Thursday, 19 October 2017

Things we talk about and things we don't talk about in Educational Technology

There are plenty of things we talk about in educational technology: MOOCs, e-portfolio, open educational resources, open education (open everything...), learning analytics, learning design, and so on. We've created 'specialists' in each of these fields - as if each field was separable from the others - or even that the field of educational technology is itself specifically identifiable (is it?). Why have we created these distinctions? Why have we separated things out like this? Well, that's what the education system we are in does. What is its effect? It creates scarcity, and with scarcity comes a market. In the case of many of the trends of educational technology, the market is in individuals with enhanced status as "experts" in specific areas.

You want an expert in OER? - you have to talk to x. They're the "expert" - they'll tell you all you need to know. You want learning analytics, talk to y. An expert.  Or MOOCs? Well, who do you think really gained out of the MOOC experiment? Of course, the big winners were the experts who talked about them!

Education is very confusing. Who isn't confused? Would an expert in education be any more credible than an expert in parenting? (yes, there are a few of those, and I find their blind faith that they know the right way to do it perplexing).

Deep down, I'm interested in the confusion education creates, and the things that this confusion does - like creating a breed of people who pretend not be confused: vice-chancellors, education ministers... and experts in educational technology. I'm interested in how technology seems to be increasing the confusion of education - partly by challenging established hierarchies... the kind of hierarchies which promote experts in the first place. What we never talk about is our confusion.

The first sign of being blind to the confusion we are all in is the apparent omission of engaging with fundamental questions, or the washing-over of basic assumptions. This isn't new in academia. Alfred North Whitehead pointed out in his book "Science and the Modern World" (1926) that:
"When you are criticising the philosophy of an epoch do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch" (p.61)
Tony Lawson (who is somebody more educationalists should know about) quoted this in a paper he presented to the Cambridge Realist Workshop this week (this group has over more than 20 years been an excellent example of openness). His title was "What's wrong with modern economics and why does it stay wrong?". A similar question can be asked of education: "What's wrong with modern education and why does it stay wrong?"

It stays wrong because it's defended by "experts" whose vested interest is to hide the confusion they feel and instead pontificate.

Am I pontificating in saying that? I deeply worry about that question. The problem with blogging is that it's not a very good medium for listening. 


Simon Grant said...

Hi Mark

This seems important to me, and partly because it is in relatively plain language. I've been developing thoughts in this area very recently, and wondered if you'd like to discuss?

If I get the time and inclination I'll try to post something on my own blog...


Mark Johnson said...

Hi Simon - sorry about delay. Have been organising cybernetics conference which starts on Wednesday (in the Friends house in Liverpool)

I was thinking about your interest in the apophatic. I think that's what Whitehead was getting at. Maybe that's where we might start...