E-Portfolios: Modern Day Hagiographies

November 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

I filled in my e-portfolio yesterday, making a record of my learning progress over the last term.  Apart from the less than enjoyable aspect of having to rewrite everything when I discovered that the upload function not only uploads, but also deletes webform content, it was generally a very useful exercise.  Filling in the forms gave me a good opportunity to reflect on my progress.

However, once the reflection had been completed, the forms filled in, and the document saved, I began to think what the document itself actually represented.  It occurred to me that despite the very useful and honest reflection, what I had actually produced was not a neutral document.  It was tailored to the people I was expecting to read it.  The language and thought patterns I had used were dictated by the form and format, the implicit expectations associated with the medium and language contained in the guidance documents.  In short, I had entered into a highly structured context, operated within that structure and produced something that was highly stylized.

Furthermore, despite the useful reflection, the structure and language of achievement embedded in the form meant that I had created an idealized representation of myself: a self with a rigid focus, clear achievements, clear goals, and clear paths to further achievement; as opposed to the much more mundane identity that seems to regularly appear, where focus is questioned, achievements are lucky and goals are aspirational.

Of course no document is neutral and almost all documents are likely to contain a particularly representation of the self.  For example, right how, by using language of structure and the self, and hinting at power relations between author and reader, I am entering into a particular discourse which itself structures my thought and expression.  In doing so I have (although more consciously in this case) adopted a particular identity position.  However, while here I have decided to enter into this discourse myself, it is arguable that there is little room for agency in the case of e-portfolios.  Here the identity position one can adopt is determined by the structure embedded in the format of the forms and the language surrounding it.

Perhaps the purpose of e-portfolios, then, is to get the student to adopt an ideal student identity position.  Then through a process of normalization, the student adopts this position in other areas of their work.  However, I suspect this in itself is an idealized view of identity construction.   Instead I wonder if the e-portfolio is really a kind of modern day secular hagiography.  The structures surrounding it inevitably lead to a stylized and idealized biography of studenthood, which serves to propagate and perpetuate institutional concepts of the ideal learner and the ideal student: a retrospective biographical tool, used to promote a particular future.

James Robson


You vs. Your Non-Human Counterpart!

February 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I am fascinated by the notion that there are enduring, deep-rooted power relations (whether conscious, active, explicit or otherwise) between and amongst human and non-human actors. These politics are exercised, mostly unconsciously, as part of daily educational, professional and wider social practice. I am now writing this blog from Wolfson library, and I really wish I could play some music, but other readers will not let me. Because of the regulations, I cannot eat either, although I have my lunch in my bag and I am starving! I wish I could just lie on the floor and do my reading, but it would not look good! My back hurts; the chair is badly designed. What can be seen from these complaints is that any human actor (e.g. me at the library) is bound up with a vast power network of both human actors (e.g. other readers, librarians, maintenance staff, etc.) and non-human actors (regulations, social values, the way in which the library and its components are constructed, etc).

In our daily life, we often face difficulties getting the right balance of power between ourselves and other human actors, e.g. older brothers, parents, children, partners, colleagues, flat-mates, housekeepers and receptionists. In some situations we are powerful, whereas in others we turn out to be powerless. Regardless of how rich you are and how much prestige you enjoy, when you get in a taxi, the driver has a degree of power that can be exercised over you! We also sometimes want to ensure the right balance of power between us and non-human actors. Can you not do what you are doing now? Or, can you do what are you are doing now in a way different from how you are supposed to do it? If not, this is simply because what you are doing is actually imposing its power on you and in this situation has more power than you do! There are even power relations between one and oneself. This is perhaps why a term such as ‘self-discipline’ exists, whereby we are the ones trying hard to assert control over our own behaviour, especially in the public domain.

So, what are the educational implications of such a situation? The University of Sussex seems to want to change the power relations between students and their classrooms. Thus, the University has attempted to play with the balance of this power by giving the former more power over the latter. That is, the University has supplied students with more flexible chairs allowing students to sit in almost whatever position they like and has turned all walls into whiteboards, authorising students to write on just about whatever wall they want. Another example is that the University of Manchester, where I did my master’s, has adopted Blackboard, meaning that all my interactions with this system could be recorded and traced. Tutors looking through the browsing history could see a great deal about my engagement and working patterns, such as what I was reading, even the time of day I was reading it and how long I spent doing so. All these examples refer to considerable changes in the balance of power between the inferior, the superior and the technological structure that all must interact with.

When Worlds Collide

November 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

In Saudi Arabia, gender-separation is applied to almost every aspect of private and public life. In higher education, for instance, although the two sexes can belong to one university and to one organisational hierarchy, different campuses are built for each. The female campus, unlike the male one, is surrounded by long concrete-opaque walls which ensure privacy and disconnection. This gender-separation, moreover, is applied to all levels of the hierarchy, which means that academics and managers cannot see their ‘colleagues’ of the other gender.

However, Saudi academia is experiencing a distinctive phenomenon whereby the two genders are becoming electronically connected while remaining physically separated. This connection means introducing the two genders to each other, thereby opening up new opportunities, restructuring academic society, bridging two heterogeneous cognitive cultures, creating new power relations and therefore transforming Saudi academia into a political battleground. This battle is likely to be fierce, since it involves highly educated parties and therefore is politically sophisticated and involves those who will directly seek to shape happenings for their benefit. Nevertheless, this battle may turn out to be relatively static, considering the highly structured and male-dominated society it takes place in, wherein one does not possibly know or even has never thought about why one is, for example, privileged or disadvantaged and how to uphold or transform this status.

The observed phenomenon, which lies at the interface between education and politics, means that, in the domain of educational technologies, there is a need to widen the scope of analysis by looking beyond learning, considering more the role that social, cultural and political values play in shaping educational life. The integration of politics into educational experience, moreover, can present an educational opportunity, given that learning can emerge from involvement in politics. This integration, which can be achieved by viewing higher education as a political activity and examining educational technologies through a political lens, can encourage a new generation of graduates who are politically literate citizens, critically reflective thinkers and therefore independently life-long learners.

Moreover, as the observed phenomenon also lies at the intersection of education and gender, this can inspire a new educational field that lies on the border between single-gender and mixed-gender education. This new field – which can be called ‘bridged-gender education’ – has its own distinctive features, such as the authority to filter out, monitor and control the communication channel between the two genders. Research is therefore needed which looks at how distinct this emerging field is from the other two and discusses the advantages and disadvantages that it can bring to educational experience.

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