Saturday 9 August 2014

#EdTech as an Academic Discipline and the phenomenon of Paradigm-Switching

As a relatively new area of academic engagement, #EdTech makes interesting comparison with the rise of ‘management’ as an academic subject in the 1980s. Business schools have prospered following the establishment of management and organisation studies, providing popular (and lucrative) courses (particularly the MBA) for aspiring and practising professionals. Their success combined with the transdisciplinary nature of the subject of ‘management’ made the business school a magnet for sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, psychologists, cyberneticians, historians, and many others in providing a focused ‘problem domain’ with the study of management, whilst at the same time providing a greater degree of professional security (and in some cases, enhanced salaries) for academics who were struggling in somewhat ‘dusty’ native departments. Even the critique of the business school provided by ‘Critical Management Studies’ (which in part is a critique of the academy) has been absorbed into the mainstream function of the business school: in business and management, critique is welcome (even if – and maybe because - it is somewhat powerless to transform power structures in industry!). Consequently, today in many universities, it is not unusual to find prominent sociologists and philosophers under the roof of the business school.

EdTech is different from Management in important ways. EdTech has grown up as a discourse of advocacy of technological ‘enhancement’ or even ‘transformation’ of education. Advocates of technology in education have promoted various tools and techniques. Such positions were made possible by the emergence of technologies which many found exciting and which appeared to bear significance for education as much as they did for the rest of social life. EdTech attracted those who were excited by the technology, and it supported them through various government-funded programmes which situated enthusiasts within the academy, often in project-oriented or management-oriented roles rather than teaching-oriented roles.

Whilst EdTech situates itself within the academy, creating its own academic discourse which appears (at least superficially) scholarly and critical (there are journals and conferences), the rewards of scholarship in the EdTech field – unlike any other field of inquiry in the social sciences or humanities – promise not only academic status but commercial success. EdTech presents itself as a domain of application for the work of software and hardware designers, games developers, pedagogic innovators and institutional managers. As a domain of application, EdTech has demanded of its new academics engagement with issues of educational philosophy, sociology, aesthetics, psychology, anthropology, mathematics, computer science, cybernetics, physics and biology. However, unlike the case of business schools, where established scholars moved to study the problems of organisation and management, the EdTech world has tended to recruit educational enthusiasts with some disciplinary knowledge and technical know-how rather than established scholars in particular disciplines.

The makeup of the EdTech domain, situating itself between scholarship, commercial opportunity and project funding has entailed particular consequences. In common with work in organization studies, EdTech has produced a number of ‘gurus’ who have established reputation and status in particular forms of technological or pedagogical advocacy. Typically, the EdTech guru seeks to make what Searle calls a “status function” of such a technology or approach, supported by arguments, political position and evidence which reinforce the status function through critique, experience and economic rationale. To make one’s name in EdTech is to attract funding and secure one’s position in the academy. The guru’s position has been reinforced in the absence of a mature critique within the field, coupled with insufficient knowledge of effective critiques already established in other disciplines (particularly within management studies). The mark of the EdTech guru is that their advocacy tends to be approached from a variety of perspectival lenses, each focused on upholding the object of their advocacy; this is in contrast to practice in management studies of developing deep critical arguments which withhold advocacy in favour of critique from a particular perspective.

In the scholarship of Organisation and Management, Gibson Burrell and Gareth Morgan explored fundamental critical perspectives in their seminal ‘Sociological Paradigms and Organisational Analysis’, showing how contributions to the organisational discourse could be seen to be oriented towards one of four basic paradigms of discourse. In EdTech, whilst what is called ‘paradigm closure’ does not feature in technological advocacy (and consequently EdTech avoids the ‘paradigm wars’ which can plague organisational analysis), Burrell and Morgan’s paradigms are nevertheless useful as indicators for the ways that different kinds of arguments are made in the advocacy process and the ways those arguments are structured. What appears to distinguish EdTech is the way that technological advocacy creates the need for ‘paradigm switching’ as a case is made for a particular technological approach. In other words, the focus on a particular technology or pedagogy, around which individual reputations are established (think of the MOOC as a classic example) creates the need for multiple paradigms to be brought into play as the arguments are made to support those technologies: the implementation is rarely questioned: rather the critical support for the technology is manipulated across a variety of paradigmatic arguments.

I think that paradigm switching is a particular characteristic of EdTech as a discipline. More broadly, any technological advocacy for the purposes of social change (which is what EdTech is) exhibits this feature of paradigm-switching. In analysing this phenomenon, I think that understanding the markers of paradigm switching is of fundamental importance in our understanding of the ways in which technological change, technological advocacy, educational transformation and social change are interlinked. This is important because “educational technology” encompasses two aspects of social change: those aspects of social organisation which each citizen votes for, and those aspects of social organisation which unfold through technological emergence and a narrative of ‘progress’ which tends not to be politically mandated or critically inspected.

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