The iPad and the essentialism of technology in education

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 8 September 2010

I was taken with Jane Searle’s paper at ALT-C yesterday on social inclusion and justice, in emerging work with disenfranchised traveller communities. She made several points that resonated for me.

  1. Individual technologies are not culturally neutral, but that it assumes a form, linked to social relationships and power, based on their enculturation. So the possibility exists for technology to be appropriated in different ways by separate communities. This connects into the work of Feenberg on techno-essentialism or determinism, where technology is seen to be an end in and of itself, or where it is seen to be neutral in mediating relationships and outcomes, rather than forming part of a socio-cultural environment that exudes power relationships and can be marginalising. Our language in negotiating with people around their use of technology is crucial in enabling them to make sense of the tools, rather than their being told what to do. A separate outcome is that we critique the immanence of technology.
  2. Engagement with technology for social or learning outcomes takes time rather than being a quick fix, or a desperate search for the next tool as a commodity fetishism. Engagement with the frameworks of participatory action research gives us a framework for using technology over-time with communities. We need to fight to work long-term with communities of practice, rather than implementing to achieve the deterministic outcomes we need to satisfy impact-assessors and leaving again. This is a real risk of technologically-driven projects that are not socio-culturally rooted – that they become part of an obsession with short-term, positivist, outcomes-driven agendas.
  3. We need to look for cracks within which we can resist the demands of coercively competitive funding mechanisms, which are linked to governmental whim or that of experts, for short-term impact measures that force us as practitioners or technologists to collude in our own alienation from the subjects of our research/practice. Meaningful impact is social and personal, and true emancipation at this level, rather than simply coercing individuals to gain qualifications for jobs, ought to be our focus.

Jane highlighted the need for a critique of social practices, focused upon the uses to which technology was put, rather than “cooing” of the latest shiny tool. For me, one example is the way in which our view of the iPad is a mirror of our broader critique. Several practitioners have begun to engage in the learning possibilities for the tool, and one programme at Notre Dame in the US is using the tool extensively. However, big questions still surround the technology.

  • Factories in which the iPad is made in China have seen an abuse of workers’ rights, physical injuries and disturbing levels of suicide. To what extent do we dissociate ourselves and our use of this tool from those outcomes? This is a logical outcome of coercive competition, cost-cutting and late modern capitalism. However, we have individual and community agency to put pressure on Apple over these outcomes, and to reject the use of the technology. What should be done?
  • The threat of peak oil is growing, as highlighted in the recent, leaked German military report. Oil and coal are embedded in the production process for the tools that we consume from abroad. Is this sustainable? In this case we also outsource our consumption of carbon to China, without bearing the full cost. Is this morally right?
  • To what extent does the use of the iPad reinforce a pedagogy of comsumption, based in-part on Apple’s focus on Apps based development? This also threatens the idea of the open web, further impacted by the recent Google-Verizon deal. Again these technologies are not neutral – by engaging with them we reinforce others’ power-over us, the dominance of their cultural perspectives, and their enclosure of what was previously more open.
  • A second angle to the pedagogy of consumption is the almost constant need to search for the latest, newest technological innovation. This obsession with the next thing, rather than on enhancing or challenging or reforming the social relationships that alienate or marginalise some, needs to be critiqued. We are so scared of falling behind [what/who?] that we risk abandoning our responsibilities to a wider set of communities, and to a planet that contains finite resources.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *