Fighting the Learning Machine

This year’s Designs on eLearning was hosted by the New School in Manhattan. The theme ‘Anxiety and Security’ brought out some challenging thinking, especially in the keynotes which were given by Joel Towers and George Siemens (in the form of a debate) and by Audrey Watters (who posted a full transcript of her talk) on day two. Both keynotes contained much about the role education should play in society and the responsibilities we have as educators to consider ideas of social justice and respect rather than falling into behaviourist modes. This, as Audrey pointed out, is especially important if we work with digital technology because ‘edtech’ emerges  from a behaviourist ideology in which students become dehumanised extensions of a learning machine. This learning machine then becomes complicit in the bolstering of inequalities and a failure to, as George put it, ‘normalise opportunity’. In addition to this a learning machine approach does not equip our students with the ability and resilience to respond to complex problems which should be a central tenet of design education.

A particular angle on some famous complexity
A particular angle on some famous complexity

For me, developing methods of approaching complex problems as networks of practitioners demands creativity but this is then inherently in tension with what can be the ‘learning machine’ drive underpinning our institutions. The easy way to respond to this is with an ironic smile and a quasi-academic shrug. What can we do when our institutions that purport to support creativity and individuality have to run at a scale which makes the learning machine approach look like a neat ‘solution’?

One response beyond a shrug is to respond, as I believe many of the delegates at DeL did, by realising that we won’t solve these problems but that we can push back against them. For me this isn’t an either/or situation. We do need machines and algorithms to work at a scale which helps to ‘normalise opportunity’ but we also need approaches based on becoming and belonging. For example, we need to be able to upload assignments and track feedback but we also need to create moments of human connection, reflection and discourse. The digital can support both these elements of what it means to be a successful and meaningful university. Nevertheless many people want, or think of, the digital to be one or the other – a corporate machine of efficiency or an ecology of connections.

'Order' also has value
‘Order’ also has value – smashing the system is not the aim.

My view is that we do need to fight to provide more than a learning machine as the instrumental aspects of our institutions are hard wired to perpetuate (often in response to external factors) while the more humane side suffers unless we constantly advocate for it. What’s important is that this fight is not seen as an attempt to smash-the-system but rather a desire to enrich and extend what we provide to support an ideology of design and creativity which we all claim to believe in.

My hope is that we can continue to develop DeL as a space where we can facilitate this kind of discourse. The digital is quickly becoming the context where important questions about the value and nature of our work as educators are discussed – questions which perhaps struggle to find a home elsewhere? I got the sense that the delegates at DeL knew they could ‘make the tech do what they wanted’ which has shifted us towards asking: what do we want?  who is this for? and what are our responsibilities?  

eLearning grows up

Designs on eLearning 2015

DeL booklet

When you get “The best elearning conference I’ve attended in 15 years” as feedback you feel you must have done something right. Over the weekend I’ve been musing on why we received comments like this and overall I think it comes down to the maturity of the discourse. It felt like elearning had grown up and avoided the normal tussle between the four main areas I see ascribed to the label ‘elearning’:

  1. Replicating core institutional functions at scale.
    This includes eSubmission, making available content and generally moving paper-based processes into the digital.
  2. Techno-solutionism.
    Plugging in technology to solve particular problems with the assumption that once the technology is working ‘correctly’ the problem will be eradicated. (Often part of the drive in the approach above)
  3. Fetishising the new.
    Leaping on the ‘next big thing’ and claiming it will ‘revolutionise’ something. (linked to number 2)
  4. Focusing on pedagogy and people.
    Exploring how the tech can support forms of teaching, learning and engagement.

At DeL there was a healthy emphasis on number 4 with a concurrent wariness of 1, 2 and 3. Almost all of the sessions I attended discussed the complexities that arise when people and tech mingle. There was also a healthy skepticism of the Digital Natives idea, with very few people starting with that principle as a basis to build from (either directly or tacitly). It was as if the discourse around elearning had grown-up and become less polarised. Perhaps this was also helped by the mix of elearning folk, teaching staff and students. The parallel sessions had an honesty to them in which the subtly and complexity of teaching was respected (No ‘how can we foist this week’s cool tech on staff or students’).

Rhetoric and reality

What also stood out for me was an interesting tension between some of the keynote “the digital has arrived” rhetoric and the reality of developing elearning projects within institutions. This spawned the hashtag #undertheradar as most of what we heard in  parallel sessions included a comment along the lines of “We didn’t really tell anyone we were doing this” or “We kept this quiet until we were sure we had the design right”. I’m wondering now if this is a response to the techno-solutionism approach which is gaining ground as institutions seek to stabalise and consolidate processes via technology. The iterative approach in which projects take a number of cycles to find their way is, in my opinion, the only way to develop the ‘pedagogy and people’ side of things. And yet despite the fact that we hear noises from the top that digital is the way forward we are still nervous about revealing the leading edge of our work. I wonder how we can gain confidence and make it clear that there is no ‘plug-and-play’ where we are looking to support pedagogy?

Digital segregation

The second theme for me was closely linked to creative practice but stems from a more general challenge, namely that we still segregate the digital. This problem was mentioned in a few of the student keynotes which questioned the hiving off of expensive Apple Macs into pristine labs when the creative process often needed a multi-modal and messy environment. The truth is that the tech we buy as institutions to impress incoming students might not always be the tech they need to undertake their studies. This is a tricky one as a random set of slightly out of date, battered laptops isn’t going to look good but it might free students up and start breaking down disciplinary boundaries which are currently reinforced by the geography of our physical spaces and the fear of breaking expensive stuff. My hope is that the tech will become unchained one day in the same way books once were. For the time-being the march of technology and consumerism is too strong.

This notion of digital segregation goes beyond the physical and is often inherent in numbers 1,2 and 3 above whereby ‘learning’ and ‘work’ is perceived as being undertaken in physical locations (even when we are working with a digital device) and the digital is conceptually segregated off as a series of tools rather than a place in which that self-same learning and work can happen (a shift in thinking I’ve been attempting to influence for some time now).


I’m still thinking through DeL2015 and how we can build on the character of discourse that it fostered. It was a pleasure to host an elearning conference in which the ‘e’ took a back seat.