Thursday, 8 September 2011

Conviviality and Educational Technology

The fact that online education is still a niche (albeit growing) market tells us something. Learners want to be together: in the lecture theatre, in the coffee bar, in the halls, 'down the pub'. But increasingly we see that the instinct to be together is counter-balanced by range of factors from the high costs of education and living away from home, to what appears to be an increasing individualisation and selfishness where individual financial investment in qualifications can be 'cashed-in' later on in terms of high wages. With rising costs of education, online education is likely to seem more attractive for these ends, and consequently the lecture theatre, coffee bar and especially the halls becomes something of a luxury. The common-sense instinct for conviviality is drowned out.

In 1971, Ivan Illich documented this process in his 'Tools for Conviviality'. Technologies and institutions (which he saw as a kind of human technology), have a pattern: from a wonderful flowering where individuals are empowered (imagine how people felt with the first cars), the technology grows in power to the point that it threatens the viability of the world and alienates or oppresses the people in it (the car becomes a machine for covering the planet with concrete). Illich's recommendation is to limit the power of technology. Only by doing this can we preserve the fundamental values of human life which are only revealed in convivial existence.

When I worked on the JISC Personal Learning Environment project a few years ago, I worried about Illich's argument. Technological personalisation, I thought, might be a route to conviviality because it counter-balanced what we saw as 'over-powerful' institutional technology. In the light of Facebook, Google and Twitter, I now think this is wrong. What personal and social technology has become is merely subservience to powerful institutions other than the university (i.e. multinational technology corporations). And more to the point, social technology is really a misnomer: it's personal technology for managing social connections strategically. It is rare (although not impossible) for people to have convivial engagements through the technology.

A campaign for conviviality stands against the increasing emphasis on the individual benefits of learning as a way of justifying personal financial investment in educational institutions. As this ethos of personal exchange has gained acceptance, so institutional processes have become more focused on meeting individual needs (in the best spirit of customer service!), helping the learner to manage their 'learning account'. The increasing emphasis on self has come at a price: 'learning journeys' take place individually. Pedagogical 'group working' does not change this: group work is as much about classroom management as it is about trying to nurture a collaborative and convivial spirit; achievements are ultimately individual. If individual targets are not met, the investment that the individual sees themselves making in education is lost. In such a climate of exchange, its perfectly reasonable for learners to develop strategies for success, and to equate greater success with higher marks. This is to the detriment not only of institutional life, but society in general.

Our technological developments can (and mostly do) proceed to satisfy this increasing individualisation which is the focus of most university business plans. But equally, we could focus our attention on counter-balancing the loss of conviviality through the technologies we develop. A campaign to do this would essentially run against the individualistic and deterministic ethos of current educational thinking. But an effort to identify the tools and activities that bring people together in convivial ways is a necessary corrective to some of the pathologies that are occurring the education system at the moment.