Saturday, 4 January 2014

Wonky Thinking and Educational Technology: an exercise

A little while ago I wrote about 'three ways of thinking about educational technology'. It was partly inspired by Alain Badiou's work, which has been dedicated to bridging the gap between the analytical, phenomenological and Marxist traditions in philosophy. But it's got me thinking about how we 'shift gears' in our thinking about technology between analysis (most of our technical thinking is analytical), critique - when we want to justify our analysis or technical design in some way, and phenomenology - as we try and defend the (largely crappy) experiences people have with technology! I've become interested in ways of thinking and the 'gear switching' that goes on because I see it going on everywhere in the e-learning discourse, and I think it's largely to blame for the kind of circular arguments that we see around issues like "the purpose of education". We need to pay more attention to the ways that we think, and where we switch from one way to another.

I've devised a little exercise to try and illustrate what I mean. It's a kind of mind-map and a large piece of paper (or small writing) is required. The steps are:

  1. Think of a question that interests you in education and write it in a bubble in the middle of your piece of paper. (My question when I did this was "why is education usually rubbish?")
  2. Around this central bubble, there are going to be three other bubbles. First, draw a bubble in which you support your question with something you have personally experienced. This is the 'experiential' bubble where you can think about the 'common sense' behind your question. (My experience of education has largely - but not always - been rubbish).
  3. A second bubble around the centre indicates doubts about the question: who says? in whose interests is this question asked? is it right? who would lose if we were to try and 'improve' things? and so on. This is the bubble of 'critique'. 
  4. Finally a third bubble contains some kind of proposition to address the main question: what would we do? how would it work? This is the analytical bubble where logical solutions are suggested. 
  5. Having created the three bubbles around the main one, look at each of the three in turn and around each of those draw three further bubbles: one for experience/common-sense, one for critique/doubt, and one for some kind of logical proposal. 
  6. keep going until you fill the paper!

In my example, I found myself trying to defend the need for more funding as a way of addressing the crappiness of education, whilst also worrying about where the money was going to come from. Equally I worried about whether education is really rubbish for everyone, and considering the problem of value pluralism. And my experiences were shaped by socio-economic expectations - how to change those? What methodology can help us to find out about them? (in whose interests is a particular methodology?)

The point is that my thinking about educational problems is wonky. It moves from an analytical proposition to a critical defence, or a theoretical justification for experiences which in turn relies on methodologies which raise political concerns.

Take any example of input into the e-learning discourse and you will see the same wonkiness. From Salmond's 5-stage model to Koper's Educational Modelling Language to the Pask conversation model, the thinking often starts analytically (either in the form of a methodology, or in the form of a theory), but then retreats to critique or phenomenology in order to shore-up the shortcomings of the analysis and its consequent technical implementation. Sometimes further analysis is then used to shore-up the critique! Some interventions like the PLE already bring with them a heady mixture of different ways of thinking from the start (the PLE had Illich, and Service Oriented Architecture all thrown in to start!).

It's not just learning technologists who think in this wonky way. Since education is now techno-dominated (all interventions in institutional management have a technical component; computer-based metrics govern the governance), pseudo analytical thinking which rides roughshod over critical and experiential concerns is beloved of many Vice Chancellors. It's allure of objectivity gives them some sort of rational basis for making decisions which are (by and large) ill-advised. But VCs suffer the gear-switching disease.

I think it's important that we develop the means for identifying when this happens. The next phase of Education Technology is likely to be a 'critical' phase: where we look at all the money spent in the last 10 years or so and wonder what on earth we were thinking. We were thinking wonkily, and now we need to understand how that happened as we prepare for technologies which are going to be even harder to think about.

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