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Teaching as a design science: a few reflections on Diana Laurillard’s approach to digital education

I’ve found the approach of Diana Laurillard extremely helpful for articulating what I’ve tended to think of as user cultures and public pedagogies for social media within higher education. As she puts it on pg 2 of her book of the same name, “education must now begin to drive its use of technology”. I’ve sometimes worried about being platitudinous when repeatedly going back to the question of what you’re trying to achieve when teaching and writing about the use of social media in higher education. This has been informed by my PhD research on the sociology of reflexivity and the philosophical & practical commitment it has left me with that purpose is integral to social action rather than being some kind of phenomenological froth which can be dispensed with. Why we are doing what we are doing is an integral part of what we are doing, even for routinised parts of our life in which the purposes tend to fall away from conscious scrutiny. This is particularly significant when it comes to sustained practice within professional domains in which social actions knit together (or fail to) over a career.

It is essential when digital platforms are involved because of the tendency of those platforms to proactively shape the behaviour of users in ways which express the interests of the platform operators. In this sense being clear about what we want to do becomes a form of intellectual self-defence when we’re operating within surveillance capitalism. This isn’t how Laurillard frames the issue but there’s a definite convergence between us in her concern that we ensure technology serves the needs of education rather than educations serving the needs of technology. This is what she writes on pg 4 is necessary to achieve this:

We cannot challenge the technology to serve the needs of education until we know what we want from it. We have to articulate what it means to teach well, what the principles of designing good teaching are, and how these will enable learner to learn. Until then, we risk continuing to be technology led.

She seems to place the stress on technological cultures here (i.e. the belief that digital technology will ‘fix’ education by disintermediating the teachers and/or the school) in a way which I agree with. However I think the potential causal influence of the technology is just as significant, at least when we’re talking about platforms which have been designed to encourage user engagement in pre-defined ways. This is why I’ve stressed platform literacy alongside technological reflexivity (i.e. being clear about why we’re using technology as a precursor to questions of how we’re using it).

In her work Laurillard stresses the necessity of “developing the knowledge base in a discipline” and the role of professional dialogue in facilitating this, albeit in a way which has tended to be frustrated by the “absence of feedback loops” within the education system (pg 5). The rapidity of the changes brought about technology mean that the “teaching community itself has to contribute to building the knowledge base because it has to develop fast” (pg 8). Through doing so, we can develop “an educational system with a different structure from the one we currently have – with a more iterative dialogic structure that enables students to learn, but also enables the teachers and the system to learn as well” (pg 10). One of the features which fascinates me about the professional cultures which develop through social media (e.g. what we idiomatically refer to as ‘academic Twitter’) is how reliably professional use of that platform comes to be a topic of the discussion for the professionals using it. In this sense, platforms are inherently prone to eliciting professional dialogue but they do so in ways which are more widely visible and potentially accessible than these dialogues would be in other settings. This is the kernel of truth underlying the otherwise confused idea that social media can democratise the academy.

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