Thursday, 19 September 2013

I used to be an educational technologist. Now what am I about?

I have a fairly ridiculous job title: Reader in Applied Research in Educational Technology and Systems. To be fair, it's descriptive of what I have done over the last 5 years or so. I have written software (applied research) and papers (academic research) for educational technology projects funded by the EU and JISC. Now the funding from JISC is largely gone; EU funding is harder to find. Many people who I would see at conferences no longer have jobs. Even some of the people who funded my projects worry about their future. The party's definitely over (as I knew it would be a while ago:

Fortunately for me, I still have a job. For the time being. Like all UK institutions, my University is a changed place after radical restructuring following the change in University funding and the financial crisis. It's been a triple whammy for learning technologists: the discourse runs out of steam, the government runs out of money, and we worry about students running away from institutions. Fortunately, it appears that market readjustments are taking hold; student recruitment has been ok this year.

But there isn't much room for being a learning technologist any more. At least, not the kind of curious, exploratory technologist that I used to be. So what am I about? What do I think needs to be done? How should I go about it? Who pays for it?

Right now, it feels like everything's been 'done'. Moodle works well in our institution, as VLEs do in most places. (The PLE has never really taken off, has it?!) We haven't got any MOOCs yet, and perhaps it might be worth waiting a while before we decide whether to enter that space. But a noticeable development has been the increasing information-oriented management of the operations of the University. Register systems, early warning systems, quality management systems, student satisfaction systems are all growing. Each of them addresses the problems of managers in trying to control institutions. Often they introduce new problems for teachers, but that is an inevitable sign of the power imbalances in most institutions these days.

But this leads me to the thing that I'm most interested in. Whatever we think 'information' is (and that is an enormous question), it is clearly there and growing. Somehow, it is having a deep effect on the decisions that managers (particularly) and teachers make. It might be that people behave in ways to make the information fit the targets they've been given; it might be that managers select the data to justify the policies they wish to pursue; it might be that active pedagogical interventions are designed specifically to target students who appear to be failing by the databases - whatever it is, there is an interface between information and decision which is poorly understood.

It's not just the manager in the institution, or the teacher in the classroom. The explosion of the 'information environment' has presented learners themselves with challenges too. Decisions of how to approach assignments are now taken in the light of the need to negotiate systems like Turnitin. Decisions as to which course to choose or which institution to attend may be taken in the light of consultation of statistics on student satisfaction or 'key information sets'. Everywhere there is information, and information appears to be at the heart of David Willetts's policy of marketisation, whereby he hopes to establish greater diversity in the system. If he achieves the opposite and reduces diversity (which I think he will) it will be because he misunderstood information in the fundamental way that Friedrich Hayek warned us about over 50 years ago.

Where we used to talk about technology, we now have to talk about information and decision. Politics has always been the domain of decision. The critical arguments about policy demand a deep grasp on the way that individuals reach decisions. Clearly we are more irrational than game theorists, cognitive psychologists and bad philosophers would ever like to believe. But we know that decisions are taken in the light of constraints. Some constraints lie in our personal histories, childhood, relationships and education. Other constraints lie in our information environment, the politics we are immersed in, our economic situation, the dreams that we harbour and the people we love.

We used to think that computer tools were a means for individuals to organise themselves. We now see the informational context for personal organisation transform itself in the light of the emerging practices of everybody who flicks through the address books, webpages, apps and calendars of their smartphones. For a brief moment, we might have been right. But now the world looks different. Heidegger talked about the use of tools as 'reorganising the standing reserve': in other words, transforming one's personal environment to reveal new opportunities. But online tools are different, and Heidegger couldn't possibly have seen this. Online tools are transactional: they may well reorganise the standing reserve for the individual, but they also reorganise a different standing reserve for the tool supplier. Moreover, that standing reserve is made-up from the tool users! Every individual use of a tool affects the environment for decision of a tool provider. Under these circumstances, what price technology? Heidegger's bleak assessment of technology as 'enframing' may well have been right when he says: "Enframing means the gathering together of the setting-upon that sets upon man"

Tool suppliers embody this. They bank information harvested from their users. That is the way they manipulate their standing reserve. The end-user has no knowledge of the standing reserve of the supplier, and they certainly have no knowledge of the mechanisms of information banking. The profits of the supplier are insidious and appear to do no harm. Yet economies crash, global corporations pay no tax and nations undergo enormous political upheaval.

We need to know more about this. Technology can help in the process of understanding the process we are caught in. People need to own their own tools; they should have access to the kind of analytical power that currently only the big data giants have. But to understand what is happening is to understand how our decisions are shaped by our information environment. It is to understand how tools have become almost "parasitical" on users; how 'servitisation', whilst appearing to democratise access to technology, actually is a one-sided bargain which maintains the hegemony of the global elite at huge cost to the poor.

What this is really about is freedom, and what is needed above all is a pedagogical intervention supported by technology. Just as in the early days of the Labour movement, the drive was to educate the working classes about economics and socialism, now we need to educate everyone about information and its relationship to decision and (ultimately) political economy.

New technologies and new techniques can help us. Virtual Reality (for example) will be really cool for a while (until the corporate wonks get their teeth into it). Personal analytical tools could be empowering in ways that we might have always hoped for in education. But now is the time for a movement to step back from where we are and where we've been and ask where we want to go. Ours is not the only technological world that is possible. We must explore the alternatives and we must ask of technology how we might realise them.


dkernohan said...

"Everywhere there is information, and information appears to be at the heart of David Willetts's policy of marketisation, whereby he hopes to establish greater diversity in the system. If he achieves the opposite and reduces diversity (which I think he will) it will be because he misunderstood information in the fundamental way that Friedrich Hayek warned us about over 50 years ago."

Feels like deliverology to me...

Mark Johnson said...

We need deliverologyology!

Gala Hesson said...
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