My notes on Selwyn, N., & Stirling, E. (2016). Social media and education… now the dust has settled. Learning, media and technology, 41(1), 1-5.

This special issue of Learning, Media and Technology is a sequel to a 2009 issue which began to inquire into the emergence of ‘social software’ and what it meant for teaching. Seven years later with social media platforms ubiquitous, the online/offline distinction having collapsed and a ‘social’ element being a standard feature of new technology, it asks how social media platforms are actually being used in educational setting, what the implications of this use, their interaction with their institutional context and how they are transforming it in the process.

The main difference they see between 2009 and 2015 is “the extent to which social media have become part of mainstream digital practices and everyday life in general” (2). They make the interesting point that this means the term itself now lacks resonance outside of the academy, as platforms have faded into the background of everyday life:

“The pervasiveness of social media is illustrated neatly by the lack of resonance that the term now has with the general population. The characteristics and qualities that made social media such a distinct and exciting ‘thing’ in 2009 are now normalized to the point of not being an obvious topic of conversation, let alone meriting a specific label” (2)

Yet their uptake is far from uniform. Many people don’t have internet access, many are subject to a ‘device divide’ in which they are only able to access platforms through phones and/or non-broadband connections. These divides are profoundly regionalised. They also note how significant it is that the study of social media has grown in the way that it has, with approaches as different as platform studies and computational social sciences illustrating how wide this field is if indeed it constitutes a feed at all.

Social media has been an increasingly prominent topic in education journals. However, as the put it, “many of the most interesting (and, we would argue, most important) questions about social media and education remain largely ignored by education researchers” who tend “to look primarily for good news, ‘best practice’ and examples of ‘what works’”. There is much hope still that social media will be “the ‘Killer App’ capable of initiating significant shifts in how people learn and engage with education”. However the social media research outside of education has shown us that its use by young people is complex, contradictory and contested. We need educational research that confronts this multifaceted character head on. There are exception to this but these studies “remain overshadowed by broad-brush accounts of social media use in the classroom” (4).

My notes on Facer, K., & Sandford, R. (2010). The next 25 years?: future scenarios and future directions for education and technology. Journal of computer assisted learning, 26(1), 74-93.

“Education is a future-facing activity” as Facer and Sandford put it on pg 74. Its future orientation ranges from young people making choices on what to study, through to strategic planning in schools and national debates about curriculum reform and educational priorities that look towards equipping the population for a changing world. The future is mobilised as a resource to legitimate and incentivise reform, raising the question of what this future is imagined to be. From pg 75:

In many policy fields, for example, the ‘imaginary’ upon which future-oriented projects are premised often takes for granted the contemporary existence of and con- tinued progress towards a universal, technologically- rich, global ‘knowledge economy’, the so-called ‘flat world’ of neo-liberal rhetoric (Friedman 2005). It is towards this imminent world that governments and edu- cators are exhorted to propel students and citizens; and it is this imminent flat world that is used to mobilize support for funding allocations, to justify investment in new technologies or to rationalize curriculum decisions.

The focus is on ensuring that “specific individuals or countries are enabled to keep up” (pg 75) and alternative futures are ignored or foreclosed. Technology is widely presented as a crucial tool to facilitate this keeping up, essential for policy makers trying to modernise an education system and upgrade their population. It implicates an idea of the future as a singular, inevitable trajectory in the face of which educators and citizens have no agency” (pg 75).

Foresights activities have become increasingly prominent within education at many levels. The paper reports on the Beyond Current Horizons project, commissioned by the UK’s Department for Children, Schools and Families, which brought together 100 academics from a wide range of disciplines to understand what society might look like in 2025 and the education pressures flowing from this. It was based on four pricinples:

  • Principle 1: educational futures work should aim to challenge assumptions rather than present definitive predictions. Futures work explores the relationship between possible, probable, and preferable futures rather than making definitive predictions about what will happen.
  • Principle 2: the future is not determined by its technologies. Technological determinism pervades a lot of applied futures work but the insights of contemporary social theory illustrate how untenable this position is.
  • Principle 3: thinking about the future always involves values and politics. Visions of the future operate as rhetorical devices and political tools. Therefore accounts of the future need to up front about their commitments and values.
  • Principle 4: education has a range of responsibilities that need to be reflected in any inquiry into or visions of its future. This work has to begin with a clear statement of what the purpose of education is seen to be.

The project involved a mix of foresight work (map projections of developments into the future and examine their implications) and scenarios work (developing a set of future scenarios used to examine current strategies and their assumptions). These principles mean that the project will avoid  articulating “a trajectory of future technical developments and read off a set of deterministic social outcomes” and instead “explore how social and cultural contexts might shape the production of new technologies, and reciprocally, how the clusters of capabilities (Williams 2006) offered by scientific and techno- logical development might be amplified, resisted or modified by a range of social and cultural developments” (pg 77). It began with a statement of what the purpose of education was seen to be. From pg 79:

  1. “qualifying learners to take on certain roles (requiring the development of knowledge and competencies);”
  2. “socializing learners to participate in wider community, family and social contexts;”
  3. “equipping learners to develop their own sense of selves, identity and agency”

It involved the commissioning 84 literature reviews across 5 broad areas of inquiry, with a focus on current trends in the field, long-term projections and areas of uncertainty. These were summarised in reports which aimed to provide an overview of probable futures within each of the areas. These were the foundation for specialist stakeholder interviews and workshops, with a view to identifying possible futures which weren’t contained within them. Then a broader online and face-to-face consultation with parents, learners and educators was elucidate preferred futures.

There’s a detailed description of scenario planning here which I won’t summarise but want to come back to properly at a later date, as I’m always been interested in more detail about how this works. It analysed the reviews and stakeholder events to identify (a) common features of all futures (b) possible developments which could divert things towards radically different futures. These are the developments which they concluded would have a long term impact on educational policy. These are all direct quotes from pg 83-85:

  1. The information landscape gets denser, deeper and more diverse
  2. Creating the personal cloud
  3. Working and living alongside machines becomes increasingly normal and our understanding of what we mean by ‘machines’ may change
  4. Distance matters less, but geography still counts
  5. Digital Natives grow up and need to keep learning
  6. Weakening of institutional boundaries
  7. The decline of the knowledge economy as a utopian future
  8. ‘Silver bullets’ are not expected for complex educational problems

They concluded there were three significant challenges to the future of educational systems:

  1. Challenge 1: should education continue to be organized around the unit of the individual learner?
  2. Challenge 2: should ‘the school’ retain its dominant position in assumptions about educational futures?
  3. Challenge 3: should preparation for competition within a knowledge economy remain a primary goal for education?

They offer a number of recommendations in response to these challenges. I found the account of ‘networked learning’ particularly interesting on on pg 86:

Such a curriculum would enable individuals to learn to work effectively within social networks for educational, social and civic purposes, and to develop strategies to establish and mobilize social networks for their own purposes. Such a curriculum might comprise: for example, opportunities for learners to learn and work within meaningful socio-technical networks not wholly within single educational institutions; to be assessed in interac- tion with tools, resources and collaborators; to develop capacities to manage information and intellectual property, build reputation and trust, develop experience of working remotely and in mediated environments; to create new learning networks; to reflect upon how learning is connected with other areas of personal, social, and working lives and manage and negotiate these relationships; to explore the human–machine relationships involved in socio-technical networks.

They end with a discussion of how research communities can show practical and intellectual leadership in relation to these changes. This necessitates moving beyond traditional institutional barriers, recognising learning outside of traditional arenas and ensuring collaboration between those who study it in different areas. It also requires a move from pedagogy to curriculum: “the question of curriculum – of which educational goals should pertain in the context of socio- technical change” (pg 88) What does it mean to “become human and achieve agency” in a rapidly transformed socio-technical context? This necessitates resisting educational technologies entanglement in ‘educational modernisation’.

I was struck by this phrase by Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society, conveying his scepticism of the promise of educational technology in the 1970s. On pg 67 he writes of an “attempt to escalate an old dream into fact, and to finally make all valuable learning the result of professional teaching”. It left me wondering whether the contemporary ed tech bubble can be understood in terms of a dream to reduce learning to the professional: stripping teachers out of the process and replacing them with platforms which facilitate ‘personalised’ learning, analysed and overseen by a cohort of professionals. It would represent what Emmanuel Lazega describes as the final victory of bureaucracy over collegiality, as the agency of teachers which school has long depended on is finally dispensed with so that the logic of schooling can be reduced into the platform and the class of engineers who maintain it.

I find this suggestion by Audrey Watters extremely plausible. Full interview here.

I think that education data should be a top priority under the new Trump regime. Schools are wildly obsessed with collecting data. They have been for a very long time, but new digital technologies have compelled them to collect even more, all with the promise of better insights into teaching and learning. By and large, I think a lot of that promise is overstated. Now, particularly under Trump, we have to consider if, instead of “helping students”, we’re actually putting them more at risk. I don’t simply mean a risk of hacking, although schools do have notoriously poor information security. Rather, I’m deeply concerned that, by enabling such expansive profiling, we are furthering a dangerous climate of surveillance – a climate that Trump seems quite ready to exploit regarding undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and political dissidents.

https://oeb-insights.com/how-do-we-make-education-a-practice-of-freedom-talking-to-audrey-watters/

I’ve long had an ambivalent relationship to MOOCs. In principle, I don’t see anything wrong with the idea of distance learning of this sort and they are something that I’ve personally enjoyed in the past. This is far from a ringing endorsement, in fact MOOCs leave me lukewarm in many respects, but I think it’s important to be clear about what exactly we’re opposed to when we oppose the MOOC.

The hype surrounding them is a good place to start. The absurd overstatement of their implications, as well as the wilful disregard for history which critics like Audrey Watters have ceaseless pulled apart. These ‘groundbreaking innovations’ can only be constructed as groundbreaking and innovative by systematically obscuring a longer and messier history of educational technology which there is value in our recovering. But as Aaron Bady points out, what’s offensive about the hype is the way it gives voice to speculative interests seeking to ‘disrupt’ higher education:

In the last year, MOOCs have gotten a tremendous amount of publicity. Last November, the New York Times decided that 2012 was “the Year of the MOOC,” and columnists like David Brooks and Thomas Friedman have proclaimed ad nauseum that the MOOC “revolution” is a “tsunami” that will soon transform higher education. As a Time cover article on MOOCs put it—in a rhetorical flourish that has become a truly dead cliché—“College is Dead. Long Live College!”

Where is the hype coming from? On the one hand, higher education is ripe for “disruption”—to use Clayton Christensen’s theory of “disruptive innovation”—because there is a real, systemic crisis in higher education, one that offers no apparent or immanent solution. It’s hard to imagine how the status quo can survive if you extend current trends forward into the future: how does higher education as we know it continue if tuition fees and student debt continue to skyrocket while state funding continues to plunge? At what point does the system simply break down? Something has to give.

At the same time, the speed at which an obscure form of non-credit-based online pedagogy has gone so massively mainstream demonstrates the level of investment that a variety of powerful people and institutions have made in it. The MOOC revolution, if it comes, will not be the result of a groundswell of dissatisfaction felicitously finding a technology that naturally solves problems, nor some version of the market’s invisible hand. It’s a tsunami powered by the interested speculation of interested parties in a particular industry. MOOCs are, and will be, big business, and the way that their makers see profitability at the end of the tunnel is what gives them their particular shape.

http://www.academicmatters.ca/2013/05/the-mooc-bubble-and-the-attack-on-public-education/

The ideology of innovation obscures the interests vested in what is deemed to be innovative. Not only is it dishonest, shutting down debate through the breathless invocation of technological inevitability, it also crowds out earlier and worthier experiments in digitally mediated distance learning. These communal and collaborative projects were focused on empowering networks rather than facilitating individuals. As Bady goes on to compare:

The MOOCs that emerged in 2012 look very different, starting with their central narratives of “disruption” and “un-bundling.” Instead of building networks, the neoliberal MOOC is driven by a desire to liberate and empower the individual, breaking apart actually-existing academic communities and refocusing on the individual’s acquisition of knowledge.

http://www.academicmatters.ca/2013/05/the-mooc-bubble-and-the-attack-on-public-education/

These connective technologies have been pushed out by what Audrey Watters describes as a ‘content-delivery model’. On loc 2256 of her The Monsters of Educational Technology, she describes what it is like to be on the receiving end of such a model, having content delivered to you as a distance learner:

Receiving this box of materials in the mail was a literalization of the idea that education involves “content delivery.” That is, the courseware for Intro to Statistics was quite literally delivered to my doorstep. I’d insert the videotapes into the VCR, and the content would be delivered to my living room and purportedly into my brain. “Content delivery” is not always quite so literally enacted, of course, but it’s still the paradigm education largely operates within. This is not a new paradigm, of course. But for me this was the moment –looking with frustration at this this box of videotapes –in which I realized that that’s what education privileges. Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content that becomes transmogrified into knowledge. (The focus is certain content, of course and thus certain knowledge –that which has been decreed significant by a host of institutional, cultural, historical, political, intellectual forces.)

The MOOC dresses up the most uninspiring and uninspired aspects of actually existing educational initiatives in the cloak of technological progress. As Bady puts it, these start-ups “aim to do exactly the same thing that traditional courses have always done—transfer course content from expert to student—only to do so massively more cheaply and on a much larger scale”. These are technologies of modernisation rather than progress, intended to lock in existing arrangements in a way that disempowers those who might impede their smooth operation. They are technologies of scale and control, masquerading as tools of liberation. They represent, as Audrey Watters puts it on loc 3443, a trojan horse which we need to resist:

Education technology is the Trojan Horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource and unbundle and disrupt and destroy. Those who tell you that education technology promises personalization don’t actually care about student autonomy or agency. They want surveillance and standardization and control. You have been warned.   Education technology is full of monsters. We’ve given birth to some of them. We’ve given birth to the “everyone should learn to code” narrative. We’ve given birth to the “everyone should be online” story too. We’ve demanded that everyone have their own device. Education technology requires our love and our care so as to not become even more monstrous, so that it can become marvelous instead. It demands we resist and we fight and we build and tell a different story. Folks like Seymour Papert started a powerful storytelling for us. We just need to pick up that tale.

But doing so effectively necessitates unpacking the technology, the interests expressed through it and the context within which these are being pursued. We can still reclaim educational technology, but doing so necessitates that we don’t condemn technology by the uses to which it is being put.

From The Monsters of Educational Technology, by Audrey Watters, loc 563:

Why are we building learning management systems? Why are we building computer-assisted instructional tech? Current computing technologies demand neither. Open practices don’t either. Rather, it’s a certain institutional culture and a certain set of business interests that do. What alternatives can we build? What can we imagine? Can we envision a future of learner agency, of human capacity, of equity, of civic responsibility, of openness for example?