Monday 12 September 2011

Illich Revisited: Was the Personal Learning Environment a mistake?

The PLE is something which I have been involved with since near the beginning of its emergence in the e-learning world. In our work on the JISC PLE project, the words 'Personal', 'Learning' and 'Environment' were each questions that we asked. What did 'personal' mean? What did we mean by 'learning'? And what was an 'environment'? Our answers to these questions directed our thinking as we grappled with issues surrounding the 'locus of control' of learning and technology, the emergence of web services and the impact on the individual, and the burgeoning growth of technology within the institution. It lead to some thoughtful contributions about the PLE being a concept and not a thing (this despite the fact that we build a 'thing' (see ) to explore the concept! - which possibly confused everyone...)

Later on the discourse took a different form from our initial investigations, turning into a "PLE rules! Down with the VLE!".. which seemed a bit silly to us, since the VLE was clearly gaining adoption within institutions.

More recently, as I look around at the various projects still trying to 'build' PLEs including the large-scale ROLE project , I'm wondering whether there was a wrong turning somewhere. Not that there's anything wrong with ROLE... but it is hard to see the technology being of practical use to teachers. This is for the reasons I wrote about regarding the ITEC project here: The problem of 'powering-up' learners without significantly 'powering-up' teachers to cope with them seems doomed to failure.

This is leading me to go back to Ivan Illich, who was one of the principal inspirations behind the PLE idea (see His concepts of 'deschooling' and 'learning webs' bore a strong similarity to the capabilities of the technology. Now learners could be provided with the tools to self-organise. But on seeing what actually happened when we tried it, I think Illich would be the first to refine his message.

The successor to Illich's book 'Deschooling society' was his 'Tools for Conviviality', where a more detailed analysis of technology and institutions and their rise in power, and the consequent loss of convivial existence is contained. When we started the PLE it looked like the web services of Google and Facebook (which hadn't really got going at that point) could present an opportunity for learners to do the things they needed to do away from the institution. But we didn't see the fact that we were replacing one institution with another even more powerful. We also thought the experiences of engaging with these services would be convivial in the way Illich describes.

But Illich's message in Tools for Conviviality is to manage the power of technology: not to usurp it, but in certain cases restrict it. This is partly because any usurping would inevitably be done by a more powerful technology, thus increasing the pathology of technological power, not managing it.

In our global world this challenge to manage powerful technologies has some resonance. Global services do not meet the needs of local conditions. Somehow we have to find ways in which the relationship between global services and local conditions can be managed. I think this is true of the internet (google, etc) and education. Local conditions in education are the conditions of the classroom. The teacher's job is to manage relationships with whatever tools they have to-hand. The tool that e-learning has given them that can most easily address the needs of the class is usually the VLE.

The interesting thing about this is that the VLE still embodies the power relationship between teacher and student: the teacher has the editing rights, and students don't. Maybe because of this, teachers use it, because they still maintain the ability to amplify themselves and attenuate their students. If they were  to use social software (Web2.0), they lose some of this control: the power relationship become much flatter. Consequently, fewer teachers are likely to do this because of the risks of losing control of their classes.

In Illich's work on the relationship between technology and conviviality, I think he would now make some refinements in the light of the technology we have. Because it is not the power of the technology per se which does the damage to conviviality. It seems to be the flattening-out of power relations. In Illich's famous example of the spade vs. the JCB, the power relation between the boss and the workforce with spades was very marked: the boss was there to coordinate action. With the JCB, the technology enabled the worker to execute action autonomously, with the boss left to manage risks rather than coordinate action directly (and all the other workers who might once have used a shovel, to stand by and watch!). The JCB can be seen to have a flatter power differential between coordination and execution. 

I think the flat power differential can also be seen in Illich's concerns about institutions. As monasteries gained power, so the coordinating authority of the church and its relation to the essential Biblical teachings became challenged - each 'unit' became more autonomous and pathological, with increasing pathology in the centre too. But this is tricky territory because Illich has a problem with 'professions' (doctors, lawyers, etc) disempowering the population by creating 'health systems', 'welfare systems', 'transport systems', etc. But what's the real problem here? Is it the professional judgement of an individual and their authority over a patient? Or is it the fact that the 'system' created around them restricts their capacity to act in a sensible way? Here again, maybe the health system hated by Illich actually flattens the power differential between doctor and patient.

The decline of power differentials seems to me to be entropic. Therefore, we might say that with increasing entropy in power, there is increasingly chaotic social form, or pathological morphogenetic processes. Seen this way, Illich's ideas about limiting the power of technology can be translated into a program of preserving certain types of power relations through technologies as technologies change. In my work, the power relation between teachers and learners is a key case.

However, there is one important caveat to add. When talking about maintaining power relations between teachers and learners, I do not mean that we should all start lecturing and setting exams. Maintaining power relations does not mean poor positioning. It means instead empowering the teacher to position their students as they see fit in their local situation, thus reviving the convivial spirit of education.

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