Sunday 4 September 2011

Global Localism and Conviviality in Educational Technology

There's been a lot of talk recently about Global/Local with regard to a range of issues from public services to international finance. It's been less talked about in Education, but within Educational Technology the tension between global and local lies at the heart of some of the tensions and difficulties in using technology effectively in local situations. Basically, we have situation where there are powerful global services: Google, Microsoft, Apple, etc, but whilst they impress on an individual personalised basis, they don't always lend themselves easily to the convivial situation of the classroom: passwords must be set up, accounts created (with all their unpleasant legalese) before anything can happen.

Some institutions have recently made global decisions on behalf of their students and effectively acted as resellers of these global services (for example, the OU's deal with Google: But this leaves the student (and teachers) in an awkward situation where they risk getting more than they bargained for when they sign up for a course. I think global deals of this kind are a cop-out of a difficult technical problem which somehow has to be grasped.

The central issue of localism is conviviality: at its essence is people looking after each other; of prioritising those individuals and places which/whom they have the deepest attachments. Localism in a global context is about behaving locally, maintaining attachments, and behaving convivially whilst being aware of the inter-connectedness of things and the opportunities and threats that emerge on a global basis, and how these might affect the local conditions. Fundamentally, it is about contextualised common-sense; about not being coerced by global conditions into behaving against ones better instincts and common sense.

What has this got to do with teaching? Well, when we think about the local contexts in education, where the meaningful attachments exist, it is always in the convivial environment of the classroom. Indeed, the push for social software and online communities has precisely been a push to try to establish this sort of conviviality online. On the whole (with very few exceptions) it fails. Why? Because the conviviality of the classroom doesn't just emerge from people being together. It emerges from them being together in a way where they form attachments to each other and the situation they are in. For some reason the online networks still seem very cold - whilst students will (sometimes) converse, the conversation can seem inauthentic in comparison to the visceral experience of being in a place together. Much the same experience can happen in the theatre or at concerts, but the classroom is special because of the particular power relationships and agendas that play out there. Indeed, might it be the reduced level of power relationships online that contribute to their reduced level of conviviality?

In the classroom, out of the power relationships emerge activities. In essence this is where the teacher exploits their position of power by attenuating the communication of their students. And good teachers will find all sorts of imaginative ways of doing this, but its net result is to create a viable situation for teachers and students to be together for the duration of the course. But the weird and magical thing about learning activities is that the attenuation of communication (the rules of the game) produces increased levels of attachment - not just between the students, the students and the teachers, but between the students and the subjects of study. And as that happens, the patterns of communication (the 'positionings') change.

In the classroom 'enhanced' by social software promoted by the big global players in the computer industry, the natural thing to think is that this technology can be exploited to support the sort of activities that foster increased conviviality and deepening attachment. But the global players' software is on the whole not well-suited for doing this. It tends to be aimed at the individual who will exclaim 'cool!' when they see it, and be 'sold' on the product (like any other commodity), thus increasing the reach of the particular brand, but not necessarily serving the needs of the local community.

I think the answer to the issue of conviviality in the classroom is to use the technology to increase the power of teachers to coordinate and manage their learning activities. I think it is these activities and the power relationships that sit behind them that are the key to the formation of deep attachments and conviviality - not just with each other, but with the subject knowledge that underpins the enterprise. This goes somewhat against the grain with regard to the recent trend for teachers to be 'facilitators'  - but frankly, I'm fairly convinced this is a shallow interpretation of what teachers really do. Technologically, I think it means that the hurdle to be overcome is to find a way where global services can be properly 'served' locally by individual teachers for their students: the client-server relationship needs to be reinforced through the establishment of local servers which are ready-to-hand for teachers to coordinate the activities that they and their students care about.

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