Monday, 6 February 2012

The technoflattening of education

What is it to be techno-flattened? My definition is:
"to have the variety of human experience attenuated in the name of functional equivalence and labour-saving."
What does that mean? It means that the experience of 'doing everything with a computer' is less rich than the variety of experiences that one would have were you not to use a computer: writing and sending a letter is a richer experience than writing and sending an email; face-to-face meetings are richer than online meetings, and so on. Of course, sending an email is labour-saving, and much of the experience of writing a letter which is 'attenuated' might be regarded as a 'waste of time' (queuing at the post office, pen not working, etc). But nevertheless, something is clearly lost in terms of the richness of experience.

Is this a problem? I'm wondering if it may be. Much of the richness of experience is drawn from the variety of activities which we undertake. Even now, email co-exists with the telephone - and often face-to-face contact. But increasingly, the computer is at the centre of things. And the experience of the computer, importantly, is the same whatever we happen to be doing. It is basically:

  • Screen
  • Keyboard
  • Mouse/trackpad/touch
That is what we directly perceive, and all we have to do is manage the purpose to which we wish to coordinate our actions with the computer. All we see is that THE SCREEN CHANGES! I have wrestled over whether this single point of coordination is a good thing. Certainly, when we did work on the Personal Learning Environment, the idea of a single point of coordination under the control of the user was seen as a good thing, avoiding the cognitive overload involved in having to coordinate too many types of action with too many types of tools.

But now I'm not so sure, and I'm certainly sure that the homogenizing of educational experience through the computer is not a good thing. 

I've been thinking about this particularly with regard to the iTEC project, which has sought to make technical interventions in education around the construction of 'innovative technological scenarios'. Each of these involves technology in one form or another. But the most revealing result of this process of scenario creation is the fact that all the scenarios appear to be the same. Because the computer is introduced in various guises (as a homework collaboration tool; as a data collection tool; as a means of engaging with outside experts; etc) in situations which would not normally require a computer, the richness of the experience of the not-with-computer homework task, or the not-with-computer data collection task is attenuated with the experience of "screen, keyboard, mouse". And no matter how much one attempts to be innovative with the scenarios, the inevitable branding of "screen, keyboard, mouse" has an inevitable (and rather dull) ring to it.

This I think is a problem, and it raises the deeper issue of the place for technology in education. Variety of experience is a fundamental component of education. But in our current conception of technology which is very user-focused, where the technology directly serves the learning process, the variety of experience is under threat. One might hope that teachers with iTEC scenarios will have the ingenuity to create rich experiences, although there is a risk that the scenarios themselves (and the technology) might get in the way of this. 

But technology is with us. It is part of the environment within which we try to educate our children. Its effects are highly complex, but one of the principal effects has been to challenge the meaningfulness of what happens in the classroom over what happens online (my daughter constantly complains that she could learn more from Wikipedia). There is nothing new in this. Education has always tried to justify the meaningfulness of what happens in the classroom in comparison to daily life. 

But schools are more like families than Wikipedia. They are not primarily instruments for information transfer - Wikipedia can, as my daughter knows, do that much better. They are instead social microcosms - safe places where human attachments can be explored against the context of norms and rules. We might think that even those processes can happen online in Facebook - but Facebook is no more similar to school life than to family life.  

The significance of this is that within families, schools and the online world communications are exchanged and different kinds of meaning are established. When my daughter complains about what happens in school it is because she cannot reconcile the meaning of what happens in the classroom with what happens online. In some ways, technology could serve to make that reconciliation of meanings even more difficult by being forced inappropriately on education - just as well-intentioned attempts to teach ICT actually led to one of the most disastrously boring subjects on the curriculum! 

Technology is clearly tied-up in the process of meaning-making. But Facebook may feel more meaningful because the coordination mechanisms within Facebook work better than the coordination mechanisms within the classroom. And those coordination mechanisms in the classroom (classroom management by teachers, curriculum, timetable, etc) appear less effective in the light of the effectiveness of technology. I believe the key is to see the link between meaning-making and coordination. Seeing that would mean that we wouldn't make the mistake of thinking that we have to put Facebook into the classroom (because that would confuse the coordination situation, not strengthen it), but rather we have to use technology to establish more effective coordination mechanisms in the classroom which can also serve to create conduits of meaning between the form of life in the school and the form of life online.

In short, the problem lies in the dissonance between different domains of meaning. The challenge is to help resolve the dissonance whilst maintaining the richness of the variety of experience in school. 

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