Monday, 9 May 2022

Learning technology and "Learning technology"

I have been heavily involved in promoting digitalisation at the University of Copenhagen for a year or so. When people ask what this is really about, I have found the simplest answer is to say that it is about encouraging students and teachers to look "beyond the screen". I often demonstrate this by simply pressing "CTRL-SHIFT-I" on my keyboard in a browser to reveal the Javascript console. It's perhaps analogous to producing a microscope in the natural environment. An invitation to ask more questions and explore new possibilities: to ask "What if...?"  

In the same way that we would encourage people towards deeper self-examination as part of their education, so I think it is becoming more important that a (related) technological-critical examination takes place within the digital environment in which we all swim. For the generation of students we are now teaching, the digital environment is a natural environment, whether they are comfortable in it or not - after all, there were always plenty of natives of the non-digital natural environment who were never comfortable in it!

Just as we would encourage people to explore and inquire about the natural environment, it seems reasonable to extend this to an inquiry into this "new nature", which is really as much an inquiry into ourselves as it is an inquiry into technology. Indeed the central issue of digitalisation is that it concerns the boundary between self and world which education has so-far been able to wash over. 

Faced with the mind-bending questions about identity and environment, sociology and psychology, it is much easier to stay rooted in traditional disciplines - both for students and staff. Moreover, our institutions have constructed themselves around these disciplinary sanctuaries. There are many reasons for an institution both to encourage "digitalisation" and to resist it. The encouragement comes from an a perception of existential threat - if traditional distinctions break down, then the raison d'etre for the institution is threatened, while if institutions fail to help students to adapt to the digital world outside, then they will be seen to be irrelevant. Digitalisation sits in the same camp as many other distinction-blurring issues: sustainability, decolonisation, and gender fluidity. These are all, I suspect, manifestations of deeper processes in our changing biological relation with our environment, our history, our institutions, and each other.  

The institution responds to this not with any fundamental organisational adaptation, but rather by declaring these things as "issues" or "agendas". So digitalisation, along with so many other things, has become an "agenda". Institutionally, "agendas" can be addressed by sticking something new on the curriculum, as if all that is required is a "bit more knowledge". So writing an essay on transgender rights (for example) will somehow address deep-seated and culturally established norms of bias and (often) bigotry. Is compliance with the "digitalisation agenda" merely satisfied with an essay about data privacy in the metaverse? What use is that? It keeps everyone busy, but does little to address what is really happening. 

So what about technology in this "learning"? What about "learning technology" for "learning technology"? Institutions have adopted a particular position with regard to technology for education which is now causing problems in its thinking about adapting to the challenge of the digital environment. Partly this has been caused by the commodification of technology in education, which has actively prevented students looking "behind the screen". Yet if we actually try to engage students in "looking behind the screen" there are some pedagogical challenges which have yet to be solved, but which are critically important. They might be listed:

  • How to avoid this becoming "computer science"?
  • How to make technical engagement personally meaningful?
  • How not to alienate students and teachers?
  • How to adapt assessment in ways which encourage technical exploration and creativity?
  • How to diversify activities so that students with different skills and dispositions can engage in activities that are right for them?
  • How to maintain interest and creativity when technical engagement often involves a quick descent into (often confusing) technical details which are far-removed from intended aims?
  • How to connect technical engagement to personal identity and spiritual development?
  • How not to throw out the disciplinary baby from the bathwater - transdisciplinarity cannot replace disciplinary expertise 
These are both pedagogical questions, and structural question within the university. They are challenges related to the act of "learning technology". There is, as yet, no sign that universities are willing to consider structural changes - particularly in assessment practices. So digitalisation will continue to sit as another "agenda". They want "learning technology" but cannot find a way of supporting the deeper process of personal inquiry involved in learning technology. 

But how could it be different? Perhaps one way forward is to think of how all the agendas piling onto education are symptomatic of a structural failing of the institution in a fast-changing world. It's like the British royal family now being increasingly confronted with the legacy of slavery - a legacy which biology is demonstrably showing the 200 year old epigenetic inheritance in heightened levels of diabetes, hypertension, stress and depression among black communities (see for example, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome | Dr. Joy DeGruy ( This is how science really challenges existing structures and practices. 

So what do we do? Should we throw away those structures? (Royals perhaps!) But we should invite innovative systemic approaches to restructuring to provide the space for personal exploration in a world which is moving fast away from traditional understanding. Assessment is where I would start - it is the principal constraint that keeps everything else stuck in its ancient shape. 

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