Freire and Blackboard, tea and biscuits on the table: final reflections on #durbbu

14th Durham Blackboard Conference Life of i

I didn’t expect to encounter Freire at Blackboard conference. It was a passing reference in the context of lifelong learning and mature students – but enough to get me thinking about the production of actionable knowledge. At Lincoln, Blackboard is about to have a second coming. This is a good time for all things virtual to be reconsidered.

Freire says education should be transformational but the problem with transformation is the challenge of change. It isn’t easy to do things differently; especially if the way you’ve always done them still works. Most of us understand education as a classroom rather than computer activity and the transfer of teaching from face to face to virtual environments can represent a fundamental shift in consciousness. Close encounters of the digital kind require a paradigm shift. Moving from lecture theatre to laptop screen can feel like all your threshold concepts arriving at once. The challenge of the VLE shouldn’t be underestimated.

Several times at Durham I heard technology referred to as ‘easy’. Attitudes like these need to be challenged. Assumptions about use are not helpful but divisive. Let’s try meeting resistance to technology with more sympathy. The parameters of digital engagement are a complex mix of financial, cultural, educational and political issues. Digital divides tend to be invisible and in a world of techno-plenty, the discovery of low or non-usage can be a shock. Several people at Durham talked of the difficulty of supporting low technology users and it’s clear we’re running out of answers. Solutions maybe more deep rooted than providing additional helpsheets. Online support is not tackling the heart of the problem. As well as getting up close and personal with digital divides and exclusions, a better understanding of the nature of teaching practice is needed.

The VLE can be conceptualised as a machine for the automation of teaching, I prefer to see the affordances of the VLE as access to higher education opportunities. For me, Blackboard is exciting – it holds the promise of life enhancement in the same way lectures on my first degree opened up ways of seeing I never knew existed. If self-selection is a barrier we need new bridges. If teachers won’t go to the technologists, maybe technologists should go to the teachers – with tea and biscuits (or coffee and cake) on the table – for some frank and honest discussions about the perceived disadvantages of virtual learning. Rather than focus on positives – let’s be critical and ask whose positives they are – then turn it upside down and surface the negatives instead. What is the root cause of techno-resistance? If we don’t understand this how can engagement be extended?

Freire emphasised the value of dialogue between people who are working in partnerships of mutual benefit.  He promoted raised awareness of oppression and resistance; the situating of educational activity within the lived experience of participants as the basis for informed action or praxis. It wouldn’t be difficult to do this on campus – create dialogue between those who manage the technology and those who use it for teaching. So long as it came from bottom up initiatives which took seriously the perceived negatives of virtual learning. I didn’t expect to come back from a Blackboard conference wondering if a Freirean approach to engagement with Blackboard might be worth consideration.  But I did and I am.

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