Ed-Tech as a Discipline

This post has spiralled slightly out of control. Initially it was just a couple of loosely connected ideas that I jotted down. Then I dug up an old half-written blog post. Then I went for a walk on yet another cold wet day and started to think more deeply about this and it turned into this.

1. Should Educational Technology be a discipline?

This deceptively complex question has led to an incredibly interesting discussion. Martin Weller and Audrey Watters have stirred the pot on this issue and the comments on Martin’s blog provide a number of expansive multidimensional perspectives on the issue.

I think Martin’s post does a good job of outlining some of the practical aspects of becoming a discipline:

  • to bring in a range of perspectives
  • establish good principles and processes
  • a body against which criticism can push

Audrey does a pretty good job critiquing the very concept of a discipline:

  • aim is to characterize, classify, specialize
  • it distributes along a scale, around a norm
  • imposes hierarchy on individuals in relation to one another
  • it can often disqualify and invalidate individuals
  • brings to bear disciplinary (punishment) practices, mechanisms and technologies

The comments on Martin’s blog are also incredibly enlightening:

  • Maha Bali suggests the discipline already exists as “critical digital pedagogy”
  • Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses discipline in the Weberian-Bourdieusian sense that needs institutions, exclusion/enclosure, prestige hierarchy. But also the evolution of Ed-Tech from and as a network “The indirect legitimacy in a network environment is actually post-institution even though the way we talk about it centers the institution”.
  • Kate Bowles is eloquent as ever “When the gain from disciplinarity turns out to be a shared who’s who and a consensus around ideas that matter, we overlook an entire history of subaltern thinking about who always gets left out when the lists are made. Because lists belong to someone, and conferences belong to someone, and professional associations belong to someone, and when we Venn Diagram it all, the same people get waitlisted, because first everyone has to get through the A-list.”
  • I particularly like the the imagery invoked by Laura Czerniewicz “One can look at a discipline as a field of players and moves and negotiations and power plays, a Bourdieu approach, and the approach of this discussion I think. Or as a structured knowledge terrain – the Bernstein perspective offers to edtech the notion of “horizontal knowledge structures in hierarchical discourses” in other words how knowledge is configured. Ed tech is never going to be a vertical discourse ie a coherent, explicit systematically principled structure. It is applied and fragmented and constantly added to.”

I’m left with the feeling that maybe a discipline isn’t what we need – but we do need something.

2. What is Ed-Tech?

I come into this having done some thinking on these issues, in particular while travelling in the US in April. Travelling across seven states by car gives you an opportunity to dwell and ruminate on these kinds of issues. In particular I was dwelling on the experience of having just attended SXSWedu. It was quite an experience and I wrote about it at the time:

There’s a couple of key points in this series of posts that I keep coming back to:

  • What’s needed in education is better dissemination of good practice. “Good practice in education seems to be nebulous – no one really knows what it is, what it looks like or how to describe it. They might be able to recognise it – but articulate it? No.” This is particularly evident in the research – what methodologies, practices and methods produce valid evidence and proof?
  • We need to bring the critical element into the discussion to solve problems. “Rather than try and “solve” the critics, those involved in Personal Learning should be encouraging and engaging in a dialogue with them. Invite them in. Listen, talk, learn.” Critique needs to become involved in the process, not screamed out from the sidelines. 
  • We are not a profession. “What’s become abundantly clear though is that most teachers, particularly in higher ed which relies on Academics who perform multiple roles and Adjuncts that have no permanency to their role, aren’t aware of best practice. Nor are they properly equiped or compensated to learn or implement those practices.” There are broader cultural and institutional issues at play here but ed-tech is good at highlighting significant structural problems. 
  • Pop Edu dominates the narrative, the bulk of investment and political capital. Pop Edu is neophilic, shallow, manipulative and saccharine but they are the ones at the table. The “rising stars” like Sal Khan and the walking chequebook of Bill Gates are the ones deciding where ed-tech will go, what it will do, what it will look like and who it will leave behind. We need to develop a credible and audible Alternative Scene, something that can challenge this mainstream crap. 
  • Education is a system. An app is not going to disrupt a system – it’s too big and too complex. But people… well they just might. There are many, many fantastic people out there working in the field, but we’re not working together. How can we bring people together to collaborate, pool their knowledge and influence? “There’s also little acknowledgement of the EdTech professionals out there – the actual people who work under a thousand different titles, perform similar jobs and have similar problems. EdTech is not a profession just yet, it’s something still undefined and under appreciated. Quite often they are the glue that makes everything work – from technology and systems to professional development and training through to learning design and pedagogy.”

A discipline appeals because it offers an answer to some of these points. It can act as a connector, a focus and opportunity to bring people and minds together. At the same time it may just entrench exactly the kinds of power dynamics many of us are seeking to subvert and disrupt.

After a couple of days in the car I arrived in Davidson, North Carolina, for an event that was poles apart from SXSW. The Indie Ed-Tech Idea Jam was the antithesis of SXSW – small, friendly, intelligent and humble. It bought together a very different group of people and a very different way of getting things done. It didn’t need millions of dollars, a journal or a policy platform – it was grassroots reform and change.

3. Change at both ends of the Spectrum

The reality is that there are different ways to do this. One is to utilise the machinations of the current system, another is to introduce a new force. To be honest I’m all for a discipline approach. Ed-tech and using digital technology for learning is something distinct and relatively new. It’s not computer, neuro or information science, or humanities or education – it sits outside the normal traditions. It needs staking out, research, evidence and practices in order to take a seat at the table and have access to the dollars and policies that define so much of what we do.

At the same time we desperately need indie ed-tech. An alternative ‘fuck you’ to the established system that goes out and makes its own way. The awesome thing is that we can do this inside the system. We don’t need vast sums of money or changes to the curriculum – we can act within the system, with or without it knowing. By combining forces, to create a ‘scene’ we also make it more powerful, palpable and recognisable. Uniquely local and connected globally at the same time.

Change can happen at both ends of the spectrum. I think we need to accept that the two paths are equally important, they ultimately compliment and support each other.

4. Discipline as an Organising Force

Perhaps what ed-tech needs isn’t a discipline in the academic sense, but discipline in the sense of organising itself. That what it needs is a coordinated and organised approach to its work, to define its conduct and behaviour. Those of us who’d subscribe to being part of the ed-tech movement need to get our shit together because we are being overrun by a class of robber barons, quacks and snake oil salesmen. They are the ones who get to speak about what we do, (re)write our history and define our ideology. They are who gets a seat at the table, to be at the table with presidents of universities and of nations. If ed-tech is not a discipline then it will defined as one by these robber barons and the snake oil men who are here to colonise and extract profits!

Resist Colonisation

We need to reclaim our culture, our research, our space and our ideology for ourselves and we need to do it now. Ed-tech is being colonised and exploited. These colonists are becoming the dominant voice and it’s their narrative that is being recorded and driving conversations. If we leave this too long there will be nothing left to Reclaim from the patchwork of data mining and surveillance capital systems that ed-tech will inevitably becomes. Now’s the time to get organised, to do something about this because otherwise we, our data and that of our students, are going to be enslaved and our resources mined and exported till its all gone.

It’s not just Pedagogy

Yes critical digital pedagogy is an important part of ed-tech but it isn’t encompassing enough. The tools that we use themselves are encoded with ideologies, so a pedagogical perspective, while important is simply not enough. Ed-tech needs to be critiqued and practiced at the level of the source code. The criticality needs to extend to the underlying technologies, their dependencies, access, and licensing – it is a technical problem as much a pedagogical one. The other shortfall of a purely pedagogical approach is the relationship with the learner. It relies too heavily on the concept of teacher and student, but the potential for ed-tech is to reframe that whole power dynamic and rewrite that relationship. Not everything has to be taught, somethings can just simply be learnt, but a pedagogical framework embeds the teacher and instructor as a central concept st a time when perhaps it should be challenged. I’d rather we approach ed-tech in a much more wholistic way.

Being at the Table

The problem I think we have is that the ed-tech community is simply not at the table. The database guy has more say in the roll out and deployment of ed-tech in most institutions. We are not part of the decision making, the policy making or the spending of actual money. George and Audrey and Jim are not at the table with the president talking about how they’re going to spend their money or what policy should they enact. We are not at that table and we are not having those discussions. But you know who is? Sal Khan. Sebastian Thrun. Tim Cook. Bill Gates. These men, these companies – they are the voice of ed-tech in the community. They have a seat at the table. This is what we need to reclaim. This is what we need to get organised about. This is what we need to stand up against.

5. Getting Organised

I think the idea of a discipline resonates with a lot of people because it’s an opportunity and motivation to finally get organised and get our shit together. It isn’t the trappings of an academic discipline that are attractive (nobody really wants a journal do they?) it’s the opportunity to cooperate and collaborate that we want. We can develop our ideology, write our history, because otherwise they’ll get written for us. Silicon Valley is eyeing off education around the world as an untapped market, here lies vast untapped riches to be exploited, and the language of colonisation isn’t coincidental. What worries me is that, discipline or not, if we don’t become disciplined we will be over run and there will be nothing left to Reclaim.
We have to start to organise, we have to get our shit together and we have to do it in a way that is sustainable. We have to get a seat at the table. We need to establish better research patterns and not fall for the trap of “scientific” rigour that seeks to disembody the human from the technology. This shit is complicated and complex. We need to develop and express an ideology, and god forbid a canon, not to entrench power but to help get people on board and join us.

For what it’s worth I think that’s what becoming a discipline does – it forces those things to happen it forces those debates out into the open. At the same time I agree that a traditional academic discipline is not what we should be aiming for. Audrey provided enough evidence and practical information in her critique to warn us off going down that path, but we need to get disciplined.

We need to start to unite around certain things, we need to come together. Even the idea of a canon, of some central ideologies and respected research, those kinds of things are really important for us for progress and to at least debate against. At the moment all that’s happening is history repeating itself, the same old technologies, the same old hype, the same flawed research being peddled out year after year. We need to get organised in order to build the critical component of our work into something that does something, that moves us from the sidelines and begins to actually effects change. We need to move beyond repeating the mistakes of the past and repeating the same Cassandra-esque warnings of impending doom. I just hope that doesn’t put Audrey out of a job.

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5 thoughts on “Ed-Tech as a Discipline

  1. What a wonderful summary of the debate and a clear argument for your view of a way forward. So much resonated even though I disagree with a lot of it also.
    I get what you’re saying about who gets to be at the table right now. I get that. But I don’t know how becoming a discipline won’t again exclude certain people from the table. When you say “we” whom are you referring to? Whose work gets to be part of the canon and whose work is considered not good enough? Even in this blogpost you say critical digital pedagogy isn’t enough – that’s already an exclusion you’re making and exactly what I am afraid of (already is the case that it’s a marginalized view but formalizing it into a discipline with canons? I shudder).

    But again. It’s not like the edtech journals and conferences don’t already exclude and don’t already canonize or emphasize a particular viewpoint or approach to edtech.

    The point about indie edtech is an interesting addition here and one that feeds into a discussion Mike Caulfield and Jim Groom and Stephen Downes (and I? But some people ignore my contribution to that convo) on whether Open Ed should be institutionalized. And my argument there is that when we speak of indie we speak of hidden privilege. People who can AFFORD to be Indie because they have some security or source of income or something and can afford to go beyond. People who have technical literacies not everyone else has. People who have reputations that get them thru.

    I am in all of these spaces of institutional and indie and of making something organized out of an indie thing (virtually connecting) and now that I have made a connection between the edtech as discipline discussion and the open ed as institutionalized discussion I should probably write this out in an organized way.
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Maha! In someways I’m glad we disagree – means that more dialogue is needed, and that we’re working in a contested space rather than one that’s settled.

      I guess my “we” is the community of participants working in/with/for ed-tech – practitioners across many areas and roles. I guess I see that diversity being part of the mechanism for a more inclusive discipline. My comment about critical digital pedagogy wasn’t to be exclusive, but rather that edtech needs to be broader than that – to include technology itself, to have a space for learning and learners – not just a space for teachers.

      I agree completely with Indie (and much of ed-tech to be honest) being limited to those who can afford it, just like Open Ed – something I tried to cover in a previous post https://timklapdor.wordpress.com/2016/09/19/culture-vs-institutions-who-pays-for-change/ Same things apply to Ed-tech.

      I love the “virtual connecting” stuff. I think it breaks down, borders, nations, institutions, discipline – maybe it’s where something can emerge 🙂

  2. Pingback: Ed-Tech as a Discipline — Heart | Soul | Machine – Essay Writing Tips and Help

  3. Apologies for the lateness of my reply. I read your post at the time and I agree with Maha that it’s a good summary. I thought Yes! when I read “I’m left with the feeling that maybe a discipline isn’t what we need – but we do need something.” I don’t know what the thing that is needed either but what I do think is that there needs to be dialogue not just between people who identify as primarily belonging to the Edtech ‘thing’ but amongst all the people who influence and use Edtech. What troubled me most about the discipline issue was that (as others have said too) it could be a silo-making process when I think that Edtech ideas need to influence other practitioners and decision-makers, and other research and practice can influence what is current in Edtech.

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