Thursday, 7 June 2012

Alienation and Online Learning

I posted a while back about alienation in education (see In this post, I want to ask
"If we were determined to do something about alienation of both learners and teachers, what would we do?" 
In particular, I want to consider what we might do if we were to address the problem of alienation online. 

Online education is the big challenge for alienation: it can be just about the most alienating experience imaginable! There are so many seriously crappy online learning experiences out there. Yet they make money because students have little choice. And there, with that lack of choice, the alienation starts. But that's just the beginning... referring back to Marx's forms of alienation which I discussed in my post, we see:

  1. Alientation of students from their work - because online courses are often little more than face-to-face courses provided to an online audience, the assessed work that students do appears repetitive, mundane, utterly pointless if it were not for the fact that it might lead to a qualification, which itself only has a point because (so students are led to believe) the employment market requires it. 
  2. Alienation from study itself, whose only purpose is to pass assessments. Online courses are particularly bad at this because the 'content' is provided online, and often the 'assessment' is a test of how well learners have read and understood the  content. It only makes sense from a managerial perspective because it is relatively easily and cheaply organised. From every other perspective it is ghastly. 
  3. Alienation of student from him/herself as a social agent. This is the real 'killer' with many online courses. With alienation from work and alienation from study, notions of the student's work as being socially transformative, about making a difference, about personal development or about political commitment go flying out of the window. Even constructivist-style open courses (like MOOCs) this form of alienation is still prevalent: there, political commitment is flattened to linguistic exchanges, and individuals are atomised within a network of communication. 
  4. Alienation of the student from other students. This is where the web itself, as a network of communication, conspires with the deepest alienation of all: the atomisation of the individual.  There is no conviviality in a MOOC. At least conviviality was present in face-to-face exchanges, and students would all moan together in the pub about their terrible lectures. Online it's not like that. Indeed, the medium cannot support the sotto-voce mutter about experiences, because of the risks that their comments find their way into the forum or onto Twitter. The big brother technology has eyes everywhere.
So if we were seriously going to do something about this, about alienation, about mundane and meaningless assessment, about the pointlessness of study, about the depoliticisation of education and about deep social structuring in education, what would we do?

My starting point for thinking about this is "Conviviality" (see

But if the medium of the web atomises people, how can conviviality be possible? I believe the answer to this lies in the possibility of performance. Conviviality requires a shared purpose and a clear and simple division of labour, which is both intrinsically rewarding, and collectively meaningful. Performance can do this, but it requires skilful design and coordination. And whilst the asychronous aspects of the web are fantastically useful, the synchronous experience of online togetherness in performance can be just as memorable and powerful as real face-to-face performances. Indeed, online performance has many advantages over face-to-face performances, since it is more flexible and (potentially) easier to organise. It is this performative aspect of education which makes me passionately interested in open source hardware, the real-time web, Raspberry Pi, etc, etc. I want to see a future of performance online as a way of establishing conviviality in a society which is increasingly atomised.

So conviviality and performance may deal with alienation of the student from other students. But in dealing with this, we are already onto the alienation of the student from him/herself as a social agent. Togetherness is political. Performances can be hard-hitting, and powerful performances can be socially transformative. It requires creativity, imagination, courage. But it is achievable. 

But what then of the alienation from study itself? How can study serve a purpose? Paulo Freire started with the togetherness and conviviality, and then a recognition (conscientization) of oppressive forces. Emancipation comes through learning. Learning does not have to be the slave of mindless assessment; it can be discovered to be necessary if learners want to be free. But for this to happen, learners must explore and discover their political voices and the things that hold them back. So performance leads to politics which leads to conscientization which leads to the necessity for authentic learning.

But finally, what of the alienation of the student from their work? Is the student's work directed at assessment and certification? Here I have a less easy answer. For, conscientization might well lead to an awareness of the pointlessness of assessment and certification. But such a critical position would be subject to its own pathologies, being as it is an abstraction which potentially loses touch with the reality of the world around us. What is needed is careful and wise steering around assessment and certification. Here, the alienation of students is intrinsically linked with the alienation of teachers and managers. It is the case that rigid assessment processes would make it hard to address other forms of alienation; it is also true that some forms of assessment might encourage or reward more authentic educational practice. But whatever is done, assessment is the thing that Universities do; it is the only thing that they have to organise and certification is the only thing that they offer. Organising assessment and coordinating educational processes must lie at the heart of the institution's thinking about itself. What it must seek is the most effective, fair and efficient way to proceed. Effective so that what is assessed is authentic; fair so that learners feel supported in their individual needs; efficient so that undue costs are not incurred to be passed on to students.

But there are some simple things that could be done to address alienation of the student from their work. This has to do with innovations in feedback. Students want critical commentary and advice from the best minds who can guide them to improve their thinking and skills. Most of the time feedback (in the form of comments on a piece of work) is provided grudgingly by teachers, and often ignored or found not to be meaningful by learners. The problem here is that the positioning between the teacher and pupil is all-too-often a positioning of master-slave. Conventional 'feedback' merely emphasises this relation. But feedback needn't be like this. The innovative use of video can provide an opportunity for teachers to express themselves more fully and emotionally in the light of student's work. Such rich feedback can itself form video objects for students to study. Video and animation technology may provide a richer way of positioning communications between teachers and learners in ways where those communications are more deeply meaningful and more transformative than the grudging comment in red pen on the essay.

There is much more to say about assessment. I hope that one day the transparency of technology and the capacity to identify and share meanings in data gathered from learners will make rigid assessment regimes a thing of the past. But that day is not yet here. However, I do think that there are many innovative things that can be done to make online education a powerful solution to the fundamental questions of student alienation.

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