Technology and ideology

I’ve just been reading a very interesting article by Alan Amory. ((Amory, 2010) Education Technology and Hidden Ideological Contradictions. Educational Technology & Society, 13 (1) 69-79 for those of you who like references.)  His argument is that educational technology, as we use it in higher education is driven by a distinctively neo-liberal mindset that reinforces the status quo, rather then doing anything to promote radical change, or indeed doing very much to promote learning. While acknowledging that learning technologies need not be used this way, he describes reusable learning objects as being based on “totalitarian ideologies of instruction”. I think what he means by this is that they present learning as a sort of “jigsaw” that can be assembled into a picture, which itself has been defined by the status quo. In other words they don’t easily allow for re-interpretation into a new picture. He describes learning management systems (like Blackboard) as “observation and control systems” and blended learning as “perpetuating the past” by simply bringing technologies into existing courses without making any pedagogical change.  On the whole, I’m inclined to agree, although I’m not sure I blame the technologies for the way they’re being used.


To steal his rather nice phrase, it promotes learning from technology, rather than learning with technology.  He goes on to argue for a much more social approach to learning – that we should see technologies as tools rather than objects, and use them to encourage students to work collaboratively to produce new learning, which of course sits quite comfortably with the Student as Producer project here at Lincoln. We certainly don’t want to see students as consumers of a rather ill-defined “educational product” that they pay £9000 (or whatever) for? I’m not going to get into the question of exactly what the cost of a degree covers, since I can’t see that you can buy something that you do yourself, such as learning. But Amory’s argument suggests that universities should principally be providing a space where people can learn socially, a space which may or may not be digital, although these days I would expect it to have quite a significant digital component.


The problem is of course that LMS’s aren’t often used to support social learning. Many would say, rightly, that they’re not designed to, but most of them do have some features which could be used to encourage it. Blackboard has wiki tools, and discussion groups for example, but these are still usually tutor led. Amory suggests creating learning spaces in virtual worlds, where students and tutors can work together to identify and resolve problems related to the discipline, I can see how that might work in theory, although I haven’t seen any virtual world software that is nearly accessible (or robust) enough to be deployed on an institutional scale, (although I  suppose they don’t need to be 3D worlds like Second Life – they could just as well be text based). The theory is, and I admit to over-simplifying here, that students and tutors form social networks, based on a shared interest in the subject. The members of the network then work together to identify and resolve problems of importance to the discipline. Which is all very well, but it doesn’t get us away from education as a commodity. Marks are a commodity which are exchanged for another, academic work. How do we measure individual student’s contributions for assessment purposes in this kind of learning? Does it matter? More to the point of this post, how can we get the kind of social networking Amory describes inside an LMS or VLE?


Educational Technology Horizons

I’ve been reading the NMC “Horizon Reports” for 2009 and 2010 recently. These are surveys of new technologies that may have some impact on education in the next few years and they’re quite interesting reading. Here are some of the key points.

1) Mobiles

Might possibly have some value. However, as not a few other bloggers have pointed out, things like the iPad are essentially devices for consumption of information, not for production. If we’re serious about research engaged teaching, that is students doing something  collaboratively (ideally)  and writing it up, then I’d guess we still have some way to go. (That said, I’m completely blown away by my iPod touch, which I think is the best small computer I’ve ever seen).  Not that there’s anything wrong with consumption either.  You have to start learning somewhere and reading or watching some multimedia is as good a place as any. Which brings me on to

2) e-books.

There is obvious potential in being able to carry collections of documents around in the pocket, but I’d like to see better annotation tools. If you could use applications like Zotero or Refworks to create electronic card indexes of your references and concepts I think this might be the next killer app. In truth this probably isn’t far away and would go some way to shifting them more to the production side.

3) Cloud computing.

Well, it’s already happening. The OU has moved to Google Apps for its students which will put Microsoft’s nose out of joint. Or will it? There’s a huge cloud of inertia to shift first. For example I’m currently working on a paper with a colleague at a remote campus. Google docs seems ideal for sharing the document, but I’ve found it’s almost impossible to get my colleagye to remember their password, and to stop e-mailing multiple versions of the same paper. It will come, I think but it will take longer than we expect.

4) Open Content.

Not really technology, but there has been encouraging signs that this is being taken up by UK universities, largely encouraged by the JISC funded Repository Start Up and Enhancement programme. What I like about this is that it does encourage production and sharing of work and I think it will really make a difference to the way we think about how we access academic work. There are some issues to be resolved, not least that of quality. Should judgements be made about what we put in repositories, and who makes those judgements? Librarians? Well, they do make judgements about what goes in university libraries, I suppose, although these should be informed by requests from faculties.

Among the other technologies the Horizon reports identify are “simple augmented reality”, “gesture based computing”, “visual data analysis”, “geo everything”, “the personal web”, “semantic aware applications” and “smart objects”. With the possible exception of the personal web, all of these seem to me to have value for specific disciplinary niches, and as I probably won’t know what I’m talking about I won’t go on. (No, I know that doesn’t usually stop me!)  I include the “personal web” in this group because I do think that’s a different sort of niche. A lot of people still seem to me to be very reluctant to engage with this kind of thing, and are horrified by the idea of putting anything about themselves on the Internet. Media stories about identity theft don’t help of course, but as I’ve said before, we can’t be far from a time when not being findable on the web is regarded as the exception. If that’s so then technologies that can keep track of the media we post about ourselves will become quite important tools in sifting through this information. Because there will be LOTS of it.

The question is of course, what should we in educational development be doing about this stuff? I think (hope) we have learnt by now that we can’t just ram new technologies down academics throats, so the question is how do we encourage people who are short of time (and possibly short of inclination) to experiment with it?

University Web sites

As the person with responsibilty for managing our department’s web site, I found this post on the EDUSERV blog of considerable interest (Although what WERE they thinking of with the attached slideshow’s colour scheme? I found the bright yellow text on a bright red background decidedly “headacheogenic”!)

To get back to the point though, I do find it very difficult to compromise between the needs of external users and those of internal users. Trying to meet both of these rendered the old site a complete mess, so I’ve now redesigned it with the underlying philosophy that it is essentially an advertisement for the department. (Think a 30 second TV commercial) That doesn’t really meet the needs of internal users though, so ultimately I think we’ll provide a second web site based on a WordPress Blog for Internal users so colleagues can add their own content.

And as a completely irrelevant aside, isn’t it strange that WordPress’s spellchecker didn’t object to “headacheogenic” but did object to “spellchecker”?