Staying human in the age of the machine…

sunrise over the river humber

The the new academic year begins. The days shorten. I see the sun rising as I drive across the Humber Bridge.  It makes everything ok 🙂 On the allotment I’m pulling up plants and digging, getting ready for the winter.

Commuting and digging offer head space. I’m thinking about technology. What it means to be human in an age of the machine. It’s a pragmatic reflection. I spend too much time online. Too many hours connected to the internet. I think I may be addicted to google. Instead of exercising my brain to recall a name or place, I search for it instead. My browser history bears witness to cognitive laziness.

This new academic year will see the implementation of a digital education strategy for the university. Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age (TELEDA) will run again. I will live, sleep and breath virtual reality. Open educational resources, inclusion, digital divides, eportfolios, shared communities of practice – I love it but I also worry I ask too much, the university asks too much, we all expect too much of what at the end of the day is a machine.

Soon I will be inviting staff who teach or support learning to give up an hour of their time to talk about digital education. Technically it will be an interview and be recorded. This is my data collection but I think of it more as a conversation about the relationship between humans and their digital technologies. I want to ask practical questions like:

  • Why do we need to reinvent lectures for online delivery?
  • How would you define being digitally literate?
  • What can the university do to support your virtual learning?

I also want to know how how the internet has impacted our lives as well as our careers and professions. If we stop to think about the difference ICT is making; the divides it’s creating, the shifts in practice required by unprecedented access to knowledge, or is it information, or is it someone’s unsubstantiated personal opinion.

Saljo says ‘…[digital] technologies do not merely support learning: they transform how we learn and how we come to interpret learning. The metaphors of learning currently emerging as relevant in the new media ecology emphasise the transformational and performative nature of such activities and of knowing in general.’ (Saljo 2009:53)

I want to create space for conversations about the future implications of the internet for the university. There are calls for flipped teaching but how can this happen when lectures last 50 minutes and are delivered to 100 plus students?  How can time and space be reinvented to suit an alternative education – a digital one? Where technologists across the sector lead on policy, how can non-technologists keep up? What happened to MOOCs. Why don’t we talk about accessibility any more?

These are the limitations of face to face communication compared to the timeless boundary-less landscape within my laptop. What does it mean to stay human in the age of the digital machine?


Saljo, R. (2009) Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, (2012) 26, 53-64


Eportfolios: theory hits reality like a smack in the face

I’ve spent the week up close and personal with eportfolios. I love them! What a challenge. I can’t imagine a better way for demonstrating evidence of learning outcomes on a course designed for teaching and learning in a digital age. eportfolios step you  outside the confines of a Word document. Hyperlinks and multimedia bring your assignment to life. This is creative non-fiction at its best. Neither frivolous nor irrelevant but bringing students and tutors face to face with digital literacies and digital scholarship. Higher education needs to loosen up. Explore the affordance of digital communication. Engage students in the application of their digital worlds to education.  

As far back as 2008 JISC’s Learner’s Experience of elearning showed students arrive on campus with a variety of digital tools but little idea of how they can be used for learning. The Great Expectations of ICT report in 2007 found use of the internet and social media was the norm for those planning to come to university.  The tools are all in place. We need to reinvent how we use them for teaching and learning. The divide between those comfortable with the technology and those still resisting engagement continues to widen and deepen. As learning curves get steeper individuals stay within their comfort zones. I understand. I cant use refworks. I get lost in GoogleX. As for the Blackboard Grade Centre I might as well give up and go home.

Coming face to face with the reality of using eportfolios for assessment has been a shock, a surprise and a revelation.  More difficult than I anticipated but this is what happens when the theory hits the fan. Properly resourced and supported, eportfolios, may be an answer to encouraging toe dipping into digital waters, extending what is known, exploring what isn’t. I’ve been impressed with my eportfolio experience. It hasn’t been easy but nothing worth while ever is. I think there ‘s scope for revisiting how eportfolios can support digital graduate attributes, teacher education and staff development.  I for one would be happy to take this forward.

The sociological imagination: making the familiar strange

C W Mills in the Sociological Imagination says sociology lies at the intersection of history and biography. People and the Past. What a great location. Mills says to think sociologically is about making the familiar strange. This requires thinking critically about the social world. Adopting a different way of seeing. Challenging conventional wisdom.

Questioning what is presented as social reality can change it.  A sociological lens is a powerful way of seeing.

An interpretative worldview is supposed to be a flexible one. You’re not fixed within an objective reality but can be influenced by new knowledge and insight.  This is the theory. I wonder how much interpretivists are still bound to their individual interpretation of the world.  In quite a positivist way. Yesterday I was told teaching is a face-to-face experience. Teachers want to see their students. Make eye contact. Get to know them as people, not avatars. We go online because we have to. Reach more people, do more with less. The only reason we turn to virtual solutions is for real life problems.

We talked about the student experience in large lectures where the lecturer is a dot in the distance. How well constructed multimedia resources can be revisited, revised, reused, reach people who can’t be on campus. Widening participation. Creating genuine higher education experiences – online. Isn’t there a case for digital education? But we’re not technicians was the answer. We can’t create those sort of resources? What do we know about the pedagogy of teaching and learning online? Where is the institutional support for content development?

My participatory action research will involve face-to-face interactions like these. I’m going to be challenged on all fronts when it comes to my position on digital education. This will be good for me because I know I’ve become an online person. I hide behind my keyboard and computer screen. I prefer email to telephone.  I hate Skype. My work involves positioning staff in unfamiliar virtual places, inviting them into my world of browser difference and multiple platforms, making their familiar worlds of lecture halls and seminar rooms strange. While I know their criticisms of Blackboard are not direct criticisms of my work, and as Feenberg says, ‘considerable progress has been made in using online education to support new forms of interaction among teachers and students.'(Transforming Technology, 2002:125),  it will still always feel like I haven’t done enough.

Making the familiar strange is not only about how we see the world. It’s about how other people see us and the work we do. I have been usefully reminded how making the familiar strange is a personal as well as a political process.

Lets get critical…

 Critical theory recognises there are multiple, often contradictory, claims to knowledge. A diversity of ways for seeing and being. Critical theory challenges dominant world views, mediated through discursive practices, managed and controlled by those with the political and economic power to control, and disguise their control, of the media and platforms of the public sphere. To adopt critical theory is to set out to uncover oppression, work towards emancipation and freedom to access resources and challenge discriminatory practice.  Critical theory is a political choice.

Critical pedagogy calls for teachers and students to be aware of the politics of education. Freire says teaching has a political agenda and staff bring political notions into the classroom. Promoting awareness of the inclusive/exclusive parameters of virtual learning environments is a political action. It draws attention to alternative ways of being and gives sound to excluded voices. In an increasingly digital society, to be shut out from the digital platforms of the public sphere is to be marginalised and excluded. Higher education offers possibilities to ensure graduates seek out and challenge exclusion rather than replicate and reinforce exclusive behaviours.

Critical pedagogy ‘…may refer to anti-capitalist education, anti-racist pedagogies and feminist pedagogies; training in social activism and mastery of social theory; individualised education in critical thought and community problem-solving; studies of language and of social structure; education for raising consciousness and for dismantling social boundaries; and pedagogical work inside the classroom and in other public spheres.’  (Amsler, 2010: 21)

Critical theory as technology critique.

Feenberg calls the relationship between technology and ideology the technical codes.   Deleuze and Guattari (1972) refer to codes being the organised social areas where capitalist systems ‘territoralise’ desire and creativity for example gender, psychiatry, law, finance, consumerism, the family unit. Desire is attached to production and consumption but Deleuze and Guattari claim social class is not the site of repression and revolution; it is a strand of social relations but not the only one. In the same way they challenged Marxism they challenged Freudian views of the unconscious claiming it was not innate but socially produced; continually rewritten by society and history. This is Foucauldian territory but back to Feenberg who calls for a philosophy of technology via the ten paradoxes which suggest ‘…most of our common sense ideas about technology are wrong.’ (2009:3) and a critical theory of technology or critical constructivism saying ‘…technology is not universal or neutral with respect to values. Technology is value laden like other institutions that frame our everyday existence.’ (Feenberg 2011:6)

I’m looking for the places where critical pedagogy and technology come together.  In my reading I have been encouraged by the following:

Freisen says the theory of the relationships between technology, media, education and social change have not been recognised in eLearning research. Freisen calls critical theory a ‘philosophy and a research methodology that focuses on the interrelated areas issues of technology, politics and social change.’ It’s central purpose is the destabilization of ideology in order to ‘…generate alternative knowledge forms, specifically, those shaped by social interests who are democratic and egalitarian.’ (Friesen 2008:1)

Saljo calls for learning technologies to have ecological validity ‘…[digital] technologies do not merely support learning: they transform how we learn and how we come to interpret learning. The metaphors of learning currently emerging as relevant in the new media ecology emphasise the transformational and performative nature of such activities and of knowing in general.’ (Saljo 2009:53)

Keri Facer looks to learning futures and says if education is no longer about autonomy but has become a site for interconnections between human, cultural and technological resources then ‘…the need to work towards the creation of an educational encounter that makes visible these diverse resources and works actively to overcome the inequalities and injustices they may cause, is increasingly urgent.’ (Facer, 2011:55)

I’m sympathetic to postmodernist theory; in particular when applied to virtual representation and have been encouraged to find I’m not alone.

Giroux says ‘…postmodernism’s central insights illuminate how power is produced and circulated through cultural practices that mobilize multiple relations of subordination….Instead of assuming postmodernism has vacated the terrain of values, it seems more useful to address how it accounts for how values are constructed historically and relationally. And how they might be addressed as the basis of ‘precondition of a politically engaged critique’. (Giroux, 1994:5)

‘A resistant or political postmodernism seems invaluable to me in helping educators and others address the changing conditions of knowledge production in the context of emerging mass electronic media and the role these new technologies are playing as critical socializing agencies in redefining both the locations and the meaning of pedagogy.’ (Giroux 1994:3)

Giroux calls for greater flexibility between approaches ‘…educators need to avoid the modern/postmodern divide that suggests that we can do either culture or economics but that we cannot do both…cultural politics matters because it is the pedagogical site on which identities are formed, subject positions made available, social agency enacted and cultural forms both reflect and deploy power through their modes of ownership and mode of public pedagogy…[with reference to Adorno and Marcuse] the most important forms of domination are not simply economic but also cultural and that the pedagogical force of culture with its emphasis on belief and persuasion is a crucial element of how we both think about politics and enact forms of resistance and social transformation.’ (Giroux, 2004:32)

On research design or the construction of effective pedagogy for virtual places

‘Although educational design has a twenty year history going back to 1992, most educational researchers confound research goals and methods… Researchers with postmodern goals are focused on examining the assumptions underlying contemporary educational programmes and practices with the ultimate goal of revealing hidden agendas and empowering disenfranchised minorities. Although increasingly evident among researchers with multicultural, gender or political interested, research in the postmodern tradition is rare within the field of educational technology.’ (Reeves et al 2010:60)

It is Feenberg who offers a consistent and contemporary account of the fullest social impact of internet technology; one which supports the social construction of technology (Bjiker et al) and recognises how the coercive mechanisms of power are threaded throughout the internet alongside potential for subversion and resistance.

In (Re)Inventing the Internet (2012) Feenberg and Freisen describe how the internet has remained a contested technology between utopian and dytopian rhetoric, but which supports agency and enables challenge and change through connection, interactions and recipocracy. ‘If technology is neither a realm of rational consensus nor is it a mere tool of its owners and managers’  it cannot be seen as an ‘…independent variable’ but one ‘co-constructed’ by the social forces its organises and unleashes.’ (Feenberg and Freisen, 2012:3)

‘What is most innovative and politically significant about the internet is its capacity to support collective reflection on participant interests.’ (Feenberg and Freisen, 2012:15)

These seems these are places where critical pedagogy and technology critique can most usefully come together.


Amsler, S. (2010) Education as critical practice in Amsler, S., Canaan, J. E., Cowden, S., Motta, S. and Singh. G. (eds) (2010) Why critical pedagogy and popular education matter today. C.SAP: Higher Education Academy Subject Network for Sociology, Anthropology, Politics.

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1972) Anti-Oedipus. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. London and New York: Continuum, 2004. Vol. 1 of Capitalism and Schizophrenia. 2 vols. 1972-1980. Trans. of L’Anti-Oedipe. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

Facer, K. (2011) Learning Futures. Education, Technology and Social Change. Routledge.

Feenberg, A. (2009) Ten Paradoxes of Technology. Presented at the 2009 Biennial Meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Technology. Techne 14:1 Winter 2010

Feenberg, A and Freisen, N. (eds) (2012) (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. Rotterdan: Sense Publishers

Feenberg, A. (2011) Agency and Citizenship in a Technological Society. Lecture to the Course on Digital Citizenship, IT University of Copenhagen, 2011.

Freisen, N. (2008) Critical Theory. Ideology, Critique and the Myths of E-Learning. Ubiquity vol 9 issue 22

Giroux, H. (1994) Slacking Off: Border Youth and Postmodern Education. Journal of Advanced Composition. Vol 14, no 2 pp347-66

Giroux,H. (2004) Critical Pedagogy and the Postmodern/Modern Divide: towards a pedagogy of democratisation. Teacher Education Quarterly, Winter 2004.

Reeves, T. C., McKenny, S. and Herrington, J. (2010) Publishing and perishing: The critical importance of educational design research.  Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 2011, 27(1), 55-65

Saljo, R. (2009) Digital tools and challenges to institutional traditions of learning: technologies, social memory and the performative nature of learning. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, (2012) 26, 53-64

Weltanschauungs or world perceptions

I really need to move on to my data collection. The reading will continue but I must start the pilot interviews. My action research methodology is participatory and I need these conversations to help construct the research process.

It’s been a struggle to locate myself. My worldview is a bit blurred. I hold multiple beliefs and don’t want to lie. But a phd has to have one of these Weltanschauungs or perceptions of the world so I’ve settled for a constructivist ontology – an interpretative rather than a positivist approach to the question of what constitutes social reality. I agree with Berger and Luckman’s 1967 treatise on the sociology of knowledge:  the Social Construction of Reality suggests social reality is produced and can be perceived in multiple ways. This applies to my epistemic position on the nature of knowledge which I would suggest is also socially constructed. How we understand and explain what we know or come to know rarely happens in isolation. It is more often a mediated process requiring communication and reinforcement (see Vygotsky’s Sociohistorical Learning Theory or Sociocultural theory and Zone of Proximal Development).

It terms of understanding the control mechanisms which shape social reality, I find Foucault useful for his work on coercive power structures in particular its historical origins and diffuse, embodied and thereby constructed nature. It’s a much debated approach but remains valuable. Foucault described power as discursive and flexible saying ‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.  In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.  The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production’ (Foucault 1991: 194).

A taxonomy of world views is nothing new but it’s helpful to compare the key differences between positivist and interpretivist world views, and everyone constructs or plagiarises one. I made this myself but its almost impossible to be original.

Natural science Social science
positivist interpretivist
objective subjective
value free Value laden
ways of seeing are built on universal principles and facts Ways of seeing are personal and culturally/historically situated
The world can be known, measured and explained The world is constructed from social agency

So far this post hardly does credit to the amount of reading I’ve done but at least it locates me on the subjective side. Neither does it reflect the impact of the internet on our processes of knowing and understanding – which in themselves may need to be re-defined. I wonder what Vygotsky would say. A theory of sociovirtual learning?

Also, I haven’t said anything about disempowerment, marginalisation or discrimination.  I haven’t mentioned technology. I need a paradigm of inquiry which critiques the role of technology in higher education through examination of the social relations between staff and their tools for virtual learning.  Something which involves the agency of individuals to subvert the massification of education and resist an uncritical acceptance of the automation of teaching. The P word will be in there somewhere – sshhhh….it’s p for postmodern.

So the next step is to get critical.

connections between weariness of flesh and an age of abundance

Warning – longer than usual blog post – quite apt considering the title!

These past months I’ve known information overload. The era of abundance. The smallness of my blog in the massiveness of digital landscapes reinforces my insignificance. Ionesco’s ‘God is dead. Marx is dead. And I don’t feel so well myself’ sums up my existential angst at the impossibility of finding a single phd path with my name on it. My theory has to fit. The choice is important. This summer, as well as work overload, I developed inthereority complex, suffered headaches, blurred vision and keyboarditis. It seemed everyone else had their theoretical place and I was the only one lost, still struggling to find my philosophical home. Theory envy is not a healthy place to be.

Then I came across a paper called The ‘Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance *I very nearly didn’t. Biblical references don’t do it for me but it was Solomon and he was wise so it couldn’t do any harm could it? Bible texts depend on translation – much has got lost over the years – but the authors used this (unreferenced) version  ‘Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.’ (Ecclesiasts 12.12) What the old king was saying 3000 years ago, when presumably books were in short supply but who am I to be pedantic, there is certainly such a thing as having too much information.

The paper assumes internet access. Statements like ‘everyone who so chooses will be able to….’ P 44, it will be ‘technically and economically feasible for everyone [to document their existence online]. Seizing this possibility will simply be a matter of choice.’ P45 had me reaching for the highlighter pen. Then I read the following:

‘The issues in the first decades of the knowledge-driven era concern a new abundance and a new and perhaps growing disequilibrium between then raw materials of learning production (information resources) and the other factors [staff and their learning technologies] of learning production.’ (Gandel et al 2004: 46)

Writing pre Web 2.0 and the development of user generated content and file sharing though blogs, wikis and other forms of social media the paper calls for a more holistic approach to scholarship and learning in an internet age, one which addresses individual engagement. The metaphor used to describe this holistic approach is to view information systems as a form of ecosystem.

‘Therefore, we need to take a more holistic approach, one that recognizes the interconnection of information resources and of the individuals who create and use these resources. A metaphor that has been used to describe this holistic approach is to veiw information systems as a form of ecosystem – an information ecology.’ (p46)

I’d noted the recurrence of ecology in a number of papers (Saljo, Selwyn, Facer etc). I liked its emphasis on relationships and the interconnectedness of things. For me it’s the social relations between staff and their technology – where digital literacies are individual and personal like an extension of our personalities – which was not only an under-researched area but the one I wanted to explore through participatory action research.  What’s also missing from the research into learning technology are greater connections with the social impact of the internet. There seems a need for re-examining what it means to learn in an age of abundant information.   As Saljo says, in this new ecology of digital technology, perhaps ‘…what we need to learn and remember, and how we do it, will be different to what we are used to.’ (2009:57)

After reading about the weariness of the flesh, I felt less tired. Links began to appear. The abundance paper referenced Nardi and O’Day’s 1999 book, Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.

 ‘The word ecology is important here because it conveys the sense of urgency about the need to take control of information systems – as Nardi and O’Day explain, ‘to inject our own values and needs into them so that we are not overwhelmed by some of our technical tools.’ (Gandel et al 2004:46)

Chapter 4 of Information Ecologies can be read on FirstMonday  Location of technology is described as its habitation, its suggested the word ecology represents diversity rather than sameness (diversity being integral to inclusion) and with information ecologies, attention is less about the technology but more about the human relations the technology serves. So far, so promising. Then I noticed a reference to Neil Postman, quoted many times in these online ramblings for his suggestion the rise in ‘entertainment’ media will result in citizens amusing themselves to death – unquestioning their death by media. I don’t have a television. My small act of resistance. Postman, founder of the Media Ecology Association and influenced by McLuhan, made explicit the relationships between media and social control. He described the media as imposing certain ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving, specifications which were more often ‘…implicit and informal, half concealed by our assumption that what we are dealing with is not an environment but merely a machine.’ (Postman. 1970) 

Postman says media ecology sets out to make these ideological specifications explicit. This is achieved through uncovering the ‘…roles media force us to play, how media structure what we are seeing, why media make us feel and act as we do.’

Calling for critical thinking to be taught in schools, Postman writes ‘Let us suppose as Jefferson did, and much later John Dewey, … that the best way for citizens to protect their liberty is for them to be encouraged to be skeptical.’ His five suggestions for teaching critical thinking included the ‘art and science of asking questions’ and to teach ‘technology education’ because:

‘…in the next ten years, everyone will know how to use computers. But what they will not know, as none of us did from everything from automobiles to movies to television, is what are the psychological, social, and political effects of new technologies.’ 

Reading Freiere, Giroux and bell hooks, I was inspired by idea of education as the practice of freedom. Since writing Chapter 6. Invisible Publics: Higher Education and Digital Exclusion in Towards Teaching in Public: Reshaping the Modern University I’ve seen higher education as a primary awareness raiser of digital exclusion with social responsibility for promoting digitally inclusive practice. I knew my approach to my phd was via critical theory but I wasn’t sure what this would look like. There have been a number of calls for critical theory to explain the gap between the rhetoric and practice of elearning (Feenberg, Selwyn, Hall, Freisen) but also calls for examining the performative nature of learning (Saljo), critical pedagogy through a postmodern lens (Giroux) and a need for redesigning the education curriculum to make it appropriate for a digital age (Facer, Saljo, Giroux).

I am drawn to the words resilience and hope. For me, the pedagogy of online learning is a Pedagogy of Uncertainty. As always, these are reflections on my reading and subject to change. What interests me is the linkages, often unanticipated and found in unexpected places. Eventually I’m sure my theoretical approach will take shape. It’s already lurking within the writings of Feenberg, Giroux, Saljo and Freisen and of course Gandel et al – without whose reflections on the weariness of flesh in an era of abundance these connections would never have occurred.


* Gandel, P. B., Katz, R. N. and Metros, S. (2004) Weariness of the Flesh’. Reflections on the life of the mind in an era of abundance Educause Review. March/April 2004:4151.

Nardi, B. and O’Day, V. (1999) Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart. MIT

Postman, N. (1970) The Reformed English Curriculum. in A.C. Eurich, A. C. ed., High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education

Postman, N. (1885) Amusiing Ourselves to Death. Methuen

Postman, N. (1999) Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future. Vintage; First Trade edition

It’s the ‘…ologies’ wot dunnit

I’ve feel I’ve misused my time. It’s the ‘…ologies’ wot dunnit. I can’t find my epistemic position. I’ve gone round in circles – ending back where I began every time. I can’t get started with my data collection because I can’t position myself. As soon as I look at positivist/interpretivist paradigms I glaze over. Whichever approach I adopt there’ll be someone, somewhere telling me it’s wrong. I don’t have a problem with theoretically underpinning my research topic; it’s what lies underneath is missing. The broader definitions of social reality are getting me down.

I’m investigating the social relations between staff and technologies for teaching and learning. My rationale derives from theories supporting the social construction of technology and the potential for resistance against dominant ideologies which create inequality – in this case digital exclusion. Rather than dismiss the technology of the digital diploma mills, lets explore how usage can be more socially responsible and appropriate for an equitable higher education. I want to get critical but I’m not sure how to adopt critical theory without being Marxist and I can’t find a non-Marxist space which fits. As soon as I look at the Frankfurt School; Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Benjamin etc I don’t know where to begin. The literature is full of reinterpretations of their work. The School was predominantly white, western and male, located within a specific culture which has since moved on. They were products of their time. Like Freud.

Reading One Dimensional Man (Marcuse, 1964) Amusing Ourselves to Death (Postman, 1985) and the Culture of Narcissism (Lasch, 1969) I can see persuasive political, cultural and psychoanalytic theories – each manifest in the internet which postdates them – but still I can’t pin myself down. I like Butler, Foucault and Baudrillard too. As a writer, the calls for an alternative feminist language from Irigaray and Kristeva influenced me in the 1990’s as did discourse analysis. I’m critical of the social construction of inequality, be it through gender, race, disability, age, religion, but nothing exists in isolation does it? Everything connects as the postmodernists claimed it did. In a fragmented, bricolage sort of way. Where are the socially responsible alternatives to Marxism? Does every critique have its roots in  Highgate cemetery?

ontology and epistemology – like trees in the woods

There’s no getting away from it. I have to get philosophical.

Ontology and epistemology go together. You can’t have one without the other. Ontology is about reality; it refers to the subject of existence or the nature of the world. All the heavy stuff!

Epistemology is how your ontology is understood. This is knowledge itself; what constitutes knowledge and how new knowledge is created. The good thing about a phd is this can be personal; no one insists on a single answer – or at least they shouldn’t. The idea is you find your own, a bit like deciding on a religion but instead of a traditional deity, it’s the academic philosophers who adopt the role of defining existence. The trouble is there’s so many of them and they all have different ideas.

The starting positions are interpretivist or positivist. Interpretivism privileges individual ways of being in the world while  positivism can be seen as more of a mass market approach. Our choice becomes our theoretical perspective. This duality is a simplification. There are cross overs. When Edward Bernays adopted his Uncle Freud’s understanding of individual psyche to create and promote mass consumerism – using psychoanalytic techniques to persuade people to respond to want rather than need – he blurred the lines between positivist and interpretative approaches.  Bernays created propaganda; the science of persuading individuals to behave as a single entity. The nature of reality can be complex.

To capture ontology and epistemology on the page we choose a  research methodology. Here is another duality – the qualitative and quantitative debate. Our methodology is informed by our theoretical perspective. Now it starts to get heavy because this is where philosophy has complicated the available alternatives. It’s no wonder the ancient greeks were so sure of themselves; they simply had less choice. The enlightenment philosophers have a lot to answer for.

It’s not enough to rely on instinct or intuition with regard to the nature of existence; you have to back it up too. I can’t go into a viva and say my allotment proves to me the existence of something beyond the power of science to recreate. When people challenge my chosen theoretical perspective, I have to be able to counter it with…… what? More theory?

If my perspective is theoretical then ultimately there are no correct answers. For every possible theory, there’re a whole host of people dedicating academic lifetimes to pointing out its weaknesses. At this point it would be easy to adopt a postmodern standpoint – but the danger with postmodernism is it can theorise itself into non-existence. If there’s one thing I ‘m sure of in my phd travels, it’s this. I’m critical about social inequality. Most of all I’m critical about discriminatory structures which create exclusion in a digital society. I’m with Tim Berners Lee. The world wide web and the internet contains the potential for democratisation of access  – through the flexibility of messages carried via digital media to be customised to suit personal  need. Herein lies issues of power. Of possibilities and resistance and the role of higher education to create social futures where digital public spheres are built on inclusive practice.

To get critical I need a solid theoretical perspective. To avoid getting lost in research jargon, which in itself can become a language of exclusion. I need an analogy – a personal, interpretative and qualitative viewpoint.  As always for me, nature has the answer. In the way I understand binary constructions of language – where meaning derives from what an object is not –  as in a tree is a tree because it is not a bush, a shrub or a hedgerow, I turn to the woods. Without individual trees there would be no forests.  I have to find my favourite birch in among the oaks and ash, knowing I love them too. Poplars and cypress  are out. So are the massive sequoias.  I prefer trees offering shade with branches and leaves which rustle in the wind. Then I have to find others who agree and support me in my world view of trees. Here is a starting point. Lets walk in the woods.

Interrogating TELEDA – for better or worse…

This research should not be about ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’ but being critical about the role of the university as a site of knowledge production and negotiation. HE is accommodating new technologies but of necessity the process needs to be critiqued. (supervisor feedback earlier this year)

After a summer of discontent with theory, I’ve decided where my research is located; it will be pedagogically as much as critically informed.

The relationship between the university and learning technology is open to critique but my research remains within the discursive practices of ‘teaching educationalists to use technology’. Digital-first policies are increasing pressure to shift to blended and distance learning. There is an urgent need to find ways to adapt traditional lecture and seminar formats to online delivery. Not the passive transmission model of powerpoint and word repositories, but the building of genuinely experiential learning based on shared practice and collaborative group work. Time to argue about the politics of alternative technologies is running out. We need to make better pedagogical use of what we already have; to reinvent design and delivery which supports critical thinking and reflective practice while acknowledging internet access is changing what it means to know and to learn in a digital age (CIBER, Wolf, Saljo) Ecology as well as pedagogy is required.

I get nervous about calls for a radically different approach to education. While agreeing the need for curriculum resilience within fluid knowledge landscapes, I have less confidence in alternatives such as Edupunk’s contested DIY model as portrayed by Kamenetz  Pathways and guidance might be more effective than freedom in an unfettered internet. Rather than move away from the university in Edufactory style,  my research will investigate how to do different and better with what is already in place. Revolution is not the only response.

TELEDA was designed to be progressive. Resources include signposts towards critical pedagogy and social inclusion, learning activities are collaborative and communicative and technology is presented as potentially divisive. Participants are continually encouraged to consider inclusion.  My approach is embedded in existing critiques of technology for learning. These include Feenberg’s call to analyse technologies as historically situated (1999) and restructuring the dynamics of technological design and development as social and political processes (2005) and Selwyn’s theorising of educational technology as a profoundly social, cultural and political concern (2010) Time again this summer I’ve returned to Foucault and distributed flows of power through discursive practice. I’ve discovered the places where Giroux has applied postmodern ideas to teaching and learning and where education represents the practice of freedom and a pedagogy of hope (Freire, hooks, Giroux). The work of Warshcauer, Seale, Selwyn and Facer, van Dijk and Seyeart on critical approaches to digital divides and exclusions continue to inspire me.

My PAR will interrogate TELEDA, for better or worse, It will focus on how virtual engagement for staff and students need not represent the automation of teaching but offer support for the higher level thought processes integral to a university education. Here I find Friesen’s critical approach to the myths of elearning and the work of Reeves and Harrington on research into learning design to be useful. The growing recognition of space between the rhetoric and the practice of elearning (Conole, Oliver, Feenberg, Reeves, Harrington etc etc) is supporting a rethinking of the translation of subject disciplines from the face to face to virtual design and delivery. Reeves et al suggest six possible theoretical bases for this research. I have chosen this one

‘Researchers with postmodern goals are focused on examining the assumptions underlying contemporary educational programmes and practices with the ultimate goal of revealing hidden agendas and empowering disenfranchised minorities. Although increasingly evident among researchers with multicultural, gender or political interested, research in the postmodern tradition is rare within the field of educational technology.’ (Reeves et al 2010: 60)

So here it is. For over 20 years I’ve worked with technology for education. I was there at the beginning – from pre internet to dial up, MOOs and MUDs to Second Life, Twitter, Flickr and Facebook.  I’ve lived and breathed in the spaces between the rhetoric and reality of virtual learning. Those spaces are now being made public and while the critique is essential, so is the need to find new ways to move forward. I believe this research will combine all the essential elements. I’ve gathered the work of critical theorists who speak of social responsibility and inclusion and am ready to construct my PAR framework for establishing a foundation for truly inclusive virtual teaching and learning, one which may appear more pedagogical than political but which nevertheless enables the rethinking required to build progressive online higher education appropriate for a digital age.  


see PhD page for full references

Not with a bang, not even a whimper.

On Friday 30th August, it all came to an end. The University of Lincoln Hull Campus closed. Its final year in rented space on the University of Hull campus finished.  Nothing seems to have marked the occasion.

So… lest we forget

The University of Lincoln has history north of the Humber. It’s heritage is a direct line to the Hull School of Art which opened in 1861.   In 1976, the School of Art merged with other colleges to become Hull College of Higher Education. This became Humberside Polytechnic, gaining university status, between 1990 and 1992 when it was known as the University of Humberside.  Renamed the University of Lincolnshire and Humberside in 1996, it became the University of Lincoln in 2001.

  • The Virtual Campus – precursor to Blackboard, Web CT et al – was built there, pioneering the concept of virtual learning environments long before they became famous.
  • Work Based Learning was developed there.
  • Achievers in Excellence and Aim Higher set the standard for widening participation with local schools and colleges.
  • Getting Started began on the George Street city centre campus.

Colleagues with memories longer than mine will no doubt remember more than I do. Please feel free to comment.

So many people like myself were supported to return to education at Inglemire Lane and Cottingham Road as well as Queen’s Gardens and the Old Town.  Our lives would be very different without the opportunities to study and develop in these places.

I feel sad to know it’s all come to an end, not with a bang, not even a whimper.