reframing technology in education

I left a rather cryptic comment on my colleague Karen Stearn’s blog. It was cryptic mostly because I didn’t want to leave some massive comment. So the result is that I’m going to try to clear up what I was trying to say. Karen’s post was about a technology workshop she had arranged on campus. My comments though are more generally applicable to the familiar conversation one hears among faculty and teachers on the subject of technology (one which I won’t rehearse here).

In a nutshell, here’s my point. These incessant conversations are founded on a particular understanding of the relationship between technology and subjectivity. I say subjectivity because, in the humanities at least, that’s what we tend to think about when we think about students and learning rather than cognition or consciousness. Not surprisingly, we conceive subjectivity and thought as discrete, internal, and ultimately free-willed (despite whatever it is we imagine we learned from postmodernism).

So then we look at technology as an external force or tool that might impact the internal subject in any number of positive or negative ways:

  • we become smarter;
  • we have opportunities for more democratic participation;
  • we can create new communities;
  • we lose our ability to think independently;
  • we lose critical thinking skills;
  • we become subject to media and commercial manipulation;
  • we lose contact with our local communities.

And so the "debate" goes. It never goes away. It just seems to shift from one emerging technology to another. First it’s just the internet. Then it’s IM. Then it’s texting. Then it’s Facebook. Now it’s Second Life.

However, the point I was trying to make in far fewer words on Karen’s blog is that this debate cannot move forward or become productive as long as it frames the relationship between subjectivity and technology in this fashion.

Now, I don’t think I’m saying anything particularly revolutionary here, at least not to the audience of a blog like this, but it makes very little sense to me to imagine subjectivity as a discrete, internal process. Taking up the concept of distributed cognition, it is not hard to see consciousness as an emergent property of a process that is embodied but also extends through a network beyond the body. Subjectivity is even further an apprehension of cognitive processes through an ideological and symbolic mechanism that is also "inside" in some sense but is also clearly outside.

Technology, then, is imbricated in these processes. There is not starting point for subjectivity that lies outside technology.

So when we reframe technology and subjectivity in this way, what happens?

First, we recognize that the subjectivity we had "before" was equally technological, only differently so. Perhaps we are acutely aware of the effects of emerging technology because of the rate of change, but modern humans (and by modern I mean the last 50K years) have always experienced conscious thought as technological. I think the debate sounds very different when we see ourselves as in the midst of shifting from one technology to another rather than shifting from some "natural" internalized mind to a technological externalized cognitive process. We modern humans have always participated in the latter.

Second, we can recognize that our communities, our ethics, and our morals have also always been part of technological relations. My suburban neighbors and I certainly have relations mediated by technologies. Our living conditions are products of an automobile culture, for example. We all know these things. Emerging technologies shape new communities and are shaped by existing communities, often in unpredictable ways. The designers of cell phones had no idea that a texting culture would emerge among the world’s youth. There was no determinism there. And if it is the case that some of the ethics and morals that shaped agricultural societies and industrial societies are reformed in a networked culture, we can recognize that these things have always been intertwined with technologies.

I have always found it somewhat mystifying that educators want to assign themselves the role of adjudicating behaviors. The judgments of teachers, pro or con, are irrelevant. Maybe the grading thing goes to our heads! There isn’t really much purpose, for example, in debates about whether Second Life is "good" or "bad." Perhaps it will succeed; perhaps it will fail. Perhaps another virtual world will come along to replace it. My guess (and most peoples’ guess) is that eventually virtual worlds will be part of all our networks just like the web. What is important is developing methods for studying how emerging technologies function culturally and particularly how they might function in education. There is little purpose in helping students to master specific applications. However, there is much to achieve in helping students develop tactics for analyzing and engaging emerging technologies. So we don’t go into Second Life because we think it is good or revolutionary for education or whatever. And we don’t reject it because we think it is frivolous or overly commercial or whatever. We study it and invite our students to study it because it is part of our world to be studied.

Now, of course, in any class and in any curricular program, you have to make decisions about what you will study. If your job is to teach literacy, you have to begin with the recognition that literacy is a technological practice and that it obviously involves, indeed maps, intersections between bodies and media (though it’s not as simple as that). Literacy is not a trait that is internal to an internal subject. You can be highly literate in print media and barely functionally literate with networked media, and as evidence to that I can present you at least 80% of the English PhDs I’ve ever met. I think that if we look at literacy as technological it makes no sense to even discuss the idea that you could exclude technology from the learning process. It would be like studying birds and not mentioning that they can fly.

Of course the fact that we’ve been doing that for a century or longer–teaching print literacy without any mention of how print technologies shape what we are experiencing–is not encouraging.

So when we look at the world of emerging technologies, we ought not to start with judgments or values predicated on perceived threats to the purity of subjects or local communities or the primacy of print. Nor should we begin with the idea that technologies can suddenly free us from the limits or problems of our current lives. We can have conversations about practical or political issues like budgets and standards and testing and access, but the real issues are more fundamental than that.

Anyway, now I think my response is less cryptic. It is certainly wordier! And maybe even slightly clearer. 

4 thoughts on “reframing technology in education

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  1. “So we don’t go into Second Life because we think it is good or revolutionary for education or whatever. And we don’t reject it because we think it is frivolous or overly commercial or whatever. We study it and invite our students to study it because it is part of our world to be studied.”
    Alex, I have been reading your posts on teaching Second Life for awhile now, and admittedly, have been somewhat skeptical about its use in the classroom — for some of the very reasons that you raise in this post, e.g., movement away from immediate, local, material communities into a virtual play world. And from reading other articles on Second Life, my prejudicial view has become that it exists for those with too much time on their hands — much in the way that MOO’s and MUDD’s were in the 1990’s. Only the predecessor, text-based MOO’s and MUDD’s left more to the imagination, and as such, perhaps fostered literacy skills moreso than Second Life. Perhaps — it’s difficult not to judge on those grounds, i.e., expenditure of time and creative development.
    I don’t know — yet in the years since GT –where I taught the ethnography of online communities — and the increased technological saturation of higher ed (well, at least for that 20% of us who have been saturated — or more speaking of the student population, who live and breathe online and via cell), I have found myself regressing into a luddite because I think there is a threshold where the virtual becomes a distraction from the imperatives of everyday life. That is not necessarily to judge Second Life, as much as it is to speculate about how SL serves non-virtual communities or serves to better the material world. If I were teaching SL from an ethnographic standpoint, that is the question that I might begin with.
    Anyway, I have been meaning to say congrats on your new book — long road to publication, I know.

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  2. Well dko, I don’t know what to make of moralistic judgments like SL is for those with “too much time on their hands.” The same might be said of literature, I suppose. Or any art. As for the creative aspect, you have to consider that everything you see in Second Life is user-generated. So I would say SL exercises the imagination in ways that are different from the text-based MOO/MUD.
    I do agree that ultimately the important and interesting question about SL situates it within the material world of which it is obviously a part. I would think that any mediated environment from text to SL persists b/c of its connection to everyday life (though obviously we both agree that everyday life is not some originary or pure or a-technological state). So we will see what comes of SL and other virtual worlds. While such questions should be asked now, we cannot expect to answer them until we have allowed ourselves an opportunity to explore their potential.
    This is particularly true of our students. For while they may appear to be saturated in media, they generally prove to be quite unaware of the kinds of tech I teach, including SL.
    I wouldn’t advocate all faculty suddenly jumping into SL (and the reality of higher ed is that it is still primarily chalk dust, yellowed lecture notes, textbooks, and blue book exams–for good or bad). I wouldn’t advocate an FYC program jumping entirely into SL. We would still need to think about how SL fits into the curricular goals of such a program (though I wouldn’t object to individual instructors, like myself, doing it).
    However, from my position, I am one of maybe ten or so faculty on my campus who can teach students about emerging technology. And I teach one course in our professional writing program where students get significant encounters with such technologies.
    I think it’s one of those things we’ve hit on before about specialization. This is what I do. The larger question, about how literacy is shifting and how literacy instruction broadly conceived needs to shift, is more difficult.

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  3. “The same might be said of literature, I suppose. Or any art. As for the creative aspect, you have to consider that everything you see in Second Life is user-generated. So I would say SL exercises the imagination in ways that are different from the text-based MOO/MUD.”
    Yes, I realized after I wrote that the age-old (and artificial) materialist vs. ludic dichotomy was underwriting my commentary. (How exasperating that was in graduate school!) Yet, still, it’s difficult not to yearn for some kind of transformative connection between art and life or between the virtual and reality. Not to pass moral judgment — but to yearn for a pragmatic use and pedagogical value beyond play for the sake of play. There is a wonderful quote by Donna Haraway from *The Promises of Monsters* that I once used as an epigraph for my syllabi at GT — do not have it at my fingertips at the moment — but it was, to the effect, about the contradictory etymology of the word “virtue” — referencing manly valor, an order of angels, chastity, yet ultimately nourishment — and then speculated about how reality was perhaps already virtual. I think Einstein (a moralist himself) said no less. Only point being that I sometimes think we have our hands full enough with the (virtual) reality that we are already immersed in — there is enough human suffering in the world, and the question, for me at least, becomes, how does the virtual or the creation of virtual worlds, operate to relieve that suffering? What moral value does it have? Those are the types of questions that drive my thinking on the subject. FWIW

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