Saturday, 16 November 2013

Three "ways of thinking" about Educational Technology

Today I eavesdropped via Skype on a discussion in a conference 3000 miles away about informal learning. Being so remote made me particularly aware of the dynamics of the conversation - a dynamics which displayed a particular kind of circularity. Individuals took positions: usually these were "moral" positions - certain things were to be advocated, other things avoided (people got very excited/upset at these) because of the risks of not avoiding them. It went round and round. Nobody appeared to be listening to anyone else. No progress was made, but eventually everyone seemed satiated with their run around block a few more times and they went off to get drunk.

What is this? What kind of maddening circle of hell has education created for us that we can't talk about it in order to genuinely make progress, but instead are condemned to go round in circles? I've been wondering about this quite a lot recently - particularly because we seemed to have reached a point in educational technology where the governments that funded expensive programmes have finally got tired of the lack of progress and are deciding that a lot less funding is required.

The classic answer to the circularity is "but education is SO difficult". But I think that's just an excuse. As academics our job is to think about difficult things. Our problem is that we don't know how to think. The problem of circularity may be that we are unaware of the ways in which we think, and we slip seamlessly between one way of thinking and another, unaware of the frictions and potential incompatibilities that different ways of thinking can produce.

I'm going to suggest three fundamentally different ways of thinking. There may be more, but these three will do for a start:

  1. An analytical way of thinking - the practical world of operationalisable metrics, structures and technologies where it is possible to design a better education system;
  2. A critical way of thinking - the way of thinking that considers what's missing in any proposal. It is the way of thinking of the "knot in the stomach" when reacting to some new (often analytical) proposal;
  3. A phenomenological way of thinking - the way of thinking that is rooted in a deep reflection about personal experience. The phenomenological perspective tries to put words to feelings, and understand the ways that experiences are shaped by environments.
The different disciplines that have taken an interest in educational technology can be situated  between these different ways of thinking. No discipline successfully relates to them all at once. For example, my discipline of "cybernetics" is fundamentally concerned with analysis and experience. When it is more analytical it can also be very practical (the most useful cybernetic tools include things like Beer's Viable System Model) Its great weakness (and the reason why it isn't progressing at the moment) is that it lacks any kind of critical philosophy - and particularly a deep critical look at itself. 

Sociology, of which education studies is really a subset, tends to combine critique either with analysis, the latter often taken as a methodological add-on producing things like evidence-based research with grounded theory, or it is combined with phenomenology to produce hermeneutically-inspired examinations of educational experience or policy which, whilst valuable and interesting, can lack any kind of operationalisation. 

Of more interest possibly in combining critique with analysis is the growing work in social ontology (i.e. critical realism). However, even this suffers from lack of operationalisability, and (along with Marxism from which it derives) it has very little to say about the perceptual aspects of experience. Actually, this school of analytical-ontological inquiry is prefigured not just by Marxist scholars, but also by older Catholic thinking (I think it was Jacques Ellul who pointed out that Marxism was just a branch of Christianity).

Now when we look at the thoughtful 'literature' on Educational Technology (how much of it really counts as academic literature?), where can we situate people? Where would Connectionism sit and the  MOOCs it gave rise to? I think that's with the cyberneticians on the analytical-experiential axis. But there's no deep critique. Where would Gilly Salmon's 5 stage model sit? It looks predominantly experiential with not an awful lot of analysis or critique. What about Laurillard/Pask? Again that's clearly cybernetic, as is the Britain and Liber VLE work. In Liber's work, the critical element is there (particularly through appeal to Ivan Illich - there's the Catholic Marxist!), but the intellectual tension between the analytical arguments and the critical arguments is not completely followed through or developed. What about learning analytics? Again we see analysis with no critique and in the case of big data, not an awful lot of attention on phenomenology either. 

But those are the big-hitters. When we start to look at the interventions of organisations like JISC and the EU Tel programme, it starts to look very thin indeed. Where's E-portfolio? This is where we see the problems of not being clear how we think: it becomes a case of shallow flirting with ways of thinking rather than consistent and deep engagement. With e-portfolio there has been a shallow phenomenology and poor analysis (and once more no critique). Where's the PLE? A deeper phenomenology and cybernetic analysis, and a critique based on Illich but once again the tensions between the different ways of thinking are not explored.  What about OER? That's lots of analytical work on the mechanisms of distribution of 'material' but no educational or phenomenological critique of what it means either to institutions or individuals.

When we come to 'informal learning' it is not surprising that people go round in circles. There is a tiny bit of phenomenology. There is a tiny bit of critique (although the contradictions it introduces only serve to trip people up). There's not an awful lot of analysis and consequently, the operationalisation of it is hampered. 

The point I want to make is that the way to deal with the circularities we are caught in is to be clearer about the conflicts in the ways we are thinking. Circularities are caused by attending to a particular topic (like 'informal learning') without attending to the way in which we think about that topic. This really means that we have to develop deeper self-awareness of our own habits of mind, and understand the difficulties of switching gear without being aware of it.

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