28 August 2015

Mark Smithers' 20 years on

In response to Mark Smithers' post, 20 Years in eLearning, where he laments the wrongs and rights of eLearning as generally implemented in universities, and proposes that we place less emphasis on a teaching academic doing 'it' for themsleves, and surround them with designers and specialists to carry them into a world of new practice...

I'm going to attempt a usual left-of-field response, but first let me say I'm very impressed you've held out 20 years, and that after all that time you're still optimistic and energetic enough to put yourself out there. I'm a little over half your time and I'm just about spent!
I certainly agree with your summary of what 'we' did wrong. But I pause at your use of it to lobby for more educational designers and specialists.
I'm going to use that wonderful quote against your proposal: 
Perfection (in design) is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
What if we did that, seriously. Took away The LMS, the institutional email, the lecture capture, the IT support, the educational designers and developers, the layers and layers of admin and managers, the obsessive codification, hell! At least 2/3rds of the modern university - especially if networks of teachers and learners have formed beyond any institution (such as in our field). Basically get rid of anything and everything that stands between someone who can teach and someone who wants to learn. All that would remain would be some buildings, some labs and special equipment, WiFi, teachers and students and very simple administration.

But there would be design:
We'd put down some compelling principles that guide practice. Not a "strategic plan" like all the other university strategic plans I've seen out there, but a manifesto of sorts, compelling, relevant, editable, and supported by logical and fresh policies. I like "Free access to the sum of all human knowledge" for example, but that's been taken. Oh look! We might have found a leading partner...

I think we all agree that openness be a principle... I would hope that those principles be shaped by what we discover in how people learn outside the institutions. Very very little research goes on there. Maybe we could collect what little there is and use it in the Wikipedia article for Networked Learning. An an example of policy inspired by these new principles, you might check out the Proposed Policy on Intellectual Property I helped develop while at Uni of Canberra. The NTEU glowingly endorsed it.. I'm very proud of this work, I'm sad it has not been recognised.
We'll also need to accept that the vast majority of practice will be 'poor'. As it always has been. I think our anxiety over the problem of successfully scaling online practice is unwarranted. I'm sure the same ratio existed before the Internet, it was just less obvious. The problem is systemic, if you take an Illich frame of mind. Universities are autocratic societies with almost no free agency, no democratic process, utterly disenfranchising, and arguably more like a medium of social control than of intellectual freedom and development. Even more so now that 70% of the workforce is casual, precarious and directed. This would be an interesting field of research to pursue. I'm convinced that institutionalised education has bureaucratised teaching and learning right out of people, and that we can work to undo a great deal of that.
I realise that such a change process seems far outside our reach. Such are the layers of hierarchy, payscales and control that systematically cause us to think so low. But perhaps your proposed solution could be used to create that change. But I would suggest that more of 'us' start teaching in the mainstream, and/or make evident to the mainstream our various ways of teaching and learning - after we better articulate the principles we generally embody, freed from the institutional constraints. Let's try and resist interfering with other teachers via managerial mandates. Let's offer to teach with them, in a friendly kind of way, to demonstrate or lead by example, and withdraw if our principles are compromised. I had the opportunity to do it once, at the University of Canberra, teaching a subject I knew little about, with a co-teacher who did . We networked that course. If you search "BPS2011" you'll see the online footprint we left in one single instance of the course. Assessments were multilingual, student generated content. The exam was a spectacular event! It was a remarkable success in taking a failing course and turning it around using those same principles we have not yet articulated, and all without triggering any of the bureaucracy of the host university. Sadly, the main teacher came back from holidays and went back to their old ways, but the students and other staff saw the difference. We inspired a change in imagining of what was possible, but the university system eventually crushed all hope of it scaling, as the casuals moved on and the full timers quit...

10 August 2015

Controlling the Social Construct

Nearly 100 years ago, Edward Bernays conceived of an advertising campaign that leveraged the Suffragette movement to compel women to smoke cigarettes. That campaign was called Torches of Freedom. We can only imagine the extent of public relations today!


Social constructs of learning theory

With that in mind, why hasn't the main theoretical framework that shapes education been seriously challenged? In fact, so granted is the constructivist world view that few feel the need to articulate or discuss it.

The Vygostky derived ideas of Social Constructivism, or the Piaget derived ideas of a more individualised constructivism, lead many of us to believe activities like group work, discussion forums, debates, open access, replication and reinterpretation, online networked learning etc, are appropriate ways for education to be conducted. Perhaps they are not, if all that we think is a managed message bouncing against a controlled opposition.

The antisocial construct

Anyone who has spent any time outside Western social constructs knows that the constructivist world view is limited and problematic. Chet Bowers touches on the problems in his (unfinished, in my view) book, False Promises of Constructivism. I've skirted around the edges of them with posts tagged neocolonialism.

Those intercultural problems included, I want to question the premise of social constructivism, in these days. It's been nearly 100 since it was shaped from a peasant and aristocratic society struggling through industrialisation toward modernity. A similar amount of time since Edward Bernays fired up his "torches of freedom".

I'm wondering if individuals and their societies really do freely construct their knowledge and understanding, or is it more likely constructed for them, through the professions, their educative curricula, marketing, media, public relations, controlled opposition, psychological operations and worse? And if this is so, what then of social constructivism as a learning theory?

Poster sourced from a Facebook stream, author unknown

It is surely common knowledge that powerfully resourced people pay institutions, organisations and others to work tirelessly at constructing messages aimed at shaping and limiting public opinion, market demand, consumer behaviour, student motivation, research outputs, and so on. To what degree these efforts dominate? How much do those efforts shape our individual and collective world view, knowledge and understanding?

You might say that those powerfully resourced message makers are still within the social frame of social constructivism, but my questions ask if their is anything other than their domination. Is there anything in the way of free social construction going on? Is it all designed and controlled? Even perhaps my questions? Certainly at least, they're prepared for my questions.

The Fourth Estate

We hope that a Fourth Estate exists to check and balance the power of rulers. If we thought it was found in the Media, we should take a look over its history and think again.

Perhaps it's found in the universities then, with the corruption of research and academic integrityacademic capitalismmanagerialism and crass performance measures that restrict intellectual freedoms. I'd like to see Adam Curtis deal with universities, much like he did with The Trap.

I'm inclined to think of universities much in the same way as the media, and increasingly so. They both orchestrate a curriculum of sorts - a managed message of curricula, confined to the limits of controlled opposition. Both have overt and covert objectives and measured outcomes. Their directions and plans are controlled and managed by a narrowing professional type, with not-so-mysterious links to corporate elites and oligarchical power. The salaries of Australian university Vice Chancellors speaks volumes.

What is left of intellectual freedom (if there ever was such thing) has been marshaled to the logic of academic capitalism. Social scientists and anthropologists now teach business, marketing and human resource management. Everything is pushed to a determined vocational outcome and "employability" is the strange choral sung across the sector this year. Who does this serve most of all?

Plato's Allegory of the cave by Jan Saenredam in 1604

The Internet

So with the Fourth Estate looking like a figment of our imagination, or a fig leaf over privatisation, we look to the Internet and the idea that free thought and association can exist there, at enough scale to be the defacto Fourth Estate. But rest assured, the powerful are never going to be far away. They just need a little more time to conceive of today's "torches of freedom".

As we watch a consolidation of Internet services to just a few corporate giants, they're privately collecting our massive data for exclusive insights into population behavior patterns with zoom functionality right in on an individual. Combine this power with the resources to test, stimulate and react to those insights... they must be dizzy with the possibilities. Even the universities are in on it.

So we see, via leaks, 'illegal' disclosure, and agitational propaganda, outrageous world trade agreements being signed; black-op wars being waged toward planned conclusions (See 7B); private collection of detailed demographic data; governments passing laws that intrude on people's privacy, who does not think it fascism?

Efforts to realise a more equitable distribution of access to the means of digital production - such as Free Software, Free Media, Open Data, Open Access, Crowd Source and Open Source, are largely ignored by those same governments and public services. All this in an era of an apparently free thinking and vocal Internet! Either the power of the Internet is an illusion, or its power is inconsequential to the oligarchs who are very much in control.

Random Acts of Gentle Anarchy

You might call 'Arab Spring' for the Internet, as though such things take place in an ideal bubble of human righteousness. Why not pause to consider the possibility of it being swiftly and mostly a managed message and controlled opposition, to enable a larger plan of geopolitical power grabbing, financed through resource theft and a myriad of private interests in war economies. It's the way it always has been!

Russell Brand, EXPOSED... The Fabian Society connection, and the white dog trews logo!

So if there is no Fourth Estate with any semblance of power, then what is left to be said of the idea of social constructivism, or democracy?

And then to begin, The Story of Your Enslavement