How can so many contributions fit together within a coherent whole?
  2. How can many different kinds of truth be honoured and adjudicated?

In respecting complexity, pluralism and difference, the onus is on us all to look at ways of planning for transitions rather than waiting to adapt to shock. This may involve taking on-board relevant historical lessons, in order to stand for a position of “Science and technology + foresight + moral courage”. This interrelationship of science and technology, humanism and the liberal arts is critical in any approach to futures’ thinking, in particular because difficult, inclusive, ethical decisions need to be made around the pressures of population, affluence and the environment, and the possibilities of technology.

One of the questions with which I have come away is how are those of us involved in educational technology and digital social media actively engaged in futures work? Is there a sense in which these communities are futures literate? How do these communities of practice enable the critique of technology and the possibilities for the uses of educational technology, in both the process of creating the future and the outcomes of those processes [what is actually done as well as how this happens]? In engaging with social media and in touting personalisation, how are we looking at values and customs in common?

I return to this issue of values because it is important and is one that technologists ought to address, especially in underpinning our activity and what we do in the world. In part, this reflects Holloway’s “power-to”, and his focus on doing as an emancipatory activity, in direct opposition to others’ “power-over” us and our labour. Doing and activity are crucial, but need to be seen in light of our shared humanity. Dowrick reminds us that the ways in which we live our lives should be driven by humane values that can help us overcome disruption, namely: courage; fidelity; restraint; generosity; tolerance; and forgiveness. Those of us who drive forward the use of technology has a duty to foreground these issues in ensuring that we do not contribute to individual alienation, the taylorisation of work, or the fetishisation of tools.

In engaging with technology and social media, I see decisions being made to enact our values. In this way there is space for activism, and the creation of pedagogies of excess, supported by the use of technology and social media. However, we need to ask more often what do “we” want to be and why? Why do we want to do what we do with technology? How does, for example, Twitter enable our shared humane values? How do we allow Facebook’s form and function to (de-)humanise us? Who is marginalised/empowered on-line in a virtual learning environment, and what does this outcome say about us? Do we allow mobile technologies to enable or prevent us from doing and creating? How does our understanding of the present and our work with educational technology in the present enable us to plan for the future? My use of “we” and “our” and “shared” is critical.

Analysing the present is an important issue. Do we properly understand why and how technology and social media are being (ab)used in the present, and how and why they help us to act/react now? Or are we simply accepting dominant hegemonic positions about the use of technology in education? When we make statements about engagement, participation, marginalisation do we critique those statements? How do we use those statements, and our approaches and needs, underwritten by our core, humane values, to help communities of practice to develop their own solutions to problems? I see this as a starting point for enabling a discussion about futures that utilises technology to enhance our humanity, and to move us from the fetishisation of the digital towards communal solutions to significant problems.

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