Thursday, 19 June 2014

#cetis14: Granting permission to ask questions about education

The #cetis14 conference at the University of Bolton has been a great success. Although run on a self-funding basis for the first time (and consequently using the facilities of its home institution for the first time), it still attracted 100 delegates from the UK HE and FE sectors eager to talk about the impact of interoperability, cloud computing, e-books, systems integration and learning analytics. If anything, the conversation has been more eager, imaginative and focused than in previous years. This was helped by the two keynotes.

The first keynote was from Phil Richards, Chief Innovation Officer at JISC. As Phil acknowledged, this was always going to be a slightly tetchy affair, since government reorganisation and JISC restructuring has meant a marked reduction of support for projects and services (like CETIS) in institutions about which people are understandably upset. Phil presented the new vision for the future of JISC innovation first by critiquing past mistakes. Quite simply: too many projects didn't go anywhere, the benefit to the taxpayer was not clear, the bidding process obscure... Stuff which I and many others have commented on before. But at the same time, I thought, the value of JISC projects was that they gave participants permission to think about education, in circumstances where this would otherwise have been impossible. It was this business of 'asking questions about education' which seemed curiously absent from the vision of the 'new JISC': it seemed that the new JISC vision is to think about keeping JISC going, not thinking about education. When explicitly asked about who in JISC was asking the 'big questions', the response given was "people above my pay grade". The old JISC was good at getting everyone asking those questions, and the conclusion is that the movement from old to new JISC is a movement from what was a 'committee' to something rather more autocratic (which kind of mirrors what's happened in our universities!). For CETIS and its diaspora, asking the big questions about education has always been the key thing. It's ironic that the movement from committee to autocracy has been facilitated by technology!

The second keynote, from Audrey Watters, was the kind of wake-up call that should send all those who think about education and technology into the new academic year with renewed determination to take on the self-serving forces which are currently carving-up education. Her focus was on the 'edupreneurs', Pearson, Blackboard and co, whose chief weapon is not spectacular software or innovation (because their products are neither spectacular or innovative), but the promotion of cultural amnesia and the re-writing of history. Spot on. Audrey wants us to really think about education and technology, about how we got here, about where we are in history, about where we are going.

In between the two keynotes, technically-focused workshops looked at developments in technologies and standards that will affect us all. I attended the analytics strand and helped with the session on cloud computing and systems integration led by Scott Wilson. I was sorry to have missed the session on e-books, because I'm beginning to think there's something really important in the whole issue of bounded, authored content which the messy web on its own cannot deliver. But all of these provided a permission to ask questions. Technology's value is often not in implementation, but in illumination: it provides a torch where we re-inspect ancient practices.

Andrew Feenberg (who gave the CETIS conference keynote a few years ago) has commented on the need to situate technology as part of the democratic process.
“Technology can deliver more than one type of technological civilization. We have not yet exhausted its democratic potential” ("Between Reason and Experience: Essays on Technology and Modernity", p29)
The question is how we go about doing this - particularly at a time when technocracy sets in to serve the interests of managerial elites. There's something important about the technical discussion in CETIS: it provides a clear focus for debate which seems strangely absent from the discourse in education more generally. One delegate commented on the difference between the discussion at CETIS and the discussions at the Association for Learning Technologists (ALT) conference, which is far bigger: "it's too general - nothing gets carried forwards. CETIS gives you new tools and ideas you can think with." So focused technical discussion does much more than address the issues of the technology. The standards discussion is particularly interesting in this regard, because standards are not about tools; they are about the 'in-between tools'.

As education screws itself deeper into the ground - facilitated by the technologies it has commandeered - we should hope that the critical debate about those technologies, their implementation and development serves to give us permission to ask the questions about education that urgently need to be asked.


Simon Grant said...

curiously ambivalent image, that, of "screws itself deeper into the ground" ... :)

What are we screwing ourselves into?

As we are allowed, here is another question: what are the cultural impacts of technology in education?

Mark Johnson said...

I think the image is of something that gets increasingly rigid, immovable, inflexible, monolithic. The ground we are screwing ourselves into is ultimately a corporatist hegemony which only serves the interests of elites at the expense of the society which it is embedded in.

And what do you mean by culture???