Myth, math and postmodern critique

Shhh…. don’t tell anyone but I have postmodern leanings. I’m a writer. Words matter. Barthes has always been important to me. However much I craft I know I have to let go. Interpretation is personal. All words are imbued with alternatives yet language is all we have to produce meaning.

‘We are suspended in language in such a way that we cannot say what is up and what is down.’ *

Postmodernism was always going to be contentious. It doesn’t even exist in any graspable form. It’s more a lens for seeing reality – or challenging what we might think is real in the first place.  A postmodernist lens has value for viewing digital realities – which are always second hand and can only ever be simulations of the real. Virtual reality and postmodernism go well together. Each time we log onto we become cyborg. We exhibit increasingly hybrid identities. The internet encourages performance. No one knows you’re a dog or a cat. You can have one persona or a dozen. Be anonymous. Be whatever you want to be. The categories of social attribution are empty. Fractured identities and the bricolage of digital communication platforms epitimise the postmodern condition.  I fell for these ideas long before new digital stages for performativity were invented. Researching gender through a postmodern lens taught me how to think in spectrums, understand the social construction of sex.  When it comes to social reality, I’ve never been one for fixed meanings.

Political sociology and revolutionary Marxism has no time for postmodernism. The harsh economic realities of 21st century favour the resurgence of popular politics. The dismantling of the welfare state and digital-first policies are creating new dividing lines where social difference is stark. ‘Postmodernism is dead!’ claim those who never liked it in the first place. It has fallen out of favour. I know this. Criticisms include being pretentiously intellectual, elitist, a showground for those with nothing better to do than climb inside themselves – anally.

Chomsky is one of many who has viciously attacked postmodernism Just a month ago he called it nothing more than the inflation of humanities, where advocates set themselves in competition with the theoretical physicists and mathematicians, the practitioners of real science as opposed to the ranting polysyllabics of the postmodern scholar’s empty posturing (Chomsky’s words – not mine). You have to ask what lies behind such a savage indictment. Chomskyesk polemic appears to be saying science is the only method when there is as much to be learned from myth as math.

When it comes to the day to day social realities of the use and abuse of learning technology, postmodernism isn’t going to hold up. Its strength is more philosophical than practical. I need to be grounded in social reality. I’m reading Feenberg’s critical theory of technology – instrumentalisation. I’m not sure what Chomsky would say to its polysyllabic title but it holds promise. I’m working my way into the gap between rhetoric and the practice of digital education, the space where technology is the site of tension between freedom and restraint. It feels like the road less travelled. I  retain my postmodern roots. Academia is a world of parallel universes. Contradictory theories compete. Diametrically opposed ideas clash. There is room for everyone. Digital education as the practice of freedom has to be multidisciplinary, multi theoretical. There is space for all ways of seeing. Activism for social equality and justice should be a secular enterprise.

* Neils Bohr  Quoted in Philosophy of Science Vol. 37 (1934), p. 157, and in The Truth of Science : Physical Theories and Reality (1997) by Roger Gerhard Newton, p. 176

The P in PhD: getting your hands dirty

Philosophy is tough stuff. We all experience life but when it comes to the consideration of knowledge, reality and existence, we tend to hand responsibility over to others. Instead of thinking it out for ourselves, we let those considered to be expert advise us on the nature of our own scientific and social reality. The P in PhD changes this. It’s about getting your hands dirty. It involves research into yourself as much as your chosen subject.

How do you know what you know? Seven is a magic number. These seven single-syllable words sum up the hugeness of doctoral research. Deceptively simple, they’re a doorway to a different world. A multi-syllable landscape with different ways of seeing and being. Working out your ontology and epistemology and defending your position in the face of opposing views, creates confidence. A PhD is an opportunity to confirm your world view. It does this by shifting you from what Larkin calls the unique distance of isolation – with all its subjective connotations – to a more objective reality, one shared by those with similar ways of being in the world.

There are no definitive answers. The first thing philosophy teaches is how life views differ. The choice is confusing but you need to find a path through the philosophy forest. A PhD is an authenticated journey. Taking up a position and defending it. Locating yourself with authority; becoming research engaged and informed. At first, if you want to explore a seemingly practical topic, like online learning, the P for Philosophy feels like the wrong direction. If you lean towards a world view diametrically opposed to your supervisor, you’re in for a bumpy ride. But when you read something which resonates, discover similar but authenticated interpretations of the complexity of social reality, it begins to fall into place. Althusser writes about appellation; the process of recognition whereby we are hailed by a subject position. It’s a bit like this. You collect similarities and discard differences. Eventually you’ll reach a place where you can justify your own approach. It takes time. The literature review will help but ultimately you’re on your own.

It can be useful to think of the PhD as a ritual or rite of passage; one where enough people have survived to be reassured it is possible.

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.


The E word as in E-learning – what does the E stand for?

Electronic is the commonest answer. Which is misleading. It implies the two go together when they don’t; electronic has nothing to do with learning. elearning requires a new pedagogy. An inherent problem is the way existing educational theories have been moulded to fit.  They won’t. They can’t. Not only does face to face practice not sit well within virtual environments, to create workable online educational experiences is to accept the reality of elearning engagement is the diametric opposite to how elearning has been presented.

Conventional rhetoric tells us elearning has the power to transform. The HEFCE ‘E’ could well include easy, efficient, effective, extended, economic – effortless? I made that last one up but the promotion of elearning as the answer to reducing costs and doing more for less implies a seamless transition from the traditional classroom to a virtual one. The anomaly – and the true reality – is elearning means increased costs and doing much much more – in terms of the design and delivery of learning activities as well as the technical, administrative and professional support systems which are all part of an effective elearning framework.

What would I call elearning?

Enigmatic? Exacting? Exigent?

The complexities of managing online learning are enormous, even Elephantine – as in the problem of the Elephant in the room. The resourcing the time, space, place and skillsets – all essential components. The real costs of elearning are so big no one dare address them. You could call it Expensive learning. Without a dedicated team containing a blend of technical and pedagogical understanding of digital literacies, digital scholarship and digital ways of working, elearning will continue to appeal to a narrow student base, retention will remain poor and the quality of online resources be an ongoing cause for concern.

As if this were not enough, elearning privileges those with means of access and the capability of using that access appropriately. If you are limited by an outdated browser, run an old operating system, live in an area with a poor connection speeds or depend on assistive technology, elearning will be problematic.

Out of all the possibilities the biggest e of all remains E for EXCLUSIVE.

The teachings of Don Juan: knowledge is power

Theory has layers. You have to get into it. Up close and personal.  It’s not enough to be an observer. You need to read, reflect, write, read some more, and more, and more….

From no where has come a ‘blast from the past’. A memory from The Teachings of Don Juan.  Finding a theory is like finding your spot on the porch. Carlos Castaneda writes:

He [Don Juan] asked me to remember the time I had tried to find my spot, and how I wanted to find it without doing any work because I had expected him to hand out all the information. If he had done so, he said, I would never have learned…. If, however, he had told me where it was, I would never have had the confidence needed to claim it as true knowledge. Thus, knowledge was indeed power. (1968: 20)

Theory isn’t fixed. It’s like wearing glasses. My prescription won’t work for you – yours won’t work for me. I don’t like your choice of frames but I can see how they suit you.

Theory offers explanations but I’ve found it difficult to pin myself onto the theory map. So I turned it round. Instead of trying to find a theory for me, I started to read about the theory searching of others.  Here I discovered the layers. A triad of them. I like threes. They’re manageable and magic.

When it comes to research on learning technology, approaches range from theoretical absence, theories about learning and theories which adopt critical social perspectives. Within each layer are strata; multiple perspectives, all with their own separate theoretical approach and continually evolving and reforming – like amoebas. As you read, reflect and read some more… certain stands begin to emerge as structures. These form a framework enabling you to position your reading. Here, there, and everywhere – into the different perspectives – individual, institutional, national. All contained within visible and invisible discursive practices through which power and control are exercised. Yes, it does all comes down to power and control. Foucault remains relevant.

Once the layers take on a broader social and cultural identity, the PhD begins to take shape. Ontology makes sense. The being, seeing and positioning of yourself has to happen. You need to decide who you are. Find your purpose. Locate your spot of power.

Castenada, C. (1968) The teachings of Don Juan: a Yaqui way of knowledge. London: Penguin; New edition (22 Feb 1990)

Who will clean the toilets after the revolution?

I learned about feminism the hard way. Through divorce. There’s nothing like custody to make you appreciate where discrimination lies. Today we face a mass of social and economic problems. Capitalism takes as much as it offers. The state of the NHS, the future of higher education, the media manipulation of welfare claimants are all cause for concern. Yet a life in the UK remains an aspiration for people across the world. We have space to campaign.  Call for greater equality and social justice. Higher education can challenge and change. Maybe not the world but enough small parts to make a difference. The danger is seeing class as the only discrimination. A Marxist framework was useful for rising awareness of gender divides, but gender continues to divide society, deeply and silently. Economics is only one strand of the ideological oppression of women.

My feminist education was less work based than home based. Women find it hard to separate historical materialism from biology. Divorced, I faced the dual predicament of childcare plus the one issue feminism has never answered – toilet cleaning. The reality of women and work rarely sit well together. Work is problematic for mothers – regardless of their status. Whether married, single, divorced or widowed, without a support structure, usually made up of other women, the greatest load of childcare, housework and toilet cleaning is in the female domain. It has always been like this.

I fell out with feminism in the late 20th century because it denigrated the role of motherhood. In prioritising career opportunities and equal pay for women, the status of stay at home mother was downgraded. When it came to domesticity as a career choice, there was no sisterhood. I was lucky. I worked because I wanted to as well as needed to. At the same time I returned to my own education. These were the days of Women’s Studies where feminism was often theoretical. Political activism is safer on paper. In terms of bringing issues of ideological oppression of women into the public domain, there is much to thank the academics and campaigners for, but feminism took away the woman’s right to choose. It privileged work over housewifery. If feminism had invented, patented and given away self-cleaning toilets – every home should have one – it would have been a significant step towards gender equality. For every man who claims to be a toilet cleaner there are a thousand who’ve never wielded a loo brush in their lives. Power politics are played out not only in government but in the rooms of the home; the bedroom, dining room, kitchen room, bathroom.

Cultural attitudes have deep roots. Men still patronize. Women still get paid less for doing more. The ideology hasn’t changed. Gender discrimination is a powerful social tool and I don’t see how Marxism will change this. Who will clean the toilets after the revolution?

If words were miles I’d have crossed the world by now…

At this time of year, when colleagues are applying for staff development funding to do postgraduate research, I look back on how far I’ve come on my own PhD journey. If words were miles I’d have crossed the world by now.  But they’re not. In the PhD landcape I haven’t gone very far.

The vastness is unimaginable. Every layer brings reading of a scary proportions. Like dreams with too much to fit in the suitcase, a new PhD seems uncontainable. You have to learn to live with overspill. Books on the floor. Papers in the bedroom.  Hard drives get confused. Dropbox overflows.  All topics of conversation are miraculously related back to your research topic or some quirk in a paper you’ve read which resonates. You can’t get it out of your head. It needs to be shared.  Like a martini. Any time, any place, anywhere. While everyone else has a life, you only have an uncompleted PhD future.

To anyone starting doctoral research part-time be warned, you will regret it – and unless the subject is close up and personal, you’re unlikely to complete. Strategic management of time and subject is your only hope for survival.  Focus, motivation, incentive and very understanding family, friends and colleagues are essential. The PhD will move in. Take over. Your head will have two compartments. One work. One PhD. Everything else will be evicted or move out on its own accord.  Think of it like a partner – always there but sulking in the corner because you’re not paying attention.

Like a dog, a PhD is not for Christmas, it’s for life and August is the cruellest month. The end of July is full of colleague-speak about time off;  vacations/staycations or chill. The start of September is review and reflect on said time off.  August is miserable. August has become the busiest month. VLE upgrade, Getting Started and TELEDA eportfolio submissions all arrive together. There is much work to be done.

I don’t research well at work. I prefer the home office. Getting on the read-think-write cycle without encountering real world distractions.  Did I say a PhD is the most anti-social of occupations? The problem is the process of engagement is cumulative. When the going gets tough (is it ever any different?) it can take days to get your head in the right place. It’s a cognitive thing. Fitting the world inside a brain the size of a grapefruit is hard work. There is never enough time. Never enough of the right time.  Which is where this post began. Time and distance travelled. Not enough of either. I should be chasing my still elusive theories rather than blogging…

When people tell you part-time is tough they’re not exaggerating. The chances are they’re not even being tough enough. The only way to find out what it’s really like is to do it. But there is hope. In spite of the ever-increasing circles, setbacks and frustrations, I know it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. When you read something which resonates or talk to people who care about the same things it reinforces your sense of purpose. Get the power balance right and doctoral research offers real opportunities for advocacy and working towards sustainable change. It really is about being what you want to see in the world. A PhD is one way to experience this. So good luck. Because you’ll need it and I hope you also have a fantastic journey getting there. Just don’t wear a pedometer.


Inthereority complex

Theory. A lens to see the world. A framework for making sense.  I’m ok with the theory of theory. But whose theory is it and how ‘big’ should it be? All encompassing or subject specific? Reinventing the university or enhancing teaching and learning? Does education have to be critical? Should I be aiming to change the world or can I start with a smaller part of it?  My research topic is teaching and learning online. It’s small in the scheme of things – but with potential to grow, be subversive, challenging, empowering. Social justice concerns me – but my research seeks to improve virtual practice – for now.  I can write issues of digital division and exclusion into the curriculum, make inclusive practice part of the business of content development and online delivery.  This is power. An example of a Freirean approach to the politics of education, where the enabling and disabling affordances of technology constitute my political agenda. In an increasingly digital society, to be shut out from the platforms of the public sphere is to be marginalised. Disempowered. Where the university is a place for critical knowledge production, a platform for debating oppositional ideas, it is also the place for raising awareness of silence; a platform for knowing and challenging exclusion rather than replicating and reinforcing exclusive behaviours.

Questions with no answers. Should my theory address wider discursive frameworks of power or focus on contemporary perspectives in elearning research? Do meta narratives and philosophical giants need a place, or are the experts in my field of study enough? What does the macro in a PhD look like? How macro can I go? Higher? Lower? Ground myself in the changing relationships between people, technology and knowledge? The commodification of education? The future of the university?  Or is the rationale for participatory action research enough?

elearning research is a young discipline; not yet fully matured. Researchers have applied an eclectic mix of positivist and constructivist philosophies to underpin a range of learning theories. This should be liberating. It should instil confidence to know there is freedom to rethink and reframe what has gone before. I don’t know why I’m finding it so difficult.  I’m Libran though.  Good at balancing multiple sides of different stories. Identifying strengths and weakness. I sit well on fences. On either side of multiple possibilities. I’m more postmodern than Marxist but even this doesn’t help – the social impact of the internet reflects powerful capitalist roots and most literature on the VLE refers to the commodification of knowledge

This has been going on for long enough. I need to get brave, be decisive, ground myself in a theoretical approach which works on all levels. It’s not easy.  Does the theory relate to the educational process or should it frame the wider society in which the pedagogy is located? Do I select a theory because it fits or because the words dance on the page shouting me! me! me! How do I know the best direction to take?

This is the problem with freedom.

PhD Friday – on not talking theory

Every time I turn a corner it’s like a new beginning – but not in a good way – more oh **** another focus shift needed. I guess each move is a step closer but appreciating it will take the benefit of hindsight. At the moment my sight is limited, the future hidden and the progress I think I’ve made is never enough. I have pilot participants ready to talk to me but it seems I’m not ready for them.

I can’t position myself epistemologically or ontologically, never mind axiologically – which is possibly the key of the three. When it comes to technology for learning my criticality is driven by my values. It seems these run in ever increasing circles of contrariness to the majority view of pushing the frontiers. I believe we need to look the other way – compare where we are to where we’ve come from. The distance may be less than received wisdom would have us believe. I think closer attention to resistance is called for. A realistic approach looking to the past and the present.  Technology has not transformed teaching in higher education. It might enhance on-campus delivery – it can improve part-time and distance learning – but it cannot transform. Not without attention to the time it takes to produce tasks and facilitate activities or surface the ways it excludes as much as widens participation.

Back the phd. I don’t know how to get theoretical enough. I don’t know how to align myself. I support approaches which offer multiple realities, identities and positions. Grand narratives which scoop everyone into a single overarching structure are less attractive. Pluralities appeal. I met postmodernism in 1999 and I liked it. Within the messiness of postmodern ideas, structures can be identified; hidden agendas and power mechanisms. I can adopt a critical approach in order to uncover these; to show the social underpinning of technology, education and knowledge in a digital age. But I can’t link this with the deeper philosophical language of doctoral research. I can’t move forward from where I’ve been stuck for months. I can’t talk theory.

Planning digital futures in teaching and learning

There are two sides to every story, sometimes three, four or more. Experience influences interpretation and a university should contain oppositional views. Negotiation is the name of the game and there is nothing like educational technology to polarise views.  As the new academic year brings discussions around implementing a digital education strategy, I feel a growing sense of unease.  The VLE is mostly a repository of attachments to module guides, lecture notes and powerpoint presentations; it has become an information conduit not a communication facilitator.

Adoption remains patchy. Early promises of transformation have not been fulfilled. Rather than blue sky thinking around what might be possible maybe we should begin with what we know. Using technology can take more time than it saves, it’s likely to break down, disconnect, not be there when needed, involve steep learning curves, operate through an ever diminishing set of access criteria and is ultimately a poor substitute for human face to face interaction.

I continue to support  teaching and learning online. I believe it enhances distant and blended learning and 24/7 mobile access to relevant content and procedures can only be an advantage to busy people living busy lives.  So why the distance between the users and non users, the early and late adopters? Rather than prioritise innovation, should we pay attention to resistance? Not everyone is comfortable interacting with a machine. One reason is time. Promises of efficiency are diluted by the reality. Managing teaching and learning online requires significant amounts of time to adapt content, facilitate collaboration and group work, moderate communication, and respond to students on individual basis by text or video.  Technology is not always efficient. It breaks down. It confuses. Why cant I find anything on the portal?

In a recent editorial for Learning, Media and Technology, Neil Selwyn* asks how technologies which arrived on promises of a ‘freer and fairer education’ have had the opposite effect. What happened to ‘…pre-millennial expectations of the cyber-campus and seamlessly ‘blended’ learning?’  Where are instances of digital technology which are ‘…genuinely enabling and empowering for those that use them?’  Promises of transformation go on; mobile learning – flipped classrooms – more open educational resources and courses. The voice of the academics are seldom heard. Digital divides by their nature silence those who are late adopters or lag behind.

Unless we listen to staff who are teaching and supporting learning – rather than being driven by interests outside of the lecture theatre/seminar room – we’re not going to achieve bottom up sustainable change.  I still believe in the affordances of virtual learning environments to widen participation and offer genuinely authentic learning experiences. I still believe ICT can disrupt and democratise – but the essential workloads need to be acknowledged and shared. I agree with Selwyn who suggests digital technology for university educators should be developed by the same university educators. Greater resources for courses and those who teach on them has to be worth revisiting as digital futures for teaching and learning are planned.


* Selwyn, N., 2013, Digital technologies in universities: Problems posing as solutions?, Learning, Media and Technology [P], vol 38, issue 1, Routledge, Abingdon Oxon United Kingdom, pp. 1-3