Has the Ed Tech Bubble already burst?

April 27, 2012 § 3 Comments

Today I read an excellent editorial by Neil Selwyn, soon to be published in Learning, Media and Technology (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/17439884.2012.680212), in which he criticizes academics working in the field of educational technology for being content with restricting themselves to specialist publications and inward looking communications often via the very technologies they are vociferously advocating.

Selwyn argues that there is a significant gap between the ed tech rhetoric and the realities of the technology users on the ground, propagated by intra-mural dialogue and a lack of healthy inter-disciplinary exchange.  A major contributing factor to this gap, he suggests, is the fact that ‘many of the discussions taking place within the educational technology community about social media are actually being conducted through social media’ (2).  This leads to an ‘ed tech bubble’ – a skewed self-referential world view which has little communication with or affect on the outside world of education.  This bubble, he argues, needs to be burst.

I am, of course, acutely aware of the irony of the fact that I came across this editorial via a Tweet from the Selwyn himself and that I am discussing it on an ed tech blog.  That aside, broadly speaking, there are three main strands to Selwyn’s critique: that ed tech fails to engage properly with wider academia at an inter-disciplinary level; that ed tech fails to engage with wider society beyond both itself and academia; and that ed tech is too eager to uncritically enthuse about the transformative promises of technology.  I think these are extremely important points to make and whole-heartedly agree with them. However, I suspect the situation may not be quite as bleak as he suggests.

Firstly, the problem of a lack of inter-disciplinary engagement with wider academia (and the wider world in general) is certainly not unique to ed tech – as Selwyn acknowledges himself.  It is a problem that plagues all disciplines and one which regularly causes intra-disciplinary angst.  While ed tech is certainly a guilty party, I very much doubt it alone can find a solution.  Inter-disciplinary collaboration is necessarily a concerted effort by all disciplines involved – all disciplines involved in inter-disciplinary engagement must be engaged.  To a certain extent this engagement is taking place across many universities, as divisions increasingly emphasize the need for inter-disciplinary collaboration, and grant-giving organizations demand it.

Secondly, in the UK, it’s arguable that the discipline is still recovering from the shock of losing BECTA.  This was a formalized way for many academics involved in ed tech to communicate with both policy makers and a wider more general audience.  At present its loss has left a vacuum, and Selwyn is right to emphasise the need for different avenues of public engagement.  However, it would be wrong to overlook the fact that in the recent past the discipline (or parts of it at least) has been actively involved in public outreach.

Finally, while Selwyn is right that it is all too easy to find a large amount of literature enthusing about the promises of new technologies, there’s also a growing trend in research coming out of places like the IOE (unsurprisingly), Oxford, Manchester (and many more) that analyzes and engages with technology critically.  This can be seen in the upcoming student conference hosted by Oxford University Department of Education’s Learning and New Technologies’ Research Group – ‘Losing Momentum: Current Challenges in Learning and Technology’ (http://www.losingmomentum.org/).  This conference aims to explore the nuanced realities of the use of technology in an educational context and Neil Selwyn will be delivering a keynote address.  We’ll blog about it…

I think Selwyn is right to highlight the problem of the ed tech bubble, but would like to think that, with the emergence of new critical research approaches, it may already be beginning to burst.

James Robson

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Educational values and asynchronous learning

April 9, 2012 § 1 Comment

I recently attended a two day conference on asynchronous learning at a teacher education college in Mumbai. The whole experience was a delight – hospitable, lively, wide-ranging – but I have to say that the immense pleasure everyone took in presenting their work and debating the ideas, and in being together all in one place in order to do so, did not entirely signal a heartfelt confidence in the benefits of working asynchronously, at a distance, in isolation and in your own private time.

One of the speakers (Ms Sunita Britto), a member of the college faculty, gave a clever and enjoyable paper in which she suggested that maybe asynchronous learning could try to build on the educational values that were found in the ancient Hindu educational context of a gurukul, where the guru/teacher and shishyas/disciples lived together and shared all mundane aspects of their lives, the students working for and learning from the guru, in an educational context that was holistic, demanding and social. And resolutely synchronous.

Perhaps, claimed the speaker, those same educational values might be reborn by focusing on the opportunities enabled by asynchronous learning for timely feedback, online social interaction, and learning at one’s own pace, in the process of trying to meet a demand for learning that would have been unimaginable back in the days of the original gurukuls. It was an argument well worth exploring, and I thought it was a great contribution to make to a conference that was not always – with good reason – wholeheartedly behind what it was ostensibly advocating. The argument that perhaps online distance learning could provide new ways of embodying those ancient values of the gurukul suddenly made asynchronous learning appear like a solution worth pursuing. That was quite an achievement in itself.

The Networked Mind

April 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

In David Lodge’s 1988 novel ‘Small World’, a professor explains why he believes that the elite university has become obsolete:

‘Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people….There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years…: jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the Xerox machine…As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you are ok, you are plugged into the only university that really matters- the global campus.’

The professor had a point, but he overemphasized the technologies of the 1980s. Two decades after his words were written, they have been superseded by e-mail. Digital documents, Web sites, blogs, teleconferencing, Skype, and smartphones. And two centuries before they were written, the technologies of the day- the printed book, and the postal service- had already made information and people portable. The result was the same: a global campus, a public sphere, or as it was called in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Republic of Letters as Lodge stated in his novel.

Any 21st century reader who dips into intellectual history can’t help but be impressed by the blogosphere of the 18th. No sooner did a book appear than it would sell out, get reprinted, get translated into half a dozen languages, and spawn a flurry of commentary in additional books. Thinkers like Locke and Newton exchanged tens of thousands of letters; Voltaire alone wrote more than eighteen thousand, which now fill fifteen volumes. Of course, this colloquy unfolded on a scale that by today’s standards was glacial- weeks, sometimes even months- but it was rapid enough that ideas could be criticized, amalgamated, refined and brought to the attention of people in power.

The jet airplane is the only technology of Lodge’s small world of 1988 that has not been made obsolete by the Internet. This also reminds us that sometimes there is no substitute for face-to-face communication. Airplanes can bring people together, but people who live in a city are already together, so cities have long been crucibles of ideas. Given enough time and purveyors, a marketplace of ideas cannot only disseminate ideas but change their composition. No one is smart enough to figure out anything worthwhile from scratch. As Newton conceded in a letter to a fellow scientist, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The human mind is adept at packaging a complicated idea into a chunk, combining it with other ideas into a more complex assembly, packaging that assembly into a still bigger contrivance, combining it with still other ideas, and so on. But to do so it needs a steady supply of plug-ins and subassemblies, which can come only from a network of other minds.

The networked mind is the new mindset we all require in the 21st century. Given the proliferation of Web-based technologies such as blogs, wikis and social networking tools in our daily lives, these technologies have become  a cause for all praise, scorn and worry. What would it become and what would be the cultural ramifications of its pervasive use? Were we indeed headed for the vision of Lodge’s small world, or was the web merely a littered cyberspace of pornography and bad design (Levinson, 03)?  I have heard many people articulate their technological anxieties, describing how they are “behind” the curve. My response is always, “Aren’t we all?” In this century, chance favors the networked mind; so let’s take the opportunity to continually remain students ourselves, testing and sharing best practices for new forms of engagement.

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