Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The intellectual project of E-learning: avoiding Trumpton and Post-Truth Education

It feels like E-learning is in a different phase. Many who entered the field around 2000 (as I did) felt that it was a transitional thing - that ultimately, the topics of e-learning would be subsumed into 'education' more generally. Some professors whose position reflected their interest in e-learning avoided the title "professor of e-learning" precisely because they thought it would disappear. So where are we now? On the day America goes to the polls after a rather alarming campaign, we're in the land of Trump/Clinton: Trumpton (my favourite childrens' TV from the 1970s)

Unlike the world of Mrs Cobbett, this Trumpton is a make-believe world where we have allowed our politicians and our technologies to create problems which they can solve (or claim to be able to solve). This is what I think is meant by the phrase 'post-truth' which is bandied about at the moment (mostly in connection with Trump and Brexit). We avoid asking difficult questions which need to be addressed about our society, our lives and our education system. In Trumpton, we do not seek solutions to real existent problems in society. E-learning today epitomises the symptoms.

The research topics of e-learning are manifestations of asking technology to solve problems it creates: e-assessment, mobile learning, learning analytics, learning design, Personal learning environments, video lectures, classroom response, plagiarism detection (a classic example!)

But it's all a bit of a mess. It turns out that technology was something of a hand-grenade chucked into education, and the resulting education has become the market-driven pale imitation of what it once was because of it. The challenge for any working in education today - whether academic or educational technologist - is what principles do we stick to? What matters?

Trumpton has created artificial answers to these questions. It has made educational technology into a 'thing'. The mainstream educational literature has embraced technology to some extent, but what appears to have happened is that the technology has exposed deep confusion within the education literature itself. It seems that the classical 'education' literature (think Paul Hirst or R.S. Peters) was able to maintain its style and substance by glossing over the practical difficulties of real-world education. Now we have technology, those practical difficulties are all the more apparent, and much less easy to gloss over. So, in response, people have tried to deal with the glaring issues, but in process introduced more jargon, obfuscation, mechanistic application of ungrounded methods, and published more and more and more.. (nobody reads it - but all the time it increases their publication statistics!).

As I've argued elsewhere, I think the fundamental problem is that we are in a scientific paradigm shift, very similar to the one in the 17th century. Just like then, the transition throws up all sorts of unpleasant side-effects - civil war and bloody revolution being the worst of them. What emerges the other side are reformed institutions: the Royal Society, a transformed curriculum, reconfigured universities, artistic and cultural transformation, and technological evolution.

But what this really means is that the "thing that matters" is science. E-learning has been focused not on scientific communication, but teaching and learning as a kind of institutionally-defined activity which is increasingly framed by an "education market" (just think how the institution fetishises the "learner" as its customer - aren't we all learners?). But, whatever the market might think, Universities have always been about science, and the thing that drives science is communication. Our fundamental social problem is that despite amazing developments in communications technology, we have become very bad at listening to each other and communicating properly.

Just as the Royal Society embraced the leading communication technology of the day to meet the needs of its science, so today we must understand our new science properly to understand effective use of our leading technologies for its communication. This won't happen until we have loosened our obsession with the communication practices of the Royal Society (journals and their metricisation) - but to do that is to bring down some architecture of the modern marketised university. So I think that will take time.

But a society where scientists really do listen to each other is a radically different place. It may be Camberwick Green!

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