I’ve been wondering for some time now about the relationship between educational technology and academic freedom. To what extent does technology actually mandate academic practice? Scholars who have looked at technology, such as David Noble, and Jack Simmons certainly see it as a threat, although it would be more accurate to describe their concerns as being related to the way that technology is used in universities.
As Noble, in Forces of Production (1984) has argued, technology is not an independent force that shapes us, rather it is itself shaped by social forces. He uses the example of the development of the machine tool industry to show how and why the technical development of that industry in the United States of America was determined by a combination of military requirements and the imperatives of capital. Which raises an interesting question for academics. How far are the technologies we use in learning and teaching determined by their social context. I’ve observed before that many of them aren’t really all that different from what went before. It may be true that in many disciplines, PowerPoint has largely replaced the blackboard, but it’s still, at bottom a visual aid. E-mail isn’t that different from the old system of memos and letters. There is some potential for using web 2.0 tools and there are some interesting ideas out there, with a few academics getting students to edit live Wikipedia entries, for example. But equally, there are plenty of media stories about teachers (usually in schools) getting their fingers burned after posting intemperate messages on Facebook or similar sites. Although, quite who decides what might constitute an intemperate message is problematic. Clearly, insulting a named student or group of students in a public forum would be unprofessional, but blogging about a research finding that caused offence to some group or other raises different questions. If the research is sound, then surely it’s unprofessional NOT to blog about it, or at least to publish. The research question I’m slowly beginning to formulate here is whether, how, and to what extent using social technologies could ultimately compromise academic freedom. Clearly at this stage it’s rather ill-formed, but I’ll be using the blog to reflect on my thinking about this. If anyone else is interested in this, please do feel free to comment.