Technology-enhanced learning: the emergence of ideology?

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 9 September 2009

ALT-C 2009 is billed as “in dreams begins responsibility”. The first day got me thinking about responsibility linked to rights and roles within a shared value system. This was amplified by the main messages that I took from Michael Wesch‘s keynote. Wesch highlighted the work of Charles Taylor on The Ethics of Authenticity and the emergence:

  1. of self-centred modes of self-fulfillment; and
  2. of the apparent negation of all horizons of significance.

Wesch went on to note that these two outcomes of late modernity led to disengagement and fragmentation amongst the citizenry, with individuals flocking together over specific issues rather than aggregating in persistent blocks.

This view of flocking for a purpose maps onto public policy research into associational democracy, where deliberation over issues occurs within and across associations of apparently fragmented people or groups,  and where affiliation may become a powerful connector. The work of Bauman on liquid modernity and Barnett on the need to rethink the relationship between the institution and the individual informs this complexity of this debate, as fragmentation and disengagement loom.

This view of 21st century HE is messy and complex. It aligns with both the DEMOS report on The Edgeless University, which suggests that Universities have to rethink their roles, values, and purposes, including their affiliations, and the recent SOMUL working papers, which develop the concept of parallel universities existing within the same physical and virtual space. To reiterate, the headlines here are: that managing and living within 21st century HE is messy and complex; that our working roles are messy and complex; and, that our responsibilities are messy and complex.

Wesch went on to talk about his teaching and learning strategy trying to overcome a “participation gap” between his students and his curriculum, and therefore him. The value I take from this is the power of relationships that enable learners to define themselves. New media are important because they offer the opportunity to build new relationships and ways of working, and thereby, in Barnett’s terms, to become themselves as an agent in the world. This is crucial because it aligns with the work of Winnicott on the value to the individual of an enabling environment where s/he can be held whilst making sense of the world. This act of holding is based on trust and engagement within a secure space, that is engaging and not fragmented. Both the environment and the relationships have to be good-enough to enable the individual to make sense of themselves and what they feel and want to achieve.

This is important beyond ALTC 2009 because the responsibility is for individuals at all levels within an institution, or a society, or an association, to be good-enough in their relationships to enable others to decide and act, within a set, or sets, of shared values. This accepts a range of desires, hopes, confidences, expertise etc across an institution, with that institution able to hold the individual whilst s/he makes sense of her/his place in it.

The institution’s ability to hold its associates, affiliates, staff, students etc. is tricky. However, this demands that it configures its services, technologies, information, policies around a vision of what it stands for and what it intends to do in the world. All other conversations are secondary to this, even if every university is trying to do and stand for the same thing. We still need a set of ideas that we are responsible for and can take action around. In short we need an ideology for HE, in an age when we allegedly run the risks of disengagement and fragmentation that atomise our needs and experiences.

The impacts debates for learning technologists, or e-learning co-ordinators, or heads of technology-enhanced learning because these people have the responsibility to enfranchise those they support in-line with a meaningful vision. All else, from discussions of progressive pedagogies to the technologies that support them, from how to frame enabling contexts for learning to the information we need to make decisions and the policies that are in place to govern those decisions, is secondary. In fact the clear danger is that with no ideology we become reductionist in our view of technologies, and that we predetermine the tools we will prioritise and sell based on personal whim or fragmented context. The allied danger is that we are determinist about why this tool works and that one does not. This carries over into the discussion over VLE-PLE where concepts like marginalisation, participation, democracy emerge but are not deliberated. We then risk the twin dangers:

  1. that we declare the PLE to be democratic and inclusive without assessing whether it disempowers some people, and the VLE to be controlling without appraising how it enables. One risk is technological dogma; and
  2. that we negate the very flexibility to which we claim to aspire because we close down certain avenues.

In fact, it may be that technologies are both transient and transitional in their use within and beyond curricula, for individuals and groups, as they gain and lose utility. A tool or toolset is useful where it enables me to achieve something in a specific time and increase my self-awareness and move on. However, the lack of proper deliberation over values, ideas and ideologies damages our debates over responsibility.

Technologies then amplify other more critical issues around:

  1. ideology and what we stand for;and
  2. power and control.

Technology changes nothing without a reappraisal of the “why” of HE. The responsibility of learning technologists or educational developers or heads of technology-enhanced learning is to work with senior managers on their vision for their institution, and to align technologies to that vision. Otherwise all we do is chase the next new tool or toy or trend, whilst perpetuating the mythology that innovation is stifled by large institutions and their administrators and that we are somehow better placed if we are counter-cultural.

A central element of this is to engage with Wesch’s view of the flock, and the development of a new localism that aligns tools and approaches to the needs of local communities or associations of practice. These local groups might be module teams or programme cohorts, or networks of e-learning champions, or departmental staff or faculties. An institutional ideology that enables localism augments the view of parallel universities, and of the local needs that so often pervade devolved institutions. In turn this demands flexibility in the deployment of technologies and our engagement with staff or communities of practice. Managing this flexibility demands that those responsible for technology-enhanced learning ask why, rather than how, and begin a deliberation around the ideologies they are confronting or supporting or enabling.

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