Digital education as the practice of freedom.

This has been the summer of my discontent with theory. I’ve read myself into a black hole. Dipping into this, that and other. Getting lost and fed up. Nothing fit. The problem was caused through tension between education technology as affordance or automation. I have sympathy for both views but I’m more postmodern than Marxist. Above all I’m pragmatic.

There is a need to analyse technologies as historically situated (Feenberg 1999) and theorise educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concerns (Selwyn 2010). I don’t deny this. But digital-first policies are putting increasing pressure on digital engagement. Shifts to blended and distance learning mean we have to adapt traditional lecture and seminar formats to online delivery – now! There is an urgent need to do better with what we already have.

This has been called ‘business as usual’; an uncritical approach which risks ‘co-option of technology as progress to a neoliberal educational agenda’. Business as usual is a failure to see how ‘…promises of educational technology clouds or ignores the complexity of socio cultural realities.’ (Hall, 2011:275)

I would suggest a different interpretation. There is choice. Rail against ‘the consumption of a specific set of tools that are owned or celebrated by dominant players’ (ibid) or revisit those tools to ask how best can they offer opportunities for engagement in a knowledge based society. Debate ‘socially necessary labour time and commodification of human activity’ or choose to make the best of what we have; focus on building a digital education which is pedagogically informed, scholarly and inclusive (Seale, Selwyn, Facer, Feenberg, Freisen, Saljo, Garrison, Eubanks, Reeves, Laurillard, Giroux – full references to follow in PhD blog page),

Business as usual is welcoming new and existing cohorts of students onto campus to start or continue their higher education experience. Business as usual is exploring ways to transform lecture and seminar content to online environments for students unable to attend in person.  Business as usual is about working within the limitations of institutional vles to enhance tutor practice and student learning. Business as usual recognises digital education is an opportunity to rethink and redefine pedagogy for the 21st century.

This is not a well trodden path but it’s one we need to take. The technology of the world wide web is changing what it means to learn. The internet offers alternative ways of knowing and being. We need to know more about these. We need to increase awareness of digital divides and their implications. Higher education is where a difference can be made. Teacher education is where the difference begins.

The rhetoric of educational technology was always wrong. It does not cut costs, will not transform, do more for less, or improve efficiency. Effective digital education is time consuming, resource heavy and expensive. It’s challenging and demanding.  But I believe it can work. It doesn’t have to impact ‘…skills and productivity in the production of surplus value, which can then be used to reproduce capital and capitalist social relations.’ (ibid:277) For me, digital education can in itself be the practice of freedom (hooks, Freire, Giroux). Critical of digital divides. Supportive of equality of access, inclusive design, awareness of diversity and difference, digital education can widen access to genuinely enhancing higher education experiences. The technology is a tool. It’s how we use it which counts. Educational design research is where my Phd is located and this is where it stays.


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