Monday 4 July 2016

Some reflections on #EdMedia and the state of #elearning

My post-jetlag summary of the  #EdMedia conference is that things seem to be stuck in educational technology. A quick glance at the conference programme revealed paper headings which could have been written 10 years ago. Although I had a number of criticisms of Saul Carliner's rather US-focused summary of e-learning history, this point was well-made. So what's new? Well - there's Analytics! (so they say). Carliner rightly pointed out that it wasn't new either. The first keynote sounded many warning klaxons about the hubris of today's analytics where blind faith is placed in algorithms which fundamentally only count events or words.

What is more noticeable is the emergence of a broader sociological critical discourse of education and society within the e-learning community. Of course this isn't new in education - the "proper" education journals have been full of this stuff for years - worries about marketisation, quality, surveillance, corporate control, copyright, etc, etc. Laura Czerniewicz's keynote was excellent on this. But as critics carp away, so managers of universities exercise their ever increasing zeal for market-driven efficiency, and very soon there will no space for critics within the system. More disturbingly, the critical discourse has become rather 'anti-technology' - a creeping distrust of the computer has set in. This is disastrous - we face some very serious challenges, and computers remain our best chance of survival - but our epistemology is wrong. We're missing a sense of ecology (Laura mentioned this) - but that is a big topic which demands some deeper analysis which didn't seem to be forthcoming anywhere in the conference.

As things stands, e-learning hasn't really changed in over 15 years - it is still beholden to untrammelled functionalism. What has changed in education is that the functionalist disease has spread to the deepest reaches of the academy, driven by educational and managerial (for which read "analytics") technologies (which has in turn prompted the 'critical turn'). The 'we can fix it' attitude of the technologist is applied to fix the problems of the institution, where what is perceived as an 'educational problem' is increasingly delimited by the technology itself. The result is a loss of knowledge and intellectual flexibility the prevention of which are the fundamental reasons why we have universities in the first place. As Heinz von Foerster said in the 1970s, "we have allowed existent technology to create problems it can solve"

The duality of functionalism and critique isn't stable. They simply become two poles in a process which will see each become more extreme in contrast to the other. A third element is required. What is completely lacking in the discourse is any consideration of the phenomenology of education, learning or technology. Where the opposition between functionalism and critique is pathological, the tri-partite relationship between critique, functionalism and phenomenology is more stable. We require phenomenology as a corrective - and right now, it's where the obvious deep questions about education and human needs can be asked. On a number of occasions in the conference, I had conversations with people for whom some of these obvious questions were deeply troubling - and there was simply no space for them to be asked within the conference.

Maybe an e-learning conference isn't the best place to do this (I usually direct people to the Society for Research in Higher Education). But I think it ought to happen in e-learning. After all, the SRHE is a great high-brow education conference - but for all the sociomaterial whatevers, they've lost sight of technology itself - which is also a problem (not that there was that much technological innovation in Edmedia either - there was little mention of what today's technology is doing, or what it might mean).

The highlight of the conference? Sharing an Airbnb with academic colleagues to really talk about these things in depth. Next time I will just do the Airbnb thing, forget the formal conference stuff and spend the conference fee on beer and coffee! If anyone's interested in keynoting, send me an email!

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