Values and educational technology: away from a Whiggish view

*Originally posted at Learning Exchanges on 28 February 2010

Whiggish stories

In the Whig Interpretation of History, Herbert Butterfield railed against the congratulatory nature of that strand of British History which prioritised narratives and analyses of human progress. In particular, Butterfield highlighted “analyses” that stressed a move away from ignorance and over-bearing monarchical power towards prosperity, science and representative democracy. This was epitomised by the success of the Whig party in its opposition to the apparently corrupt, Jacobite regimes of the later Stuarts in the seventeenth century, and then in harnessing parliamentary democracy for the progressive benefit of England and, more broadly Imperial Britain.

In the round, Whiggish approaches to any study are reductionist in that they view any question at issue, through a determinist lens. In historical terms Butterfield argued that:

It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present; and though there may be a sense in which this is unobjectionable if its implications are carefully considered, and there may be a sense in which it is inescapable, it has often been an obstruction to historical understanding because it has been taken to mean the study of the past with direct and perpetual reference to the present. Through this system of immediate reference to the present day, historical personages can easily and irresistibly be classed into the men who furthered progress and the men who tried to hinder it; so that a handy rule of thumb exists by which the historian can select and reject, and can make his points of emphasis.

Positivism within a dominant discourse/ideology is therefore championed at the expense of complexity or acceptance of the validity of minority views, and this tends towards a kind of moral relativism, where particular cultural values or approaches carry more power. Moreover, it tends towards a relegation or negation of wider contextual issues because the past, in this case, is always framed through present concerns.

There is a danger that some within the strategy or management of educational technology demonstrate similar determinist or Whiggish approaches, especially in framing how specific tools or media are revolutionary or will deliver specific benefits, and are creating uncontested opportunities for personal or economic growth. The latter is demonstrated within, for example, the Government’s approach to Higher Ambitions, or HEFCE’s Online Learning TaskForce There is a tendency for the “how” to be elevated ahead of either the “why” or the constraints imposed by social or political economy.

As part of a rejoinder Selwyn (p. 67) has recently argued that we need to address “educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern.” This picks up on the comments of Ravenscroft (p.1) that practitioners need to consider “the current technological innovations as players in an evolving paradigm, and not necessarily clear solutions to well-understood problems.”

A classic example is the globalisation debate. Globalisation, ostensibly driven by trade and power over resources, has occurred using technology throughout human history. However, claims are made for the efficacy of social media as dislocating this paradigm, to support citizen participation and global networks. But is there really evidence for how such media are changing society, politics or political economy? Did it stop war in Iraq? Has it forced openness within the Chilcott enquiry? Has it led to changes in global or national banking regulation? It has given us insights into elections in Iran and earthquakes in China, but has it significantly changed what we personally or collectively value and why? Has it changed the meaningful action we take as a result? Or are we seeing just another set of tools owned by dominant players within dominant paradigms, which are predicated upon ideologies of growth and development? Are the millions of people now accessing social networks re-engineering and re-valuing themselves and their associations? Are they taking new action as a result of this belonging? If not, is this use of social media truly revolutionary? [See Säljö,p. 54]]

A revolutionary context?

The recent TLRP Digital Literacies Research Briefing made several claims for the extraordinary opportunities offered by social media and new technologies. It highlights the fragmentation of boundaries between operations, where the separation of concerns is fading: “The distinction between software engineering and the use of ‘applications’ has become more blurred” (p. 5). One result is seen in writing (p. 6), where innovation in user-control of new media forms is deemed “revolutionary”, as: texts become intensely multimodal; screens become the dominant medium; social structures and relations are undergoing fundamental changes; and constellations of mode and medium are being transformed. It is argued that “the consequences of this shift are profound”.

Selwyn (p. 66) is clear that we need more work on the place of social media in the idea of the university and the broader culturally-driven idea of the purpose of education: “the academic study of educational technology has grown to be dominated by an (often abstracted) interest in the processes of how people can learn with digital technology… the academic study of educational technology needs to be pursued more vigorously along social scientific lines”. To an extent this connects into the musings of the recent Horizon Report 2010 (p. 5), which stated that “digital literacy must necessarily be less about tools and more about ways of thinking and seeing, and of crafting narrative”.

Still the outcomes of the Horizon Report tend towards uncontested terrain. For example, on gesture-based computing it is argued that “Because it changes not only the physical and mechanical aspects of interacting with computers, but also our perception of what it means to work with a computer, gesture-based computing is a potentially transformative technology. The distance between the user and the machine decreases and the sense of power and control increases when the machine responds to movements that feel natural” (p. 26). At issue here is how to make best use of this technology, rather than a sense that contextual complexity may be at issue, and that growth in power and control might be problematic or inequitable for some.

It is interesting to review the TLRP outcomes on profound transformation in light of Crook and Joiner’s view (p. 1) that institutional or societal capacity and capability for take-up are crucial. They note “a recurring discomfort that these translations are not more widely taken up – that the education system fails to embrace new technologies with adequate enthusiasm.” This view sits uncomfortably against, for example, the outcomes of the PEW Internet and American Life project, Social Media and Young Adults report, which argues (p. 20) for transformation because “Access to the internet is changing. Teens and adults no longer access the internet solely from a computer or laptop. They now go online via cell phones, game consoles and portable gaming devices in addition to their home desktop or laptop computer”. More deterministic views can be seen in the work of Curtis J. Bonk: “Seems everywhere I go to speak, those in the audience ultimately ask about administrators, staff, and instructors who are more hesitant and what do to about them. When I get home, I send them the missing chapter titles “Overcoming the Technology Resistant Movement.”

The PEW report is interesting in that it highlights how: patterns of on-line activity have not changed significantly since November 2006; the majority of increases in content creation are to be found in older adults; and, on-line purchasing is a key practice amongst younger adults and teens. It then argues (p.5) that “the internet is a central and indispensable element in the lives of American teens and young adults.” It is interesting then to think about the contested reality of the “shift towards more diffused creative participation” outlined in the TLRP Digital Literacies Research Briefing (p. 10), in light of Crook and Joiner’s reporting (p. 2) of “the doubtful state of evaluation around these issues of impact.” At issue here is either projection from the present into an idealised future, just as Butterfield argued Whigs projected from the present onto the past, or a focus on a promise of educational technology that clouds or ignores the complexities of reality.

Alongside impact, another factor that is missing from much of the evaluation is value. What do we value as individuals, communities or societies? Is this simply to be reduced to statements around: access or empowerment or participation, which are all hugely complex and contested terms; or democracy and economic growth, which are problematic given the potential socio-economic disruptions that are on the horizon; or deeper human traits around forgiveness, respect, fidelity, trust, tolerance and generosity, which are much more philosophical?

A problematic context

I like Selwyn’s argument that we need a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural contexts within which educational technology is deployed. This connects into potential disruptions to our socio-cultural fabric, and political economy, which I have outlined elsewhere on this blog as riders to a discussion of resilient education [linked to Joss Winn’s analysis of peak oil, climate change and HE]. It might be argued that these problems are being amplified, as recent reports highlight issues around UK energy availability and costs, public sector debt and the affect of a zero growth economy.

Educational technology does not exist in a vacuum. Alongside the fact that our use of technology within and beyond institutions is pragmatically bounded by energy availability, security, and the impact of debt on HE teaching budgets, there is an ethical imperative to discuss the impacts of our use of technology on our wider communities and environment. Tim Jackson, in his keynote on The Rebound Effect Report, highlights the Ehrlich-Holdren sustainability equation: I = P.A.T, which tells us that the impact of human activities (I) is determined by the overall population (P), the level of affluence (A) and the level of technology (T). Jackson argues (p. 3) that “The IPAT equation appears to offer us broadly three ways of achieving overall reductions in energy demand (for example). One, reduce the population – not a popular choice. Two, reduce the level of affluence (again not high on political priorities). And three, improve technology: specifically to increase the energy efficiency of income generation, to reduce the energy intensity of the economy.”

However, a key problem is the dynamic of efficiency vs scale. Jackson notes (p. 3) that “Technology is an efficiency factor in the equation. Population and affluence are scaling factors. Even as the efficiency of technology improves, affluence and population scale up the impacts. And the overall result depends on improving technological efficiency fast enough to outrun the scale effects of affluence and population.” So these factors are not independent and “appear to be in a self-reinforcing positive feedback between affluence and technology, potentially – and I emphasise potentially – geared in the direction of rising impact” (p. 6).

So we have a very complex issue that frames growth, affluence, technology use and impact on the environment. There should be no escaping this issues by educational technologists and strategic managers, in their arguments for more technology [and hence more energy use] and for growth. In fact, it is possibly the ethical use of technology that demands deeper evaluation. The recent DEMOS report on Building Character highlights a view (p. 23) “that the ‘flow of novelty’ generated by today’s market-based, consumer societies is so strong that higher levels of commitment and self-discipline are needed to ensure that long-term wellbeing is not sacrificed for short-term gratification. As Offer puts it: ‘Affluence breeds impatience, and impatience undermines wellbeing.’” What are the impacts of always-on technologies in this view? Do we understand about wellbeing? Or are we tying our view of wellbeing to access to technology? What are the affects of our evaluation, operational and strategic practices? Is this all subservient to a view of economic growth?

In terms of where the focus for investigation or development might lie, the Horizon Report 2010 highlights the importance of openness, mobility, cloud, collaboration but argues that learning and teaching practices need to be seen in light of civic engagement and complexity. Facer and Sandford move his much further in looking at technology futures (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”. They 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.

What are the values that frame our use of educational technology

Elsewhere I have argued that “Technology changes nothing without a reappraisal of the “why” of HE.” Now, I also wonder whether those deeper humane values noted above, framed by the disruptions also noted above make this much more of an imperative. In Building Character, DEMOS state (p. 23) that a focus on wellbeing is critical: “Wellbeing is about more than having an abundance of goods and services; it is also about a ‘personal capacity for commitment’.” They also highlight how this is tied to equality, motivation, agency and application: “To the extent that careers are more internally driven than externally determined, the range of internal capabilities becomes more important” (p. 25). Facer and Sandford’s analysis of Beyond Current Horizons outlines scenarios that “require us to address the questions of what it means to become human and achieve agency in changed socio-technical contexts. Such questions suggest a need to re-engage the educational technology field with educational philosophy, with questions of sustainability and with concerns around social justice” (p. 88.).

So in-part I am brought to a reconsideration of the place of social media in civil society, in terms of the ideologies that frame our interactions and the values that we hold. In Inverting The Power Pyramid, Robert Douglas argues that we need to:

stop thinking of citizens as consumers: the consumerisation of civic society generated the very imbalance of Wants and Needs which we are all now struggling to re-calibrate, in light of build a more value-rich, sustainable and wellbeing world.

He argues that this underpins the recognition that as citizens we are equal partners in a drive for change, holding both business and Government to account, Moreover, within this view, digital technologies change the game, in promoting transparency and accountability, through new networks of citizenry. For Douglas this is important because “In very simple terms, nothing works in isolation anymore.”

A view of consumption versus citizenry is central, and is tied to an ideological debate about access and growth. In terms of educational technology, it is about recognising the full impact of the tools that we implement and the contexts in which that impact takes place. Growth, in terms of economic outputs and resource-depletion, and its affect on education, need reappraisal . Is our level of consumption of technology, and hence energy, carbon and oil, reasonable? Is it ethical?

The new economics foundation report Growth Isn’t Possible has flagged some of the issues that bound this discussion:

Endless growth is pushing the planet’s biosphere beyond its safe limits. The price is seen in compromised world food security, climatic upheaval, economic instability and threats to social welfare. We urgently need to change our economy to live within its environmental budget. There is no global, environmental central bank to bail us out if we become ecologically bankrupt.

Educational technology does not sit in a vacuum, offering us participation and inclusion at low- or no-cost. This ought to be part of a deliberation around what is important to us. In The Great Transition, the new economics foundation ask “What do we value? These are questions that as a society we do not ask often enough” (p. 36). These are questions that, as educators and technology-users we do not ask often enough. For the new economics foundation this is part of a recalibration way from a zero-sum game, in which we may be unwittingly partaking.

The collective is key here. Value in this sense is determined not by what we each want for ourselves – where this might be something that impoverishes another – but by what we agree is important for all of us, as members of society, to have access to – such things as a functioning ecosystem, a right to safe shelter, access to food and water and, ultimately, well-being. It also involves acknowledging that we will have competing interests that require government leadership to manage. We will have to become comfortable with trade-offs if we are indeed to redefine value in a meaningful and egalitarian way (p. 38).

Social Return on Investment is an interesting approach for auditing this impact, and it may be that we need to consider these types of audits as educational technologists, in order to address whether the futures we consider to be of value have disbenefits attached to them. The danger of an uncritical approach to the implementation of technology-enhanced learning for growth is that we ignore the ideologies and values that underpin it. Barnett’s work on supercomplexity is important here, in highlighting uncertainty and disruption, alongside power and knowledge, and frameworks for knowing, acting and being. This might be a place to begin a conversation around values, because it is predicated on the human and humane, rather than the technology.

In their work on Beyond Current Horizons, Facer and Sandford highlight some guiding principles that usefully help educators begin to deliberate and act.

Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions

Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies

Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics

Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future

Whilst they outline some scenarios and recommendations, these principles are hugely important in a shared re-valuing and in overcoming disruption. However, they demand that we become more self-critical about our practice, and evermore contextually aware in our research. As Butterfield stated:

There is a magnet for ever pulling at our minds, unless we have found the way to counteract it; and it may be said that if we are merely honest, if we are not also carefully self-critical, we tend easily to be deflected by a first fundamental fallacy. And though this may even apply in a subtle way to the detailed work of the historical specialist, it comes into action with increasing effect the moment any given subject has left the hands of the student in research; for the more we are discussing and not merely inquiring, the more we are making inferences instead of researches, then the more whig our history becomes if we have not severely repressed our original error; indeed all history must tend to become more whig in proportion as it becomes more abridged.


One Response to Values and educational technology: away from a Whiggish view

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