Posted tagged ‘assumptions’

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.


I stand corrected

8 November 2010

I wasn’t impressed at this month’s SMCSYD meeting.

I mean, it was professionally organised and delivered as always, but I just didn’t buy into what the presenters were saying.

The topic was How can social media analysis help predict results? and several highly regarded social media strategists recounted their work in mining Twitter and other online forums leading up to the Australian election.

The central message was: Look, there are heaps of voters on Twitter. If we can sample their sentiment, and combine that data with how well we think the two major parties are campaigning online, we should be able to predict who will win the election.

Twitter birdI didn’t just scoff, I tweeted:

I don't know about this. Most twitterati are staunchly leftwing. Will twitter use really affect their votes?

My rationale was that if most people on Twitter lean heavily to the left, so will their vote, and nothing stated or debated on Twitter will change that. Therefore the Twittersphere is not representative of the broader citizenry, so any analysis of it will be redundant.

Someone following the #smcsyd hashtag politely challenged my assumption that most Twitterati are staunchly leftwing. Fair enough, but when a photo of Tony Abbot in his budgie smugglers elicited sneers and giggles from the audience, I knew I was on the right track.

Then something unexpected happened… one of the presenters showed us how his analysis predicted an even result. This is impressive not only because I didn’t see it coming, but also because the election result was so tight that it produced a hung Parliament.


How did that happen?!

Was Tony Abbot’s online engagement so effective that it shored up his stats against the lefty chatter? No – the presenters claimed his social media campaign was poor.

In that case, if my assumption was correct, the analysis should have predicted a landslide victory for Labor. The fact it didn’t happen could only mean one thing: my assumption was wrong.


OK, I decided to take a dose of my own medicine and collect some facts. So I ran a strawpoll comprising one simple question:

How left-wing or right-wing are you?

I provided five response options on a Likert scale: Very Left, Left, Center, Right or Very Right.

With some retweeting help from my twiends, I received a grand total of 20 responses. Not very scientific, I know, but here are the results nonetheless:

Strawpoll results: Very Left 10%, Left 35%, Center 15%, Right 40%, Very Right 0%

As you can see, my tiny sample of the Twitterati is uncannily balanced. Not only does a substantial proportion of the population consider itself politically centered, but a large proportion considers itself right-wing.

So why did I think the Twitterati were a bunch of tree-hugging GMF-fearing border-opening closet communists?

Upon reflection, I think one reason is that the only political tweets I ever seem to see are left leaning. Why that is the case, I do not know. It might just be coincidence.

Another reason, however, is that the Q&A TV show seems to televise mostly left-wing tweets. Heaven forbid I accuse Australia’s ABC of bias, although others more illustrious than me have done so in the past. More likely Q&A attracts a strong left-wing following, and I suppose that subconsciously influenced my view of the Twitterati in general.

Cartoon straightening out the left bias of the ABC's Bananas in Pyjamas

Anyway, something that one of the SMCSYD presenters said that I whole-heartedly agree with is that the Twittersphere is a niche demographic.

This view is supported by the analysis which isolated the hottest subjects of discussion as being the National Broadband Network and the proposed Internet Filter. Of course people who spend time online are going to have a heightened interest in these issues.

So while the rest of the public probably couldn’t care less, Twitter is clearly an important battleground in the war that is politics.

Pollies take note!

Facts are a bitch

28 October 2010

CameraThis morning I posted the following question to Twitter:

What do you think of Parrashoot as the name of a local photography competition in Parramatta?

The word play is genius, no?

Now, for those of you who don’t know, Parramatta is the cosmopolitan sister city of Sydney, approximately 23 kilometres (14 miles) west of the Harbour Bridge.

Due to its geographical location and its colourful history, it is often put down by yuppies and wanna-be’s, and is typically lumped into the broad, vague and lazy category “Sydney’s West” which features prominently on the nightly news.

While this view of my local area is about 25 years out of date (and perhaps a little racist?) it doesn’t seem to affect its prevalence.

Anyway, among the replies I received to my tweet was one that linked the fragment “shoot” to homicide. It’s clear the guy was joking, but it got me thinking…

Being the geek I am, I looked up the state’s crime statistics and graphed the homicides recorded by the police from 1995 through to 2009:

Graph of homicides recorded by NSW Police from 1995 through to 2009.

The results are intriguing – not only because the figures are incredibly low for a major metropolis.

Notice how Inner Sydney (the CBD and surrounds) tops the list with 156 reports, followed by Fairfield-Liverpool (southwestern suburbs), then the Hunter (northern wine & coal region), Canterbury-Bankstown (inner southwestern suburbs), Illawarra (south coast) and the Mid North Coast.

Eventually Central West Sydney (which includes Parramatta) makes an appearance with 66 reports, while – hang on! – the well-heeled Eastern Suburbs rounds out the Top 10 with 52 reports.

Oh, my. That’s enough to make oneself gag on one’s latte.

So what’s this got to do with learning?

In the workplace, how often do we L&D professionals make assumptions that simply aren’t true?

I’ll hazard a guess: too often.

My point is, we should endeavour to back up our assumptions with evidence.

• What are the learning priorities of the business?
• What is the most effective mode of delivery?
• Is Gen-Y collaborative?
• Are baby boomers technophobic?
• Does that expensive leadership course improve performance?
• Are our people incapable of self-directed learning?

These are just some of the many questions that we really should answer with data.

Otherwise we may find ourselves about 25 years out of date.