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?

Queuing in the time of COVID-19

The queue at our local supermarket brings back memories of East Germany (minus the mobile phones)

The panic buying at the beginning of the COVID pandemic has long since given way to much more orderly and calm queuing to get into supermarkets, at an appropriate social distance. For me, having grown up in East Germany where there often was scarcity of all kinds of stuff and waiting in line was common practice, especially for special things such as bananas or oranges that were actually orange rather than green (the latter were the so-called Kuba Orangen named after their place of origin), this brings back memories. It also ties in well with the writing I have done over the last month on the economics chapter of my book, in which I explore how to teach social science students about economic alternatives (a summary will come shortly.) In the chapter, I use economic responses to the COVID crisis to show the shortcomings of neoclassical economic theories, and how this might inform critical-creative teaching. In this post, which is the second in my COVID reflections, following the first one on care, I will share some of my theoretical insights, drawing on recent think pieces and publications by various economists and social scientists.

The embedded economy

According to Sanjay Reddy, ‘the pandemic underlines the necessity for a rethinking of our received ideas about economics,’ foremost among them the interdependencies between economics and all other areas of life, the relationship between individual and collective rationality and the importance of public deliberations about the differential impact of the virus on different groups and the trade-offs this calls for. Economic responses to the pandemic have also highlighted the usually more hidden value judgements made by economic policy makers, for example in prioritizing public over economic health concerns. All of this connects to calls to ‘see the big picture’ of economics, which means changing the perspective from a self-contained, efficient market as the mainstay of the economy to embedding the economy in society and nature. For Kate Raworth, for whom seeing the big picture is part of reinventing economics for the 21st century, such a move calls for ‘the creation of new narratives – about the power of the market, the partnership of the state, the core role of the household, and the creativity of the commons.’ The COVID pandemic has indeed resulted in calls for new social contracts between governments, citizens and corporations.

Finally, a breakthrough alternative to growth economics – the ...
A representation of the embedded economy. Source: Kate Raworth and Marcia Mihotich

Let’s start with governments, many of whom have taken measures in response to the pandemic that have the potential to address existing economic inequities, if they can transition from emergency stop-gap interventions to more far-reaching structural reforms. This would follow historical precedent, modern welfare state emerged from the Great Depression and WWII. Today, governments in many countries are providing unprecedented support for workers, such as income guarantees, self-employed worker and small business support schemes. It is important to point out that many gaps remain in their coverage and their effects, just as the effects of the virus itself, are highly uneven. Nevertheless, some of these government schemes approximate, and in some places such as Spain are being developed as spring boards to, universal basic income (UBI) schemes which guarantee all citizens of a country a base amount of money to cover basic needs. Calls for UBI, such as the one made by over 500 political figures and academics, recognize and reaffirm the responsibility of governments to guarantee the basic material well-being of residents, displacing the primacy of market-based interventions.

The lines between corporations and governments have also become more blurred, as seen in the requisitioning of private resources for public (health) interest to ensure sufficient hospital spaces, make protective equipment and develop a vaccine. This can lead to the transformation of businesses into more humane institutions and to a decentering of market logics from the many areas of human existence they have infiltrated. To sustain these initiatives and help them transition to a ‘new normal,’ citizens will need to mobilize and press their demands in the face of calls to resume business as usual. This raises the question of the commons.

Revaluing the commons and households

A second element of the big economy picture is revaluing the commons, seen in calls to adequately support public health systems often ravaged by years of austerity and cutbacks. Once again, history can be a guide, since the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic helped create national health services in many European countries. An important part is recognizing who contributes to the common good as essential workers and re-valuing their key contributions to society, including financially. Others argue for a reclaiming of the knowledge commons to ensure that reliable information can lead to an informed debate that takes local values, priorities and needs into account. Against dominant claims to ‘the’ science driving government decisions, it is clear that difficult ethical decisions need to be made by policy makers and that an informed public needs to be involved in these deliberations. For starters, government committees such as the UK’s SAGE committee should include not only behavioral economists, disease experts and modellers, epidemiologists and medics, but also social scientists and humanities scholars such as philosophers, historians of science, theologians and jurists, as is happening in Germany.

Embedding the economy also means recognizing the core role of households, something that has been demanded by feminist economists and their ground-breaking studies of the care economy for many years.  Following the lockdown policies implemented by most countries to stop the virus spreading, households have been reconfirmed as the centres of family lives, as studying and working from home complement daily interactions and family members have to find new ways of co-existing in often confined spaces. A new ethics is emerging where care, albeit a version that is delinked from problematic gendered notions, becomes the basis for connections.

Our assortment of face masks

Interdependent economic subjects

This relates to another 21st century economics principles of ‘nurturing human nature’ by recognizing that individuals are not the calculating, maximizing and self-interested individuals posited by neoclassical economics. Instead, the collective crisis of COVID is showing that humans are interdependent, reciprocating and ethical beings, and is highlighting alternative ways of co-existence based on mutuality and conviviality. The ‘thick, tangled skein of sociality’ is revealed in the shielding of vulnerable family members, the wearing of face masks mainly to protect others and the keeping of spatial distancing. Citizens’ overall compliance with lock down measures that diminish individual freedoms in the name of the social good shows the inadequacy of individual rational choice theories and requires a more expansive view that recognizes that individuals take others into account when making decisions and can align their own choices with collective requirements. The self-organizing neighborhood groups that have sprung up in many cities operate on principles of mutual aid to help those who need to self-isolate or are struggling in other ways. These initiatives show that economic systems are at their heart social systems embedded within interpersonal relations.

Thus, the COVID pandemic is clearly showing that the economy is an integral part of social, political and environmental systems. Some of the current responses to the pandemic can be used to teach students the shortcomings of orthodox economics and the relevance of pluralist ideas within and without the university. It can also encourage them to use their learning to imagine and work towards the alternative futures that can be glimpsed among the bleakness of life under COVID.

Care in the time of COVID-19

A sign in a neighbor’s garden offering help to those who have to self-isolate

I can’t believe that my last two blog posts from Germany were written only a month ago – it seems like a lifetime has passed and the world is a very different place to what it was in early March. As well as adjusting to working from a home and keeping up with feeding two teenage boys, I have been trying to come to grips with what the COVID crisis means for my book, which after all focuses on the contributions of creative teaching to better prepare students to address global challenges. After initially being overwhelmed by the huge amount of information available, I am slowly beginning to make some sense of some of it. In this, somewhat meandering, unfocused and tentative post in keeping with the general uncertainty of the situation, I explore what some aspects of design, particularly the concept of wicked problems and the emphasis on care and empathy, can contribute to an understanding of COVID-19. This draws on the design chapter of my book (which is building on longer-standing research on the role of design in development) I am currently writing. This is the first of several COVID reflection posts, with the second one focusing on economic implications.

Wicked problem were first defined by Horst Rittel as ‘social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing’ (as quoted in Richard Buchanan’s useful overview article of design). In contrast to clearly delimited problems that follow linear processes to a precise solutions, wicked problems are indeterminate because they have no clearly defined limits and more than one possible explanation and are symptomatic of higher-level problems. Many contemporary challenges are wicked problems because of their complexity and interconnectedness, and the COVID crisis is no exception. While medical at its core, it affects many other areas of social, economic and political life. Wicked problems call for different disciplines to work together to understand them and formulate responses; for COVID-19 that has encompassed medical (treatment and public health campaigns), economic (eg. various government wage and business support schemes), social (spatial distancing) and political (closing of borders) responses. According to Buchanan, design as an inherently integrative discipline can enable this cross-cutting approach because it offers an expanded imagination that is not directed towards quick, technological fixes but ‘toward new integrations of signs, things, actions and environments that address the concrete needs and values of human beings in diverse circumstances.’

The Estonian government’s proposal to hack the wicked problem of COVID-19

Another relevant concept is that of care, which is by no means unique to design; Ana Agostino, a Uruguayan feminist academic has written here about the importance of re-asserting care for each other in this collective crisis. In making the design connection, I draw on Bruno Latour’s keynote address to the 2008 International Conference of the UK’s Design History Society. For Latour, ‘designing is an antidote to hubris and to the search for absolute certainty, absolute beginnings and radical departures.’ Design is more humble, modest and cautious because its practitioners realize the complexities of current challenges and the unintended consequences of possible solutions. Design turns objects into matters of concern and care, as the fragility and interconnectedness of humans and the world in which they are entangled become urgently apparent. Latour draws on German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk and his notion of spheres into which humans are enveloped from birth to death, on a personal and collective scale. References to life support systems seems especially pertinent when juxtaposed to images of Corona patients on ventilators and the latters’ global scarcity (but also the grassroots innovations resulting from necessity being the mother of invention). Here breathing – the most basic of human activities – needs intense medical intervention. In the context of the COVID-crisis, Latour has developed an exercise of taking stock of activities that have now been suspended to see which ones we would like to reanimate after the lock down and which ones we would like to abandon for good. Exploring our reasons for these choices will yield insights into personal values and having conversations with others about what choices they would make might open up opportunities for political changes.

While the role of technology in this crisis is a much larger discussion, I do want to finish with a digital initiative I like, which is #BlossomWatch. This is a campaign by the UK’s National Trust to emulate Hanami, the Japanese tradition of celebrating cherry and other spring blossoms and the promises they hold. The idea of #BlossomWatch, which invites people to share their photos, is to allow people who cannot currently go outside to enjoy this wonder of spring. This then brings me to empathy (as practiced by designers, care professionals and many others), as the ability to imagine other people’s situations and feelings. Following calls for spatial distancing, which might be a more apt word for what we are being asked to do and the resulting new forms of sociality, is presented as needing to protect vulnerable groups and the NHS, in the case of the UK. It is also about trying to imagine what it might feel like to self-isolate, to have lost one’s source of income, to have to work from home and care for toddlers or home school at the same time. There have been so many amazing responses to these challenges that manifest our collective capacity to empathize with and care for each other, however small the contribution might be. In the spirit of humble interventions, here is a photo from the splendid blossoms outside our house. Stay well!

Spring blossoms outside our house