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.

Pragmatist and Proud

I’ve been criticised for calling myself a pragmatist. It has connotations of neutrality. It isn’t political enough. Politics is my weakness. I don’t really have any. It’s not I don’t care about social justice or equality of opportunity. It’s just I’ve adopted a practical philosophy. My approach to life is ‘I can’t change the world but I can work to change my little part of it’.

I didn’t think I needed politics to do a phd. I expected to have to think about knowledge, learn the difference between epistemology and ontology. I thought I’d have to locate myself on the educational spectrum but I didn’t expect my lack of political acumen to be such a barrier to progress.

It’s not enough to want to research my own practice using virtual learning environments, to better support others use of education technology. I have to demonstrate I’m against those with vested interests in automating teaching. It’s not enough to be aware of hidden power structures and work to raise awareness in others so they can adapt their practice accordingly. I have to advocate the failure of education technology in the first place.  Which is a bit like telling me the past 25 years of my working life have been misguided and misplaced.

Not everyone has political bones. My political apathy doesn’t come from privilege. My background is economically poor and socially marginalised. I know how capitalism creates inequality, how it privileges those with financial security and disempowers the poor. I’ve seen how capitalist systems replicate disadvantage, how they construct social ghettos of low opportunity and aspiration. I believe higher education offers opportunities to raise awareness of inequality, to understand the construction of power and control, to uncover the replication and reinforcement of inequality, to support social justice. This is as political as I get. But it’s not enough.

My theory is not deep enough. My criticisms not founded, my arguments too weak and my opinion not important.  Without being grounded in theory, I haven’t earned the right to speak. I thought where I was and what I did was enough.  Actions speaking louder than words and so on. Unless it’s for a phd. Where it seems the words matter more than the actions.

I understand the rationale for theory. The need to avoid the risk of applying theory rather than critically engaging with it. I knew a phd was about questioning, about accepting or rejecting theoretical approaches. But I thought my reading and reflection was enough to get started on my data collection. It seems not. I’m still floating. Not grounded enough. All of which makes it feel like I’ve hardly begun. So if I stop now, while I’m closer to the starting point than I realised, it won’t be such a waste will it? I could keep the politics in a box. Stay pragmatist and proud.  Alternatively, I could investigate the possibility of being both pragmatist and political at the same time.


When the only sense of direction is backwards…

‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.’  This sounds like Marshall McLuhan (The Medium is the Message,1967) but was written McLuhan’s friend, John Culkin, who also said ‘a lot of things have happened in this century and most of them plug into walls.’ (quoted in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman Charles Weingartner, 1971 p 10)

The plug referred to television. Today we plug into the internet, taking for granted all the multiple channels of mass media which so concerned McLuhan, Culkin and Postman et. al. 40-50 years ago. The process of logging on may be shaping our working  practice but any modification of behaviour can’t be directly attributed to the technology. The development and integration of machines in our daily lives ultimately derives from the external social landscape, one which positions us within the dominant political economy of the time.

Postman and Weingartner called for education to be subversive. Young people should ‘…question, doubt, or challenge any part of the society in which they live, especially those parts which are most vulnerable…schools must serve as the principal medium for developing in youth the attitudes and skills of social, political and cultural criticism.’  Schools should also be capable of instilling in students – a la Hemmingway – a built-in, shockproof crap detector! I guess that’s one way of describing critical pedagogy which sets out to uncover the power structures disguised as ideology and culture.

One of my favourite words is resonance. It describes universal significance but resonance can also be personal; a poem has resonance when it ‘hits home’ and reader ‘hears’ what is being said. The  stab of recognition might not be shared by all. The act of naming is individual. Althusser wrote about appellation and identity; how cultural discourse offers a variety of subject positions which ‘hail’ us; we recognise what fits and adopt.

Education needs the principle of resonance. To learn requires the application of new to existing knowledge in order to integrate and understand. Resonance happens when something makes sense. Resonance can be applied to crap as well as to meaningful synchronicity and validated knowledge. What matters is distinguishing between them and knowing what matters to you as an individual.

All roads lead to my PhD and this is no exception. Where there’s no resonance there’s less interest. Part-time doctoral research is a tough choice and it doesn’t get any easier. I’m having an existential moment. I know what I want to research and how I want to manage the process but I feel the tools are shaping me in directions I don’t want to go – where there’s no resonance.  I’m being positioned in the wrong place. I don’t want to change the world,  just my own tiny little part of it. I’m thinking I might give up. The only sense of direction is backwards.

A PhD is for life, not just Christmas!

A phd is like a dog – not just for Christmas – it’s for life. It needs feeding, watering and taking out at least twice a day. The advantage is I don’t have to scoop the poop and there’s no dog hairs on my settee. The disadvantage is it’s sneaking in and taking over – although I don’t mind really. Like dogs have a way of getting through to you, me and my phd are starting to get on. The relationship’s improving; it could be getting serious and it might last for some time.

Over on my PhD page there’s the public side of my PhD journal. It tracks my regular meetings with supervisor Mike Neary; references my reading and contains reflections on the process of engaging with doctoral research. The entries aren’t blog posts but they do sometimes raise issues which are bloggable. At the moment I’m considering my position. Feet on coffee table, laptop on knee is not enough. I have to know where I’m coming from. In phd-ology language this is my ontology and epistemology. In my head it’s contextualization. How much of myself do I put into doctorate?

The answer is more than I anticipated.

I’ve always lived my life in layers. I compartmentalize. Have multiple identities.  What’s exciting is the way the phd process is creating linkages between these layers, in particular how the theme of authorship and text keeps reappearing. I need some time out to explore this.

So excuse me please, I have to walk the dog. I may be some time.

Failure is not an option!

There’s a new thread running through my PhD reading and reflection; how little has changed with ‘e-learning’. In the digital education world, innovators and technologists have raced ahead – buoyed with project funding – reinventing multiple wheels and embracing the new affordances of social media, demonstrating their connectivism from tweeting cliques – while many more staff remain excluded from the mysteries of social media and virtuality, following the traditional lecture/seminar models and wishing learning technology would quietly leave the building. I find myself somewhere between the two. I’ve been reading Feenburg (see the PhD page) In the ninth of his ten paradoxes of technology, the co-construction of technology and society and resulting feedback loops are demonstrated through Esher’s print ‘Drawing Hands’. Like a Mobious Strip, or the chicken and the egg question, the print confuses our expectations of order. It reminds me of the VLE – the only way to learn it is to use it but how can we use it without supporting the learning? 

Escher print Drawing Hands

When VLE’s were first embedded into university systems there were expectations of adoption and use e.g.HEFEC’s Technology Enhanced Learning Strategy full of the rhetoric of transformation. Over on the Phd page I’ve quoted Feenburg who said in 2011 ‘the promise of virtual learning in the 1990s has come to nothing and elearning within the university has failed’. I’d suggest it hasn’t failed; more not worked out as well as it could have done. I’m a learning technologist with a remit to support virtual pedagogy. Failure is not an option. I still believe in the affordances of technology – access beyond the barriers of time and distance – and the potential power of online communication and collaboration to create communities of shared practice where learning takes off and runs. The best way forward is working directly with teachers and learning developers on how best to enable their own digital scholarship and literacies. There’s no secret to effective online learning. We know what works. Give staff time, space and incentivisation to adopt digital ways of working alongside a reliable knowledgeable support system – and they will – the TELEDA course shows enthusiasm and interest is there. What’s missing is the time, space and incentivisation – and a support system robust enough to reach across the schools and departments. The reason the OU do it so well is the resource they put into it. The reasons other institutions do it less well is their DIY approach to technology; elearning hasn’t failed, it just needs a different strategic approach to innovation.

Reading the literature around technology and society is to visit some gloomy, pessimistic viewpoints. I agree technology is devisive. Access to technological resources can be seen to replicate wider social structures of disadvantage and marginalisation. But I need to be optimistic.  I don’t see technology for education as necessarily essentialist – or as Douglas Kellner says in his response to Feenburg’s book Questioning Technology –‘…having a primary dimension which is functional…instrumental, decontextualizing, reductive, autonomising and determinist.’  P161-2. Those who interpret it this way miss the creative potential of the user.  I remain positive. Given the time, space and incentivisation to integrate and contextualise the use of technology, it can be enriching rather than dominating and reductive.

This is my motivation for adopting an action research methodology for my research  one which invites staff to participate in a process which seeks to improve relationships with an institutional VLE. I believe without investment into the staff who use it, who are best placed to say how they could use it more effectively, there can be no freedom from the loop of resistance. Without participatory research into the staff experience, resistance to the VLE will continue, it will be negatively critiqued, and used on a ‘needs-must-if-at-all’ basis. I do believe VLEs can be used effectively to enhance teaching and learning for on campus students and provide a valid alternative for those learning in isolation at a distance. I also believe staff are excited by the potential of new digital media but lack the opportunities to develop the new ways of thinking and managing their practice. The pilot run of Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age is already suggesting this. The challenge now is to investigate how best to manage this process before the next academic year.


Feenberg, A. (2010). Ten paradoxes of technology. Techné, 14(1): 3-15.

Feenburg, A. (2011) Agency and Citizenship in a Technological Society

Kellner, D. (2001) Feenberg’s Questioning Technology in Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 18(1): 155-162, 2001.

a rose is a rose is a rose etc

Of all the arts, poetry suffers from dependency on personal opinion. I’ve been re-reading Saussure for my phd and reflecting on its application to poetry. Early 20th century Structuralists suggested meaning derives from subjective interpretation rather than any externally fixed truth. Semiotics , the science of signs, was key to Structuralist belief in the possibility of uncovering  the multiple ‘truths’ of social reality. In a ‘Course in General Linguistics’, Saussure challenged realism (the world can be known) with linguistic relativism (the world can only be known through the structures of language). Structuralism revealed language as a system of signifiers (the word) and signified (the idea the word conveys) where connections between them are cultural and arbitrary rather than innate or fixed. Single meaning is replaced with multiple possibilities or references eg roses have become associated with cultural images of love, passion, beauty, valentines, romance, gardening etc. None of these describe the flower but are all part of the agreed consensus of meaning around the signifier Rose.

Death of the Author cartoon by Donald Palmer 1997

This stress on referential reality complicates the challenge of poetry to create maximum resonance with minimum words. Resonance is personal and subjective. Barthes  understood this when he challenged modernist notions of authority and knowledge production by suggesting the author is dead. In his 1977 essay Death of the Author, ( Barthes says the author no longer has authority and there is no such thing as a singular narrative. Instead the interpretation of text becomes a collaborative process between author and audience: ‘…a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue…but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader’   Barthes concludes ‘Classical criticism has never paid any attention to the reader…the writer is the only person in literature…it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’. The poet has to work twice as hard to find the words. Not only must they say what they want but will also say something similar to reader. In a world where truths are subsumed with multiple possibilities, the challenge is irresistible

Cartoon by Donald D Palmer 1997

Revisiting Prensky’s digital native/immigrant debate

Prensky’s polarisation of students and teachers into digital natives and immigrants was simplistic, but the KIS (Keep It Simple) approach can be an effective stimulant for debate. Prensky has been responsible for a lot of debate. Dig underneath the surface and the core of Prensky’s polemic remains relevant. The question of how can the social shift to digital ways of working best enhance teaching and learning remains unanswered.  Prensky was right. Those with Britannica feet are being replaced by generations whose only reference source is Google. The image below is simplistic but contains a valuable message for anyone wanting to see digital literacies and scholarship embedded into the curriculum.  How can an institution manage change and adapt to the digital impact of technology?

Prensky - what children should learn in schools

Neil Selwyn* offers a realistic appraisal of Prensky, usefully reminding us of the social shaping of technology and how usage mirrors existing social structures. The  literature of digital divides should underpin all policy and strategic approaches. In the meantime digital technology is becoming more pervasive. Soon won’t need the T in ICT; it will be taken for granted. It’s ironic how the strata of digital engagement has ‘shallowness’ as the deepest and widest layer.

The key problem is the solid curriculum. It seems unable to flex enough to incorporate essential requirements for the century, namely individuals who can tell the difference between knowledge, information and personal opinion – online. The skills to manage vertical searching and differentiate between authenticity and conspiracy theories are the core basics of digital literacies, alongside the presentation of self and parameters of access.  However, embedding all these into the curriculum, and focusing on digital graduate attributes, is only part of the answer.

It isn’t only about student education, it’s about teacher education too. In 2001 Prensky was saying ‘today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach’ but a decade later no one is saying today’s education system is no longer training the teachers it needs for a digital age. Calling people natives or immigrants drew attention to digital technology for education, but as well as redesigning the curriculum for students, we need to revisit support and resources for the teachers who are implementing it, something  Prensky, Selwyn  and other contemporary commentators appear – so far – to have missed.  

Educating the ‘Digital Natives’ (2011) from Neil Selwyn’s Education and Technology, London: Continuum –available from Continuum (now Bloomsbury) Companion website

Openness of a different kind (to OERs and MOOCs)


Thinking is a quiet art. It was quiet on the PhD front last year. Lots of thinking but not much to show for it. I knew my approach would have to change and a few weeks ago created a PhD page on this blog. I would make visible my thinking, reading notes and progress. However, keeping a reflective log is not the same as blogging which is essentially an art in conciseness. So I made the page private giving access to my supervisor and anyone else who wanted it. The problem is, I don’t like having a private page without being able to explain why. WordPress doesn’t enable the passwording of part of a page; it’s either private or not. So I’ve opened it up. The current week’s notes will be visible. After each supervision they’ll be added to a linked document although I’m not yet sure where that will be located. On reflection, this will be another incentive to keep up to date! 🙂