Learning Technology as Tax or Enabler? Reflections on an ALT Policy Board meeting

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 19 June 2010.

I went to the Association for Learning Technology Policy Board meeting at the LSE yesterday. The event was tagged with a focus on “Technology in Learning and Teaching. An Enabler or a Tax”, which was a pragmatic focus given our current fiscal concerns. It was also relevant given the current ideological attack on the public sector. This attack has been fore grounded elsewhere in relation to, for instance, pensions. It can also be seen in the general tenor of the current Administration’s approach to education through privatisation, and the increasing and uncontested role of private business in the delivery of learning opportunities.

The meeting itself left me equally frustrated and hopeful. Frustrated in that the discourse of the presentations was wholly uncritical and techno-determinist, presenting a world in which we could do more-for-less without evidencing how or why, or what the consequences would be for social or economic relations, or for those who are vulnerable. Hopeful in that the discussion at the close of the meeting offered some space for rejection of these deterministic positions.

Professor Dame Wendy Hall kicked off with a focus on the development of the web, and the move towards the semantic web, and she highlighted the profound changes that the social web had made. However, whilst she talked about the web linking people, at no point did she highlight what they were being linked for. It was as if the technology was an uncontested given, an uncritical, apolitical good, divorced from issues of social and political power, or equality of access. Moreover, there was no focus on the impact of technology on carbon emissions, or the impact on technology in HE of public sector cuts, and of peak oil or of projected energy costs.

As I reflected on the fact that we always seem to be chasing the front of the technological curve, a point highlighted by David Harvey as a key thread in the narrative and reality of capitalism, the question “what is it for?” was screaming at me. This was especially the case given the language that was used: “productivity”; “growth”; “doing more with less”;“mission critical strategic operation”;“change the way technology interacts with students in the learning process”;“leverage”;“technology-supported execution”;“growth”;“realign our working practices to maximise efficiency”. The discourse was around consumption, and learning technology being a driver and a realisation of that economic relationship. The focus was always outcome and never process, of commodification and not being.

This discourse of commodification and of uncontextualised redefinition of perceived educational success and failure was pushed to a ludicrous conclusion when one speaker argued that a 50 per cent pass rate at A-C at GCSE signalled systemic educational failure. We were told that “in the world of manufacturing” this would be unacceptable, and that the automated methods of efficiency demonstrated by, for instance, learndirect provided the solution in “driving quality up and driving effectiveness up”, whatever that means. The linking of innovation to outcomes-driven education, taking an automated and materialist approach to learning, with a focus on units of production and no recognition of the complexity of personal and educational backgrounds, was made uncritically. The discourse of the factory, of the taylorisation of education, leaves no space to deliberate what it is for beyond profit through efficiency. So what does do more-for-less actually mean?

The mantra that we were left with was that “more for less means doing things differently”. Differently did not mean asking whether our vision and our construction of what education was for was right or wrong, but that the ideology of economic growth through privatisation and factory-driven approaches was now the only game in town. What “more” actually equates to is never defined. More education? More outcomes? More profit? So the focus is on “the power technology” has for efficiency savings, rather than on the social power and agency of individuals; it is on “tutoring and not teaching”, and the de-skilling of teachers-as-mentors in the educational process; it is on flexibility and “learners as consumers”, with the very real risk that educationalists are complicit in a new reality of economic exploitation.

In a session on strategic leadership in HE, and the impact on technology, we were informed that the sector had to “grasp the opportunity of technology”, and that this would generate capacity for culture change through “smarter businesses”. Again there was no sense of what this change was for or how it would enable our values? The discourse of change was for economic growth in ignorance or in spite of major disruptions, rather than addressing our broader societal needs. Moreover, it is a very narrow view, focused on innovation at the leading-edge of the technology curve, because we are told that we need to “innovate about the business model”, and that in some unevidenced, ahistorical way we can realise a win-win of growth and inclusion.

There was no recognition shown that learning is a difficult and traumatic process, or that education should focus on equality. We were left with the view that technology, and the private sector’s involvement in it, is about equality of opportunity, with no sense that this further alienates and disempowers those who have no access to that opportunity. This then crystallises the objectification of those involved in the educational process through the mantra of “learning as consumption” or “learners as consumers”. The focus on data, on administration, on economic value, on innovation and growth, on efficiency, on more-for-less, amplifies an outcomes-obsessed, object-driven, alienating approach to higher education, with technology as a driver of this economic and determinist agenda.

The level of techno-determinism, of change, innovation, growth, chasing the next technology, efficiency, effectiveness, which apps we can sell, which OERs we can sell for “business gain”, needs to be resisted through a realisation of critical pedagogy focused on social relations. There is a morality at play here that is about more than money. The recent Centre for Alternative Technology report on a Vision for a Zero Carbon Britain by 2030 states clearly the need for us to recognise our “ethical responsibility” towards powering-down and de-carbonisation. With the threat of peak oil and energy costs, and the fact that three million children in the UK are below the poverty line, educationalists have a moral duty to reframe education and to act in society for democratic, inclusive ends. This means recognising the contested and critical nature of learning technology, rather than allowing it to be co-opted unopposed by those who wish to taylorise it.

So we need to ask more critical questions of our use of technology. What is it for? What power does it have to be socially, rather than economically transformative? How do we enact our social values, of generosity, trust, respect, co-operation, fidelity, through technology, rather than simply using it for economic growth and hiding behind the objectification of learners and learning? How do we enact an activist, scholarly society in order to challenge the dominant view of technology as a lever for growth, rather than equality? How do we resist these dominant models in our use of social media? In our development of learning communities? In our framing and delivery of the curriculum? In our actions in our communities and associations? In our contribution to institutional values, policies, practices and technologies?

I was left feeling hopeful because there was a sense that this was a political role for ALT. However, the 10 discussion points flagged as next steps for ALT were again heavy on a neoliberal economic agenda as being the accepted reality for UK HE, rather than seeing a possibility for resistance around a model of social justice. So, terms like “cost-effectively”, “the successful delivery of ‘Higher Ambitions’”; “modern learning”; “leverage”; all featured without any critique. It is this level of critique that must be central to our use of technology in HE. The recognition that this is a political project is critical, and is one that groups like the ALT Policy Board must address.

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