The current is strong – how to navigate without years of experience being swept away?
It seems everywhere you look across the sector there are adverts for Digital Learning Designers and leaders in Digital Transformation. Suddenly Digital Education is mainstream, and that takes a bit of adjusting to. This is not to say that ‘the digital’ wasn’t already a fundamental aspect of our institutions for admin and teaching – it’s more of a structural acceptance that Digital Education is a key component of the institution alongside areas such as Libraries, Estates and Research.
At the Association for Learning Technology I have been asking what it means to be mainstream; what areas should we focus on now that the ‘evangelism’ era is over. It has been interesting to watch this steady transition over the last seven years or so. As the Web became truly domestic and the negative aspects of being permanently networked came to the surface, EdTech communities started to diverge (polarise?). Those closer to teaching practice generally became professionally sceptical of technology. Those closer to the tech often lent into the tech-as-a-solution stance.
Then along came the pandemic and we all (almost all) dived into digital-land. This forced us to adapt and I have seen so many amazing examples of innovative/fun/engaging pedagogy and connection in digital spaces. This takes place on a backdrop of critique and an enormous amount of use-of-the-critiqued. Knowing that ‘big tech’ wants to mine our identities-as-data while being forced by circumstance to use that very tech on a day-to-day basis creates a queasy dissonance and a pervading low-level sense of alienation.
It would appear that in a crisis people just want to use what ‘works best’ and will put aside years of skepticism for the sake of a smooth ride. It’s not a simple picture, how do we do right by our students? They deserve a stable environment but they also deserve an ethical one. How do we navigate this tension when the bigger the tech company, the more predictable the environment provided tends to be?
But, as ever, it’s the practice as much as the tech. Moving standard practices such as exams online has shone a light on less-than-caring modes of education we were/are normalised to. For example, what is authentic assessment? Is it part of the learning process, or is it a necessary form of academic attrition? Opinions vary, but what we can say is that moving closed-book exams online results in a special kind of dystopia which undercuts romanticised views of musty sun-soaked gym halls and ‘turn your papers over now’.
Claude Lévi-Strauss claimed that looking at another culture is like holding up a mirror to your own. Being forced to move into the digital has held a mirror up to our institutions and not all that has been reflected back is comfortable to behold.
Practices and places
So, what now for Digital Education as it becomes central to what our universities are and the dreaded term ‘bolt on’ starts to fade?
Firstly, we have to hold onto what we have learned over the last 20 years and keep pushing for education which incorporates networked modes of working and collective approaches to knowledge. Often this is held back by technology which is underpinned by master-apprentice assumptions within a fixed canon of knowledge. Even so, I’ve not seen a piece of hierarchical tech which can’t be subverted through thoughtful pedagogy.
Secondly, we need to reshape institutional structures so that the ‘academic’ and the ‘digital’ work in partnership. Digital Education is not a ‘service’ it is a set of practices and places. This is easy to say but difficult to support through the reality, an necessity, of governance and org charts.
At my institution I’m seeing a real desire to maintain the collaborative partnerships catalyzed by the pandemic. There is a delicate process of establishing sustainable ways of working without damaging the communal decision making developed through adversity. I’m not sure where this negotiation between network and hierarchy will take us but I am sure that blurring the boundaries between long standing ‘academic’ and ‘digital’ identities is the right path to take.