Forget the technology and focus on the human

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 2 September 2009

I recently commented on the work of the 52 Group on post-digital futures. They argued that “We are moving towards a postdigital age where the tools driven by the microprocessor are common to the extent to which they will no longer be noticed”. This aligns with the view of Russell Davies that: “There are a lot of people around now who have thoroughly integrated ‘digitalness’ into their lives. To the extent that it makes as much sense to define them as digital as it does to define them as air-breathing. ie it’s true but not useful or interesting.” As educators, learning technologists, managers, our hang-ups about tools and technologies, trends and horizons, risk deflecting us from meaningful conversations about learning and teaching, and personal/social empowerment.

In fact, conversations about people, communities, associations and outcomes ought to be central to our discussions around the role of higher education. Technology should only ever be secondary. It is unfortunate that, according to the 52 Group, “the speed of the change [to a digital, Web 2.0 world] has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital.” This is important because digital and analogue tools offer possibilities to focus conversations around issues like: agency; emancipation; involvement; enterprise; and democracy. The key is integration into user-defined environments with a focus on the human.

We need to open up a space for deliberation around a vision for HE, in terms of what our institutions stand for and what our curricula look like. From there we can begin conversations about the processes, procedures, technologies, organisation and information that we need to support that vision. Educational technologists and practitioners need to shift the discussion away from tools towards the types of learning/pedagogic spaces that are good-enough to help staff and students make appropriate decisions and take action.

An element of this deliberation is the extent to which students and their/our perceptions of technologies should be driving the agenda. It can be argued that students and technologies are too fleeting and transient in their lifecycle/existence within HE to drive decision-making about sustainability agendas or effective pedagogic practice. They are important indicators of possibility within a system [HEI], but they offer much short-term variation and uncertainty within that system [HEI]. Decisions should be made about technologies, services etc., in order to manage uncertainty as it trends, but not to second-guess its management based on immediate whim.

Balance in the system demands that we align meaningful data from both students and technological horizon-scanning, with the strategic role of HEIs, and their visions, cultures, subjects and staff. The latter are more grounded and secure in anchoring institutional planning for sustainability and capability-building than either the latest technology trend or the technological expectations of current students. HEIs need conversations with students about practices, in order to empower those students to negotiate decisions about technologies as one strand of a conversation with staff about their curriculum. We risk skewing the debate over the purpose and future of HE if we base strategy and implementation either on the primary authority of the student as service user/client [validated by the NSS], or on reductionist/populist technological solutions, neither of which can anchor deliberation.

One risk is that a prevalent or dominant view of technology, in terms of what is and isn’t *enabled*, is validated above wider academic ownership and innovation. We also risk focusing on the shiny and the new, or what’s just over the horizon, rather than thinking about how trends can be embedded within an enabling environment, in order to offer flexibility going forward. Rather than a contested PLE-VLE debate, which fetishises tools and services, we desperately need to re-focus our thinking on developing both curricula and a vision for HE with staff and students, that are fit-for-purpose beyond 2010. As a result we may ditch the digital to debate the implications of a post-digital view.

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