Monday 2 March 2020

Positioning Technology Management in Education

It is hard to imagine that technology in institutions today wasn't "managed". Management is endemic in all organisations: institutions are not so much coherent self-sustaining organisational structures, as managed aggregates of people, tools and activities - which are to varying degrees, sometimes incoherent. Indeed, the form of management which imposes functionalist categories onto all its components has become the hallmark of modern institutions. Yet as repeated institutional crises indicate, this kind of organisation appears unadaptive and brittle: in business, it produces failed banks and corporations; in politics, corruption; in education it produces disquiet, alienation and a ravenous, bottomless appetite for ever more resource from society.

For people working under it, management becomes synonymous with the constraints it imposes on the organisation. Management means making decisions about what tools to use, when, by whom and for what purpose. These decisions are necessarily simple - and far simpler than the situations those who are subject to them are trying to negotiate on the ground.

But here there is a problem: simple decisions which constrain those who are negotiating complex situations make those situations more complex. Simple decisions based on out-of-date information produce organisational oscillations and chaos. The problem is particularly evident in educational technology.

Educational technologies are managed - not merely in the sense of being provisioned and maintained, but in the sense that who is able to do what with them, with whom, how and when. Yet the provisioning of tools is fundamental to empowering individuals to deal with their environment. If a university had no classrooms, organising classes would be impossible; if it had no timetable, clashes between competing interests to access resources would result. If there was no audit of whether resources provisioned were actually utilised, then inefficiency would result. In a world that didn't change, provisioning of resources, coordination of activities (to avoid conflicts) and audit would suffice.

The impact of technology on universities has largely resulted from a change to the environmental conditions universities operate it. Talk of "Technology Enhanced Learning" is usually misplaced - computer technology produces continual world changes, and institutions must change themselves to survive in it. So what might be a largely internally-focused process of provisioning tools and resources, coordination and audit, must become a process  of balancing internal demands with external scanning of the ever-changing environment. Institutions must understand these changes, and have sufficient understanding of their own internal adaptive processes, to change themselves to survive.

These adaptive processes require steering. This is the proper domain of management. Yet if the end result of the efforts by management to govern by binary decision result in increased complexity, then the adaptation process won't work. If management sees its principal role as the balancing of complex demands between inside and outside of the organisation, then the focus of its activities becomes much clearer - and less focused on direct provisioning from the top, but on creating the conditions where dynamic provisioning of tools, educational coordination and monitoring can happen closer to the ground.

So then we must ask, What are the conditions which facilitate dynamic provisioning of tools and resources closer to the ground? In modern technological institutions, there are particular constraints that have to be overcome, the principal one being the difference in languages between different stakeholders in the institution.

These languages might be thought of as:
  1. Structural/administrative 
  2. Technical 
  3. Pedagogical 
The structural language is a language of politics, existent institutional procedures, external demands (from government and society) and power. The technical language is a language of code, systems, procedures, constraints and compliance. The pedagogical language is a language of relationships, learning, personal expression, and freedom. 

One way to coordinate a process of addressing these constraints is a continual programme of experiment and inquiry involving all stakeholders in the institution at the boundaries of these languages. Managers would do well spending less time in meetings, and more time learning to write python code (for example). Technicians would do well spending less time writing python code and more time talking to learners and teachers. Teachers would do well spending less time presenting Powerpoints, and more time engaging with the structural and technical aspects of educational organisation and educational experience.

IT tools can be instantiated anywhere. Their provisioning and control can be brought closer to the users - teachers and learners. That we tend to do technological provisioning of tools at the top of institutions is an indication of the fact that technology is seen as the main environmental threat, and so institutional technology is seen as a means of countering it. But technology is not an environmental threat. The real threat lies in ineffective organisation within the institution itself. 

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