Digital Thinking

digital thinking from left of field

Critical digital

Looking for critical frameworks

Women’s Day March poster from the Womens Liberation Workshop in London

This was first written as an invited blog post for the ALT conference, 3-5 September 2019. Participants had been challenged, in the call for paper: ‘What are the theoretical frames of reference that can support further critical research and reflection, and inform more critically grounded digital education practices going forward?’

1. Critique

‘Critical’ appears in many guises in the ALT Conference programme, swelling the mood music of recent years from Audrey Watter’s head-on critique of EdTech in 2014 to the more inscrutable push-back of ‘EdTech will not save you’ in 2018. But a critical frame of reference goes beyond any one critical position.  It suggests shared resources of theory and history, a shared understanding of what’s at stake, and a shared capacity to take up positions against the mainstream of educational thinking and practice.

Let’s assume that LT is now thoroughly mainstream. It doesn’t just provide the tools of the modern classroom, it is a core element of the infrastructure around which functions such as teaching, learning and assessment, the student experience and academic work are managed. The idea that we are living in a postdigital age – whatever we think of the term – expresses the sense there is no longer any meaningful alternative to data logics and digital platforms, just as postcommunism was experienced as the end of a history in which different versions of a viable society existed side by side. (Analogue as a lost dys/utopia I will leave others to explore.)

Now that the digital wave is no longer being surfed in modish ways and has closed over us to become the water we’re swimming in, what kinds of trouble are left to make? What kinds of critique are possible, and urgent?

The late great Gunther Kress was sceptical of the impulse to criticism, which he saw as inherently backwards-looking. He preferred the ‘forward’ impulse of ‘confident productive design’ (especially digital, multi-modal design), in which he felt that criticism of the world-as-is was inherent in the production of something new. Anyone who has tried to make a digital product work for real-world users knows that there is a critical intelligence involved in user design, just as there are democratic features to user engagement – especially within a framework of co-production. But, I would argue, asking naïve users to develop a critique of the workings of power in a digital system is like asking Which readers to develop a critique of capitalism and its crises.

Design is a fundamental discipline for action in a complex world. Producing well-designed digital solutions is what many participants at Alt-C are employed to do. But those same participants are increasingly vocal about the systemic effects of datafication and digitisation on the systems they are asked to work in. Beyond a critical assessment of different technology systems – though even that can entail professional risk – they are asking whether there are digital solutions to educational problems such as access and inclusion, and whether students are really happy to have their data harvested by corporate platforms in exchange for more personalised support.

A frame of reference has to be of use not only to tenured academics writing a critical paper but to teachers and professionals, students and hourly-paid assistants looking for support when they take a stance in relation to the LT practices of their organisations. And I think it has to provide more than a set of critical tools. More than a rubric for judging things – systems, interventions, practices – in relation to a norm of effectiveness, or a given set of values and outcomes. It has to allow the criteria for judgement to be put into question.

What draws together the thread of papers and workshops under ALT-C’s ‘critical frameworks’ strand is a confidence that theory has a place in policy and practice, and its place is to help answer the question ‘what matters and why’? What kinds of change are worth fighting for, and when are forms of resistance more appropriate?

In its final months the Blair government – a bastion of the belief in technical solutions to public sector problems – received a report called Beyond Current Horizons. I was responsible for compiling three future scenarios (p.209ff of this report) from the insights of many more expert thinkers – three different trajectories education and society might take to the year 2025. While we had fun imagining different technologies of learning and play, what defined each imagined world was not how technologies would differ but how the benefits and risks were distributed. Who would be able to actualise their desires and enact their agency in the data-intensive society that was stretching out in all imaginable directions ahead? The assembled experts, for all their excitement about innovation, concluded that the key task of digital education was to develop active, engaged, informed and troublesomely critical citizens, within a social justice agenda that would give everyone the chance to participate in the same debates we were privileged to have.

We live in a time that demands a discourse of both critique and possibility, one that recognizes that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and viable social movements, democracy will slip out of our reach.

Henry Giroux, writing in (2011) Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism

2. Open

There are critical frames of reference that foreground social justice and that provide the grounds for collective action in education. The most obvious and present one is the open education movement, which has a least one foot in the movement for workers’ education and (in the UK) in the founding of the open university, under an earlier (but equally technology-minded) Labour government. Open education in our (post)digital era continues the tradition of using low-user-cost technologies to reduce barriers to access. It also builds on the workers’ education tradition of auto-didacticism and self-empowerment while seeking new pedagogies that work democratically, at a distance and at scale.

In the US, these pedagogies have been developed with particular energy at the hybrid pedagogy open journal and digital pedagogy lab, which trace their inheritance from critical pedagogues such as Paulo Freire and bell hooks. We will have the chance to find out more about their vision of open education as ‘the practice of freedom’ from Jesse Stommel’s keynote, which I look forward very much to hearing. ALT’s OER conference is another nexus of political and sociological discussion, as a glance at this year’s ‘Critical and global perspectives’ reveals.

Open education has created valuable spaces for critique, and critique is evident in its practices. The pedagogy of care, for example, demands respect and reward for aspects of teaching that are under-valued in the data-driven university (Maha Bali explores it thoughtfully here). Public digital pedagogies help to build the value and energy of the knowledge commons, beyond the demands for impact and value for money that animate mainstream providers (Robin DeRosa is passionate about it here , Mark Murphy and Cristina Costa explore the challenges here).

As this final article shows, we need to join the dots between an ethical commitment to human-centred practice, and all the things that are wrong with mainstream education in the age of data capitalism. Because what’s wrong with mainstream education produces contradictions and tensions in open education too. Who benefits (and who doesn’t), when access is open? How can power and inequality be made more visible in systems that treat all users as equivalent? Who owns the systems that make open access possible? Who pays for or underwrites the human labour of open practice?

Kate Bowles in her keynote to OER19 warned (and I’m paraphrasing from my own notes here): Open educators may find their work of care being exploited in an uncaring system. We must not leave the work of fixing the system to those who are most vulnerable in it. Nor should we allow providers to try out new market models through the commitment of academic workers, while ‘open-washing’ the whole closed enterprise.

3. Decolonising

Some of the same challenges are being addressed in parallel by the movement to decolonise the curriculum. Not just in parallel: the two issues converge in the extensively-funded efforts to develop open education in the global South. A recent review of this workfound that it too often ‘reproduces 20th century top-down development thinking’ in which learners are treated as the end of a knowledge pipeline from the elite universities of the global North. Of course, educators worldwide should be supported to create their own open content and to promote their own educational cultures. But the efforts will never be equally successful while the platforms that support cultural exchange are tuned to the comfort zone of silicon valley. Laura Czerniewicz explored the dynamic between digital and colonised content in her 2015 ALT keynote ‘Inequality as higher education goes online’. It’s a shame that more papers have not followed her lead, though I’m looking forward to Stuart Allan’s Gasta talk on ‘acts of exclusion and marginalisation’.

As this post from SOAS helped me to understand, decolonising movements are ‘contestations over the politics of knowledge, [which] are as old as universities themselves’. The contest is explicitly theoretical, and critical. It takes place on several fronts, all of them relevant to digital education: asking who produces knowledgeand who is excluded from those roles: challenging subject matter and the assumptions that underlie it; and reframing pedagogic practice – for example how teachers and students relate to one another, and what agency students have.  Digital educators can draw from these ideas, and from the diverse forms that decolonising struggles are taking, from in-class conversations to student strikes, and from writing new policies to setting up alternative teaching/learning spaces.

Decolonisation draws attention to specific histories and politics of inequality. As a white graduate of an elite European university, I don’t want to assume that the struggles over closed/open and colonised/decolonised are equivalent. The forms of exclusion and the histories of oppression are quite different. But I value the insight that exclusion and oppression are inherent in our knowledge practices, rather than an incidental feature of (some students’) learning experience. And I recognise a colonial impulse in platform capitalism’s appetite for turning the whole world to data, so that it can be sold.

Marc Andreessen famously said that “software is eating the world,” but it’s far more accurate to say that the neoliberal values of software tycoons are eating the world. 

Anil Dash, quoted in Audry Watter’s post The Politics of Education Technology

4. Feminism

I’d like to finish with the subject of my own paper at Alt-C this year: a consideration of what feminism can offer. There are many feminisms, including within the #femedtech network – a loose affiliation of people who find feminist ideas helpful as a frame of reference for our work. I’m tweeting for #femedtech throughout ALT-C19, covering presentations in and out of the ‘critical’ theme, as well as social and creative activities inspired by our hashtag. We’re also hosting a Wikimedia editathon later in September. Please join us online and IRL – and get in touch if you’d like to be a #femedtech co-curator during Alt-C or at any other tine.

What resources for critical research, thinking and action do we gain from a feminist perspective? In a recent post I suggested several worth pursuing. An understanding of learning technology as gendered work. A critical appraisal of how digital technology has delivered (or not) on the promise of more equal opportunities to learn. A deconstruction of biased data and algorithms, and their fall-out in educational spaces. And an appreciation of what feminist pedagogies and epistemologies can offer in shaping a critical pedagogy of the digital.

Writing in a special issue of the Women’s Studies Quarterly, back in 1987, Barbara Omolade described her approach to teaching and learning:

Three issues form the context of my thinking about Black feminist pedagogy: the clarification of the source and use of power within the classroom, the development of a methodology for teaching writing skills, and the need for instructors to struggle alongside their students for a better university.

Barbara Omolade (1987, Women’s Studies Quarterly Special issue on Feminist Pedagogies)

Omolade might not have imagined a ‘writing’ that encompassed all the public, multimodal forms of expression available to open educators today. But here she is clearly speaking to the productive impulse valued by Kress. Alongside this, though, she includes a critique of power, and participation in collective action for change.

If digital education is to offer a coherent critical challenge, I don’t think we can rely on the energy of digital production only. Nor can we behave as though this is a unique disruption, requiring brand-new theoretical tools and ethical positions. The organisations we work in were shaped by generations of troublemakers who demanded a more just, humane and democratic education. There are of course unique new challenges, but there are existing frameworks that can support a critical pedagogy for these particular challenging times. I look forward to an ALT conference that looks back at what we can learn from previous struggles, as well as looking forward to a more just educational future.

My own contribution to critical thinking at the conference focused on feminism as a critical frame of reference. You can read my submission here and browse my slides here.

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