Posted tagged ‘technological determinism’

The equation for change

4 February 2013

Guns don’t kill people. People do.

It’s a well-worn saying that Americans in particular know only too well.

And of course it’s technically correct. I don’t fear a gun on the table, but I do fear someone might pick it up and pull the trigger. That’s why I don’t want a gun on the table.

It’s a subtle yet powerful distinction that occurred to me as I absorbed the core reading for Week 1 of The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course; namely Daniel Chandler’s Technological or Media Determinism.

E-learning and Digital Cultures logo

Technological determinism is a philosophy that has implications for e-learning professionals as we grapple with technologies such as smartphones, tablets, ebooks, gamification, QR codes, augmented reality, the cloud, telepresence, ADDIE, SAM, and of course, MOOCs.

Chandler explains that “hard” technological determinism holds technology as the driver of change in society. Certain consequences are seen as “inevitable” or at least “highly probable” when a technology is unleashed on the masses. It’s how a lot of people view Apple products for example, and it’s extremist.

Like most extremism, however, it’s an absurd construct. Any given technology – whether it be a tool, a gadget or a methodology – is merely a thing. It can not do anything until people use it. Otherwise it’s just a box of wires or a figment of someone’s imagination.

Taking this rationale a step further, people won’t use a particular technology unless a socio-historical force is driving their behaviour to do so. History is littered with inventions that failed to take off because no one had any need for them.

Consider the fall of Aztec empire in the 16th Century. Sailing ships, armour, cannons, swords, horse bridles etc didn’t cause the conquistadors to catastrophically impact an ancient society. In the socio-historical context of the times, their demand for gold and glory drove them to exploit the technologies that were available to them. In other words, technology enabled the outcome.

Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops

At the other end of the spectrum, technological denial is just as absurd. The view that technology does not drive social change is plainly wrong, as we can demonstrate by flipping the Aztec scenario: if sailing ships, armour etc were not available to the conquistadors, the outcome would have been very different. They wouldn’t have been able to get to the new world, let alone destroy it.

Of course, the truth lies somewhere in between. Technology is a driver of change in society, but not always, and never by itself. In other words, technology can change society when combined with social demand. It is only one component of the equation for change:

   Technology + Demand = Change   

In terms of e-learning, this “softer” view of technological determinism is a timely theoretical lens through which to see the MOOC phenomenon. Video, the Internet and Web 2.0 didn’t conspire to spellbind people into undertaking massive open online courses. In the socio-historical context of our time, the demand that providers have for altruism? corporate citizenship? branding? profit? (not yet) drives them to leverage these technologies in the form of MOOCs. Concurrently, a thirst for knowledge, the need for quality content, and the yearning for collaboration drives millions of students worldwide to sign up.

MOOCs won’t revolutionise education; after all, they are just strings of code sitting on a server somewhere. But millions of people using MOOCs to learn? That will shake the tree.

Child learning on a computer

So the practical message I draw from the theory of technological determinism is that to change your society – be it a classroom, an organisation, or even a country – there’s no point implementing a technology just for the sake of it. You first need to know your audience and understand the demands they have that drive their behaviour. Only then will you know which technology to deploy, if any at all.

As far as gun control in the US is concerned, that’s a matter for the Americans. I only hope they learn from their ineffective war on drugs: enforcement is vital, but it’s only half the equation. The other half is demand.

All hail the electronic calf

28 January 2013

Given I’ve been blogging about MOOCs lately, I thought it was high time I better informed my perspective by actually doing a MOOC.

So I signed up to The University of Edinburgh’s E-learning and Digital Cultures course on Coursera.

It has just kicked off, and one of the resources that we have been pointed to in the first week is Zumbakamera’s short animation, Bendito Machine III.

This film really resonated with me.

Anyone familiar with the Judeo-Christian story of Moses climbing Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God will recognise its alignment with how modern consumers interact with technology. The arrival of the all-singing, all-dancing device-of-the-moment sweeps away all the false idols before it. Rejoice! as we consumers are only too willing to worship the one true god.

That is until the next one comes along.

Golden cow

Beyond the theme of religious zeal, yet another theme pervades the film: the distraction of the masses by “popular culture”. Whether it be news, lifestyle or banal entertainment, the machine can meet all your needs – and so the populace remains glued to the screen, flitting about from scene to scene without ever considering the context.

We’re intelligent because we’re hyperconnected.

Insofar as these themes relate to e-learning, the obvious parallel for me is the undue influence of Apple. The iPad in particular is heralded by some as the panacea of education. The archangel of autodidactism. The shining light of mobile learning.

The iPad can do anything and everyone owns one, so you would be a luddite not to use it, either as a teacher or as a student.

I sooo can’t wait to get mine. When I do, I’m going to put it in a golden case. With horns.

UPDATE: Helen Blunden from Activate Learning Solutions commented on this post pointing out the overly theoretical nature of the EDC MOOC content. I agree, so I have drawn out the following practical messages from the Bendito Machine III animation…

1. Don’t believe the hype - The ultra effective marketing campaign by the Apple folks would have you believe that the iPhone is the most popular smartphone in the world. If you were to develop an e-learning solution specifically for the iPhone then, you might find that you have left most of your target audience out in the cold.

2. Future-proof yourself – The current situation will not remain so forever, so don’t paint yourself into a corner. (Just ask the Flash designers!) I’m not inclined to develop device-specific mobile apps, for example, but rather HTML5 that is web-based and device agnostic. I’m not saying never develop apps; what I am saying is if your platform of choice disappears (Nokia? BlackBerry?) you don’t want all your work to disappear with it.

Social media extremism

7 February 2011

Since I wrote my article last week about critical theory, I have been more attuned to the messages being propagated by my peers.

For example, some of them have been blogging and tweeting about the role of social media in driving the pro-democracy protests in Egypt.

I see I’m not alone (here and here) in being a little less inclined.

The truth, I suspect, is that the protests in Egypt have been catalysed by the amassing of the population for prayer.

Good centuries-old social networking.

Christians protecting Muslims during their prayers in Egypt during the 2001 protests

Bloggers and the Twitterati are self-evident social media fans, so it’s to be expected that some of them will adopt an evangelical view of the role of Web 2.0 in world affairs.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not trying to underplay the role of social media in connecting people with each other and with the outside world. It certainly played its part in Tunisia and Iran, for example. Besides, if it wasn’t useful, oppressive governments wouldn’t try to shut it down.

No, my point is that while social media is a significant component of the Egyptian pro-democracy movement, it is one among equally or even more significant components.

Put it this way: the protests would still have happened if the Internet did not exist.

The fact that it does exist means the people have a universal communications tool at their disposal.

Closer to home

Drawing all this down to the less heady world of e-learning, I can certainly see a parallel.

It’s important to recognise the role of social media in facilitating social learning in the workplace. However it’s not a panacea.

Relying on truisms such as “all learning is social” and on altruistic notions such as “collaborative learning” is a cop out.

Your learning architecture needs to include much more, such as on-demand self-paced learning resources (eg wikis, simulations, e-books) and – dare I say it – formal training (eg virtual classes, online courses, assessments).

My point here is that while social media is a significant component of the corporate learning model, it is one among equally or even more significant components.

Put it this way: learning would still happen in the workplace if social media did not exist.

The fact that it does exist means we have an effective learning environment we can leverage.
 

Observations of a Critical Theory newbie

1 February 2011

How many “facts” do we accept at face value?

For example, do we really remember 10% of what we hear, 20% of what we see, 50% of what we do…?

It’s human nature to accept knowledge that’s universally propagated. If enough people say it enough times, it assumes the aura of conventional wisdom.

Our peers wouldn’t be wrong, right?

Hold your horses

This is where Critical Theory steps in.

A critical theorist examines accepted truths in light of their socio-historical contexts. In his thought-provoking paper Critical Theory: Ideology Critique and the Myths of E-Learning, Dr Norm Friesen maintains:

“The central argument of critical theory is that all knowledge, even the most scientific or ‘commonsensical,’ is historical and broadly political in nature. Critical theorists argue that knowledge is shaped by human interests of different kinds, rather than standing ‘objectively’ independent from these interests.”

As you can tell by that quote, Critical Theory is steeped in political science and social justice. However it all boils down to challenging any knowledge that presents itself as “certain, final, and beyond human interests or motivations” and is “considered so obviously commonsensical or natural that it is placed beyond criticism”.

In other words, Critical Theory is about myth busting.

Myths in e-learning

As the Canada Research Chair in E-Learning Practices at Thompson Rivers University, Dr Friesen applies the principles of Critical Theory to three e-learning myths:

1. We live in a knowledge economy.
2. E-Learning enables “anyone, anywhere, anytime” access to education.
3. Technology drives educational change.

I’m going to provide a brief overview of Friesen’s arguments, but then I’m going to do something either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid: point out where I don’t agree with the author – an academic heavyweight about a thousand times more credible than I.

But hey, Critical Theory is all about challenging what we’ve been told. Besides, by the end of this piece you’ll realise that I essentially agree with Dr Friesen. So please bear with me!

The knowledge economy

Friesen argues that the concept of a “knowledge economy” defines knowledge as a commodity. Rather than something that should be shared openly, it has market value and thus can be bought and sold.

Friesen recognises the social implications of such a philosophy: the emergence of a classist society in which knowledge workers (ie those who have the knowledge) succeed and prosper, while service workers (ie those who don’t have the knowledge and are relegated to manual labour) struggle and subsist.

Man mopping floor

My problem with Friesen’s argument is that it doesn’t appear to bust the myth of the knowledge economy. If anything, it reinforces its truth.

He describes the current state of affairs – the encroachment of technology on traditional educational artifacts; criticisms of the schooling system in its current form; the postindustrial shift from manufacturing to services; the widening gulf between rich and poor.

Then he advocates means by which we might overcome it – recognise the value of other forms of work that complement knowledge work; cultivate a range of skill sets that relate to those other forms of work; view knowledge as an instrument of democratisation rather than as a saleable commodity.

In other words, the knowledge economy is not a myth, and there is a danger that a large proportion of the population will become disaffected by it if we don’t do anything about it.

Anyone, anywhere, anytime

Friesen argues that the catchphrase “anyone, anywhere, anytime” promotes a privileged group of people (ie white males) as the universal representation of all e-learners. However, the digital divide dictates that “anyone” does not include people in disadvantaged communities; “anywhere” does not include nations outside the OECD; and “anytime”, I suppose, is redundant in light of the first two.

My problem with Friesen’s argument in this instance is that it takes the catchphrase out of context. In the corporate sector, for example, “anyone, anywhere, anytime” is certainly not a myth. It’s entirely plausible that all the employees of a particular company can access their e-learning resources from anywhere at anytime – and if they can’t, it’s an anomaly that the IT department needs to fix quick smart.

In this scenario, the experience of the population (ie the staff) is indeed universalised. Race, gender and income have absolutely nothing to do with it.

Businesswoman on laptop

Besides, I’d imagine there are plenty of blokes in Lithuania (not to mention in trailer parks across the US) who would take umbrage to the assumption that all white males are rich and hyperconnected. Is that, ironically, a myth that critical theorists are guilty of perpetuating?

Technology drives educational change

Finally, Friesen argues that the myth “technology drives educational change” disempowers educators. It dictates that it is not they who drive the future of their own profession, but rather technological progress. Those who adopt new technologies will go forth and conquer, while those who resist will lag behind.

In contrast, Friesen maintains that technology is only one component of a complex system. As such, it is incapable of acting alone to initiate change, but rather must interact with people in their environment who will appropriate it accordingly.

My problem with Friesen’s argument this time around is that since the dawn of time, technologies from paper to blackboards, from computers to smartphones, have changed education. The way we teach and learn today is vastly different from how we did even a mere 20 years ago.

Businessman looking at his PDA

I agree that technology hasn’t driven those changes single handedly – after all, humans must be around to use it – but the flip side is that the changes would not have occurred if the technology was not introduced.

Regardless of how teachers and students respond to new technologies – whether they adopt or adapt them, hack them or mash them – their world will be different. Maybe we can’t predict how it will change, but we know that it will.

Shoot the messenger

When I finished reading Friesen’s paper, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I really didn’t disagree with him. I know that sounds preposterous given my observations above, but it was so.

I couldn’t put my finger on it until I realised that Critical Theory isn’t really about busting myths after all; it’s about critiquing messages.

If I do a global find for “myth” in Friesen’s paper and replace it with “message”, suddenly our views align:

1. Knowledge is increasingly seen as a commodity in today’s workplace, and it’s leading us headlong into a social crisis.

2. Anyone, anywhere, anytime access to e-learning is feasible for a privileged few.

3. Technology drives educational change via its interactions with teachers and students.

The questions I feel the critical theorist must ask are: Who propagates particular messages, and why do they do it? Under what circumstances are they true or false? What are the consequences of that truth or falsehood? What can or should we do about it?

You can bet your bottom dollar that those who pontificate about the knowledge economy are those who stand to profit from it handsomely.

Just like you may appreciate the CLO of a corporation using e-learning to facilitate anywhere, anytime access to knowledge for staff, but perhaps remain rather skeptical of some official from the UN grandstanding about it on behalf of the world’s poor.

Just like you may see through a salesman’s rhetoric about the next big thing, but rest assured if that doesn’t change your world, something else will.
 


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