Education, technology, futures

Is this the future we want?

Universities are preparing for the (virtual) return of hundreds of thousands of students, getting ready to teach them using a blended learning approach that will combine mainly remote teaching with some face-to-face small group interactions. This is thus a good time to take a moment and reflect on the changing assumptions about teaching and technology brought on by the COVID pandemic, which are closely connected to different visions of educational futures. This is a sligthly more academic and less colorful post, but I hope you find it a useful and enjoyable read nevertheless.

I wrote part of my book in the spring of this year and during April and May was getting quite anxious about my entire project. I love face-to-face (f2f) teaching, encountering students in the classroom, feeling their energy, moving them around the room and given them materials to work with – what I like about teaching are many things difficult to replicate in an online environment. All the learning activities described in my book are therefore meant to be f2f activities, although on reflection I realized that some of them could be undertaken remotely/virtually. Still, was I writing a book that was becoming obsolote as I was putting the words unto paper (well, the computer screen)? That initial panic has passed, although I have realized that a short paragraph in the book’s introduction about digital classroom technologies won’t quite suffice anymore. But I don’t think anymore that f2f teaching will disappear, although I realize that for many educators and students, resuming f2f teaching and learning in the autumn is not an option for health and other reasons and that remote teaching will enable their pedagogical practices.

As universities were forced to move to remote teaching because of lockdowns, in the process in a fell swoop (and often very conveniently) overcoming different actors’ individual and institutional resistances to online teaching, it probably seemed a bit of a dream come true to the technology evangelists. But now, with these restrictions easing, we can and should take the time to have a closer look at some of the assumptions of virtual teaching. Here the work of Keri Facer can be a great guide, and indeed this post in inspired by her article on ‘governing education through the future‘ I recently read.

Facer argues that introduction of digital technologies in schools, and I would argue the same holds true for universities, has too often merely resulted in ‘digital accounting systems that have come to both responsiblise and punish learners, enabling surveillance and an ever more narrow definition of education as ‘techno-cratic preparation for employment.‘ No matter how visionary the narratives of the empowering and enabling potential of technologies in the classroom are, because they are embedded in social, political and economic contexts, if these are ‘competitive, individualised, exploitative – the technologies will be harnessed to those agendas. In and of themselves technologies will neither liberate nor transform education.’ Like in the international development area where I work, technologies are not panaceas.

Facer also argues that ideas about educational technologies are intimately wrapped up with ideas about educational futures. She distinguishes three main ideas:

  • Firstly, ‘the future as a landscape for rational choice making’ with education contributing to making the future known, identifying preferable actions and assessing the impact of decisions. If COVID has taught us anything, it is the fallacy of such instrumentalist assumptions.
  • Secondly, a colonial orientation aims to persuade students of particular visions of the future, be they progressive or conservative, and to shape their attitudes and behaviour towards these. While this is an enticing proposition for many educators, myself included, it needs to acknowledge its own ethical agendas, potential conflicts of interest and possible temptation for adults to abdicate their responsibilities towards present challenges.
  • Thirdly, education can be seen to serve as a bulwark against an unknown and potentially dystopian future and becomes the silver bullet that will solve all problems. Here, Facer cites HG Wells‘ ‘civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe’.

These ideas not only overestimate the power of education and neglect the importance of other factors, but they also disconnect education from its wider moorings and ‘fetishize educational success as a means of achieving personal and social goods.’ By contrast, when futures are seen as sites of possibility to be explored by students rather than being predetermined by adults and educators, educational spaces can become places of experimentation for potential alternative futures, which is also the main argument of my book.

Facer proposes five orientations towards such alternative educational futures:

  • Modelling can encourage students to create models of potential futures, be they artistic, mathematical or scientific.
  • Stewardship fosters practices of care and restoration of diversity through the humanities and ecological sciences.
  • Reflexivity, as taught by the social sciences but also statistics, enables students to critically interrogate narratives of the future.
  • Disciplinarity teaches students the different ways in which disciplines make sense of new information, also with an eye to encouraging transdisciplinarity.
  • Experimentation allows students to imagine and create different futures, using art and design, engineering or computing and the social sciences.

All of these orientations are relevant for the critical-creative pedagogy I am proposing. The futures they help create are unknown and stand in complex and non-linear relationships with the past and present. The five orientations have the potential to become powerful tools for pedagogical practices that use imagination and creativity to help students better understand and work towards alternative futures. To realize this potential, universities must become accountable to the publics whose futures are being shaped by academic work  and must think more clearly about what kind of students they want to educate.

This also involves shifting the current neoliberal HE paradigm. Having recently written about complexity and systems thinking to help students better understand and address ecological challenges, I learned about leverage points where small changes can lead to systems-level transformations. Could more informed thinking about and implementation of technologies in the classroom, connected to engaged and emancipatory educational futures, be such a leverage point?

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