Decolonising the Documentary Curriculum

As I have remarked on this blog a few times, the celebrated canon of photojournalism and documentary photography has tended to fixate on a small pool of largely white, European, men. While many of these figures made important contributions to the history and evolution of the subject, what is problematic is the continuing absence of figures who do not fit this profile from much teaching and scholarship. These missing figures are part of what Lesley le Grange has characterised as the ‘null curriculum’, that which is missing or absent from the explicit university curriculum. It is an ongoing aim in my teaching to try and address this. While not actively ignoring or erasing those figures who are traditionally seen as important, I seek to incorporate more examples of photographers who are lesser known or celebrated into my classes, to widen my student’s reference points, and in doing that hopefully also provide them with more examples they can be inspired by.

One of the other students on the PGCE remarked on this aim of mine, saying that he was surprised that I was concerned with it since I am a white, male, European, and therefore most likely benefit from the present status quo. While this is true, this expectation also partially explains the persistence of this and other problems. If the people who do not benefit from the status quo are the only ones willing to challenge it, change is going to be a harder thing to accomplish. I might stand to benefit from the current system, but that doesn’t mean I feel it is morally right for me to do so, or even to tolerate it. One could say my motivations are partially selfish in so far as I see this homogeneity as an enormous problem for a subject like photojournalism and documentary, which concerns itself with exploring human experience. Most documentary photographers would recognise that the topics we choose to explore are highly motivated by our individual backgrounds and experiences. Equally our attempts to observe, record and explain are filtered through our own individual experiences. Therefore in order to explore the diversity of the world in the most nuanced way, it seems important that our subject field and the practitioners in it are similarly diverse.

When it comes to teaching I want to inspire my students with examples that reflect their own interests, visual styles and personal backgrounds. Particularly with some of my students from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, choosing to study journalism and particularly visual journalism is felt by some of them as having taken something of a risk (parental approval has come up a few times here), and I want to show them that if it is indeed a risk then there are examples of photographers that prove it is one worth taking. Like other tutors I routinely recommend students examples of photographers who I think they should look into, but also when I select examples for classes or refresh lectures as I do most years, I do this partially with a mind to the specific group of students I will be delivering the classes to. If I know a particular student has a strong interest in a certain topic or approach, I will try to seek out a few examples which I hope will interest them. Showing these to the entire class clearly has the advantage that these examples may unintentionally inspire others.

My ability to do this is obviously dependent on my own limited knowledge. I try to constantly learn more about my field, but this is one of many competing priorities for my time. Increasingly I try to use my former and current students as a way to introduce me to new photographers, creating exercises that encourage them to research and introduce examples of photographers who inspire them or connect with the same sorts of issues that interest them. While I take no credit for it, some of my former students have gone on to recognise that their background can be something of an asset. In one case a former student has established herself as an expert in Chinese photography, using her western education and Chinese background to bridge the gap between these two cultures and educate western audiences about the wealth of Chinese photography which goes largely unseen in Europe and north America.

Reading: Towards Sustainable Feedback

The way one teaches is inevitably coloured by one’s experiences as a student, and for me formal feedback was always enormously important. I pored over it, both for the obvious pleasure of compliments when a task was done well, but also to glean insights and advice for how I could improve in the future (I willingly admit I was, and still am, a nerd). When the feedback was cursory or ill thought out I found the experience disappointing and it made me less inclined to try as hard on future assignments for that teacher. I recognise that this isn’t the case for all students (or many at all) but this experience still influences the way I approach writing feedback. I want to explain and to some extent justify the grade that has been given, but I also want to provide advice and guidance where possible so that the student can continue to develop their course work, whether for their own benefit or for wider audiences.

As I result I tend to put more time and thought into it than is maybe sustainable for my practice as a teacher, particularly when it comes to marking smaller assignments or ones where there are many to get through. Conscious of this I have started to think about strategies that might make the delivery of feedback more effective and perhaps also more useful to my students. Ideas for this have come from a few sources, including colleagues at UAL and at other institutions, and from discussions with some of my students. For the benefit of this journal I am going to focus here on a paper by David Carless, Diane Salter, Min Yang and Joy Lam which proposes and advocates for a more sustainable feedback model based on research and interviews with award winning lecturers. While they conceive of sustainable in primarily in terms of a student’s lifelong learning, some elements of what they propose might I think also be adapted to make the feedback process more sustainable for tutors as well.

The piece opens by acknowledging the importance of feedback, with a critique of current feedback practice, and by repeating the often heard (although not universally accepted) mantra that students tend to value feedback less than teachers. Crucially they explain this as being less to do with the inherent usefulness of feedback, than with the way it is currently practiced in higher education. A particular issue they identify is the ‘finality of one-way written comments’ and also the lack of training and opportunities for students in how to use and act upon feedback. They also identify the swelling of higher education as a particular problem for tutors looking to provide suitably personalised student feedback. What the authors ultimately call for is not just the usual small scale tinkering with the feedback process, but a more thorough reconceptualization of what constitutes feedback.

For the authors, a key element of making feedback more sustainable is to make it less one way and more dialogic. They suggest that such an approach ‘can guide students on what is good performance by facilitating discussions of quality in relation to specific assignment tasks, and also support them in developing enhanced ownership of assessment processes.’ This is important, because it to some extent shifts the emphasis from the tutor to judge and deliver feedback, and moves some responsibility towards the student to self-regulate. A large part of how this happens rests in the way assessment is carried out, the authors suggest. The traditional single assessment point followed by feedback is likely to be less effective than a structure that allows an opportunity for an initial assessment and feedback, followed by time for changes and then a second assessment. They argue that ‘this development of self-regulative capacities is the essence of sustainable feedback.’

From this introduction the article then enters a review of the practices of a number of award winning teachers at the University of Hong Kong, the results of which were then subdivided into a series of categories for further analysis:  The themes addressed were two-stage assignments and their role in facilitating feedback, dialogic feedback through oral presentation tasks, the use of technology to facilitate feedback, and finally notion of student self-evaluation. For reasons of length I won’t get into analysing each of these categories in great detail, but will make a few observations for each. In terms of two stage assessment, several of those interviewed reflected on the positives of this approach. One pointed out how previously feedback could feel like ‘throwing a stone in the sea’ with little idea whether it was acted on. Another reflected on the heavy marking workload of dual submission points, but argued that it was worth it for the resultant learning benefits they saw in students. Peer review was mentioned as a potentially useful technique at the first stage of assessment, although there was also a recognition of the difficulties of motivating students to participate in peer feedback (an issue which might be addressed with recourse to peer mentoring techniques).

In terms of dialogic feedback, many of those surveyed employed oral presentation as a method of assessment. One tutor reported videotaping these presentations and then asking the students to effectively self-assess, reflecting on their own performance (by his own admission not an uncontroversial approach). Another reported using frequent, short presentations as an assessment tool, stating that it’s value also lay in building up public speaking skills which were key to the subject they taught. Moving on to technology supported feedback, this was quite widely used. One teacher advocated online feedback, with students given the opportunity to post drafts of assignment work and view and comment on those by other students. He characterised feedback as a scaffolding or support which tutors give to students, but also cautioned against students becoming over dependent on ongoing feedback and argued they should be asked to also find the answers themselves. Adding an example from my own experience, colleagues at Ravensbourne College have experimented with using recorded feedback for students. They have found this reduces the burden on tutors, and engages students better than written feedback.

The final section of the paper discusses examples of student self-evaluation. One informant suggests this is helpful because it reduces the amount of guidance provided by the teacher and pushes students to find answers themselves, achieving both the goal of equipping students with lifelong skills and reducing the burden on tutors. One example of this is the use of pre-assessment workshops, used as a way to help students evaluate their learning, the informant writes that ‘my strategy is that the same question has to be asked twice, so students can realize what they have learnt.’ Another informant emphasised the importance of ‘feedback in real time’ asking constant questions in classes as a way to assess student understanding and offer them opportunities to question in return. He also coins the idea of ‘provocative feedback’ intended to open a dialogue or discussion. These approaches, like any, can introduce tensions, the same informant writes that ‘initially, I would think that they are probably a bit disappointed because they expect the teacher to teach them. In the end, they value the fact that you respect what they brought to the class’.

Altogether this paper provides a number of ideas for how feedback might be more evenly distributed throughout the teaching process, to the potential benefit of both students and tutors. For students, such distributed and dialogic approaches offer more opportunities to understand feedback, incorporate it, and adapt their activities as they work. For tutors, it potentially opens up more sustainable models of feedback, which in various ways place more of the onus on students to self-evaluate and discuss feedback, reducing the burden on tutors to provide a stream of specific, dense information at the end point of grading and marking.

Teaching by Example

While writing my critical evaluations for the PGCE Teaching and Learning unit I briefly mentioned using my own work as material for teaching, and hinted at some of the benefits and difficulties of this. There wasn’t space in the evaluation to get into much depth about it so at the suggestion of my tutor I will expand on this here. The context for this was a discussion of some of the ways I have attempted to create a community of practice amongst my students, aiming to foster the sense that we are all united by a shared interest in and commitment to documentary photography. For me part of the way I seek to do this is to show my own work and to try be candid about the difficulties I have encountered in making it, so that students hopefully understand that difficulties (whether technical mishaps or unresponsive subjects) are something we all encounter, at any stage of our practices or careers.

My tutor picked up on the word ‘try’ in that previous sentence as something worth thinking about more. Certainly, presenting one’s own work as an example and being honest about the challenges that were involved is not quite as straightforward as it seems, and in fact raises a number of issues which cause me to hesitate before doing it. For one I am aware students might seek to rather directly emulate my approach, when what I really want is for them to find their own style and interests as photographers (although of course emulation is sometimes an important part of the process of finding these things). More difficult is the question of how frank to be about the difficulties involved in some of my work. In showing them examples I want to inspire them and make it clear that challenges are not always insurmountable, but I need to think carefully about not doing the opposite, over-emphasising the difficulties of documentary to the point that some of them start to anticipate complications which may in fact never occur.

Equally I feel a sense that perhaps I am sometimes revealing too much, making myself appear rather less than competent by discussing the moments when I found myself stuck or challenged in a project. While I am hardly a believer in the idea that a lecturer should be an unchallengeable sage maintaining and not undermining student’s confidence in your competence in your field also seems important if they are to trust the guidance and feedback you offer. Lastly I sometimes wonder if my own work is actually even the best example for what we need to discuss. Once during a class on writing text to go alongside photo series, I used an example from one of my own projects. My students were (in hindsight quite rightly) critical of the text I had written, feeling it was over wordy and could use shorter sentences. It turned into a useful exercise and I got them to rewrite it (a bonus bit of help for me), but this shows how true it is that we are often too close to our own work to assess it’s real worth and make objective decisions about it.

I’ve found that some of the most useful exercises have been where I have employed my own work without offering any sort of value judgement about how good or bad it might be. One example of this that I use quite often is asking my students to form small groups and edit a 10-photo sequence from a photo essay I shot right at the start of my career, when I was at a similar stage to many of them (the series is also about someone leaving home to go to university for the first time, a topic which resonates with many of them as they have just been through the same experience). Whether the series is good or not is beside the point, since the exercise is really about the power of sequencing and judicious editing. Having ‘borrowed’ this exercise from one of my own tutors I can say that as a student it was a really positive experience to be given the tutors work to sequence. Besides the obvious learning activity, it felt like a moment of trust that a tutor who we all venerated for his professional experience would let us edit and sequence his work. It heightened the sense amongst us that we were all joined by a common practice.

In short teaching by example in this way seems to offer a variety of challenges which need some careful thought, but in my experience, it’s value as a way to form connections with students and foster the sense of a community of practice seem invaluable and it is something I will continue to employ at key points throughout my units.

Exercises: Peer Mentoring

One of the many challenges that students encounter after graduating from a creative course is how to continue to get useful feedback about their work. Speaking from my own experience as a student, you can become very comfortable with the routine of showing work to tutors, which can leave something of a void once the formal opportunities for that end at graduation. Getting frank and helpful feedback remains a problem for many photographers throughout their career, and a marketplace has inevitably arisen for these types of services, ranging from the paid for portfolio review to the emergence of ‘photography consultants’ who offer photographers bespoke career advice. These are fine if you can afford them and think they are worth the money, but what if you can’t, or won’t, pay?

In 2014 I began participating in a peer mentoring group composed of nine other photographers who would meet regularly to share work in progress for feedback, ideas and encouragement. In 2015 I applied on behalf of the group for a grant from the charity Arts Quest to scale our activities up. We received their support and subsequently met six times in as many months at The Photographers Gallery, and continue to meet now albeit slightly less regularly. This experience convinced me that peer mentoring could be a useful alternative to these paid for opportunities for advice and feedback, but when I began teaching more regularly in late 2015 it also got me thinking about the possibility of employing elements of peer mentoring methodology in the classroom. The activities of a peer mentoring group seemed like a way to potentially boost student’s analytical and critical skills, develop good feedback practices, and prepare them with a model of how to continue to get creative feedback after graduation.

Peer mentoring is typically employed in universities as a way to help newer students adapt to the general circumstances of higher education, and benefit from the advice of peers in other course year, this is how it is used at UAL for example. There is quite a bit of literature and theory on the benefits of this practical mode of peer mentoring, but less about artistic peer mentoring, which in my experience operates quite differently. Artistic peer mentoring groups tend to be much larger (ten members is quite normal), usually with one committed organiser although sometimes this is a position which rotates amongst members. The hierarchies in artistic peer mentoring groups also tend to flatter, with many peer mentoring guides and practitioners arguing that groups with members at a similar professional stage to each other are often most effective, and this was certainly what we found. A flat hierarchy tends to encourage a sense that all voices in the group are equally valid. Peer mentoring groups also tend to run on a tightly moderated schedule, simply because of the number of people involved, whereas one-to-one peer mentoring sessions can often be more fluid and free form.


The conventional model of artistic peer mentoring has strengths and weaknesses, but it is probably already clear that it has some similarities to the format of the university crit or group tutorial, and this seems like a potentially good opportunity to introduce elements of peer mentoring practice into the university curriculum. There are of course also divergences from the group crit, most evidently in the lack of a ‘tutor’ and the expectation that commentary comes from all participating members of the group. Many artistic peer mentoring methodologies place an emphasis on carefully thought out approaches to feedback and this again seems a useful thing to re-employ in the classroom. One method I was introduced to by artist and peer mentoring facilitator Chloe Cooper, involves escalating levels of feedback. Initially participants simply view the image presented for critique and make completely observational comments about it. From there they are invited to provide feedback on different facets of the image, starting with things they like and proceeding through to things they are confused by or which they think could be changed. Critically at each stage the person receiving feedback is asked if they want feedback about the particular aspect of an image which has caught the reviewer’s eye, so there is always the option to reject feedback if it seems like it will not be useful (most artists have probably been in the position of receiving totally unhelpful feedback about an element of a work which is clearly not possible to change).

Employing and teaching such an approach to feedback seems useful in the classroom, as while we might often invite students to comment on each other’s work they are not necessarily versed in the delicate etiquette of doing this. Students often veer on the side of only saying nice things about the work of peers, but most teachers have probably had the experience of a student being overly, even unhelpfully critical of a peers work. Discussing useful feedback strategies and introducing a system where critical feedback is invited by the person showing work can help give students a framework for feedback and criticism, and also allows the person receiving it to have a certain amount of agency in what feedback they receive. While I have employed elements of peer mentoring in classes and discussed the concept with my students it is something I would like to formalise more directly into the curriculum. This is something I am thinking about as I rewrite my second-year documentary unit ahead of next year’s classes, and it is also something I might pursue further as part of the independent project unit. For further reading and a practical guide to setting up a peer mentoring group Arts Quest has a good section on their website.

Reading: Communities of Practice

During the course of undertaking this PGCE it has become increasingly apparent to me that as learners and teachers we absorb certain orthodoxies without even noticing them, much less questioning them. One common one is the assumption that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching’ (Wenger). As a teacher, I have found this individualised approach that most of us start with becomes increasingly problematic when one is called upon to teach large groups, something which is increasingly the norm in higher education. Through a colleague, I was recently introduced to the concept of a community of practice, articulated by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, and later expanded by both authors separately in further books.

Lave and Wenger propose a model, where learning is the product of engagement in a community of individuals engaged in a shared activity or interests. They argue that such communities are fundamental to human activity, and as a result we are all engaged in a number of them (often indeed without realising it), in some cases participating as peripheral participants, in others as core members. Through our interactions within these communities and the things they are centred on (what Wegner terms the ‘domain’), we tune our behaviour and ideas, developing practices that relate to our area of interest. These shared practices, interests, vocabularies, and memories also serve over time to reinforce the sense of a community. As we engage and learn in a community we move from its’s periphery towards it’s centre, learning thus becomes a process of social participation as well as one of actually acquiring knowledge.

What seems key here is that because the community develops these practices collectively, the process of learning cannot be individualised in the way it is often understood to be in formal education. Measuring learning as an individual effort makes little sense when learning becomes the product of group interactions and relationships. This idea would seem to have some interesting parallels with other anti-hierarchical educational ideas, for example rhizomatic learning. However whereas the rhizomatic approach centres on a non-hierarchical approach to knowledge and the exchanges points between different forms of knowledge, communities of practice emphasise a sort of networked, integrated system of learning between individuals. As with rhizomatic learning, communities of practice might be a trendy idea to bandy about, but to truly encourage them in a university setting would seem then to require a fundamental change to a number of things, particularly assessment which remains fixated on learning as an individual activity. While collaboration is increasingly a part of the university curriculum, it’s inclusion often seems mechanistic and continues to heavily emphasise the individual’s contribution to the collaboration (I speak with UAL’s collaborative unit in mind here) over the collaboration as a whole.

While we wait (perhaps indefinitely) for a fundamental reconsideration of the priorities behind higher education assessment, there still seem to be elements of Lave and Wenger’s concept that might be useful in the classroom. Two of these that seem obviously useful to me are first, the idea of learning as a group activity rather than one that takes place between individual students and the teacher, and secondly the goal of creating a communal bond in a learning group, a bond which centres on a set of shared practices, vocabularies, and memories. In terms of learning as a group activity, this seems to be increasingly the norm in classrooms, and to some extent Lave and Wenger are articulating an existing phenomenon rather than proposing a new one. The didactic, teacher led approach to education is increasingly unfashionable, frequently  replaced (at least in pedagogic rhetoric if not in practice) with student orientated approaches, comprising small group work, student led activities and so forth. Still it seems valuable to think about ways these different strategies might be joined together to create a more encompassing sense of group learning. By introducing the idea that we learn together as professionals (and I think the teachers willing participation in the process of learning is probably key here) a community of practice might also normalise the idea amongst a group of students that learning is very much an ongoing, peer to peer activity which continues throughout one’s professional life, rather than something which mostly ends after the three years of university.

Second, the idea of creating a bond or community through learning obviously seems useful in supporting the community of learning outlined above, but also in establishing the social relations between students which will help them to be effective learners and professionals after graduation. If one regards education for a vocational and largely freelancer practice like photojournalism as partly a process of socialisation, of preparing students with the social capital they need to navigate the professional industry and community they will graduate into, a community of practice might act as something of a microcosm of the industry outside the classroom. As well as reflecting the industry outside though, a community of practice is perhaps an opportunity to augment the priorities of that real-world community, by emphasising collaborative and peer to peer learning as ideals against the traditional individualism of the industry, perhaps we can start to subtly influence it as our students graduate into and bring with them practices which celebrate collaboration and the group more, and downplay individual ownership.

Communities of practice should not be treated uncritically, and as Lave and Wenger somewhat acknowledge there are situations where such a community of practice might incorporate unhelpful hierarchies and power relations which challenge or limit participation and learning. Particularly in a financially straightened and competitive industry like photojournalism, those at the centre may well see those at the periphery as challengers or rivals, not equals. Therefore, while the community of practice model might appear to replace the traditional approach of individualised and hierarchical learning, it’s centre-periphery model can reproduce similar tensions in the round. None the less this seems like a potentially useful model with elements which might be adapted, both for the benefit of learning in the formal classroom, and for a student’s lifelong learning afterwards.

e-Learning: Independent Experimentation Plan

Over the next few weeks we are expected to undertake an independent research project investigating a facet of technology enhanced learning. I had intended to formulate an experimental exercise to do with my students for this but as we’ve just commenced our Easter break I don’t have much of an opportunity for that without instituting a session artificially, which I’d prefer not to do. As an alternative I’ve decided to build on some of the existing reading and writing I’ve been doing and look instead at the politics and priorities of online teaching platforms with a view to considering how far they embody particular ideological priorities, and reconstitute potentially undesirable power relations.

As Neil Selwyn forcefully argues, online teaching technologies are often discussed in uncritical terms, with advocates tending to view them in neutral terms, or even as inherently liberatory and democratic. There is relatively little questioning of the extent to which they reconstitute familiar classroom divisions and hierarchies and even generate entirely new ones. My current plan for my investigation is to attempt a forensic dissection and examination of one of these technologies, cross sectioning it and analysing it’s different elements in an attempt to reveal the ways that it might encourage or enforce a particular understanding of teaching, and might create certain inequalities between taught, teachers and institutions. Some of the topics I might consider include:

From Sage on the Stage to Sage on a Webpage: Even in its name Blackboard implies a very Victorian notion of teaching and learning. Does it replace the potentially very hierarchical, didactic teaching model of the face to face classroom with something more diffuse and democratic, or in fact does it create an environment where the ‘sage on the stage’ approach is perpetuated because that is what the technology has been engineered to permit and other possibilities have been closed off. Do the quite draconian tools provided to teachers/moderators serve to produce a dictatorial environment compared to the inherently negotiated space of the physical classroom, or is that control illusory.

Towards an Uber Model of Teaching: Thinking about the extent to which the spatially and temporarily decentred teaching made possible by these platforms encourages a view of teaching that caters to a de-formalised ‘gig economy’ and the implications of that change for students and teachers. Issues to consider within this include the recording of lectures, emphasis on informal hours, the break down between work and non-working space, the gathering and use of data generated in the course of teaching and learning. Does all of this encourage a different way of thinking about the purpose and form of teaching and learning, and if so is that change positive or negative, and for whom?

The Classroom as Private Space: Teaching technologies are typically licensed commercial products rather than in house developments, which has implications for transparency in their development and implementation. To what extent do the priorities of developers align with the agendas of institutions and the needs of teachers and students, and what other activities do developers undertake besides simply building teaching platforms (what happens to data gathered for example).

Some of the research methods I will use for this will include, further reading on the topic of educational technologies and power, interviews with former and current students on their experiences of the platform, possibly also a request to meet representatives from Blackboard who are headquartered in Washington D.C where I will be visiting in April. All this will lead up to a visual and textual deconstruction or dissection of the platform in an attempt to reveal and consider what lies beneath it’s surface. Ultimately the aim (in the spirit of Selwyn’s book) will not to be to criticize or find fault for the sake of it, but with the intention of identifying how facets of these technologies serve to shape ideas about what constitutes desirable teaching, and how these might develop for good or ill in the future.

While we have been prompted to produce the results of our investigations as an essay I would like to create something a little more novel which still meets the requirements of the unit. I am currently considering creating a ‘networked essay’, essentially a cluster of tightly interlinked webpages dealing with different aspects of this topic and heavily illustrated with visual examples of the topics I am discussing.


Reading: Distrusting Educational Technology

Neil Selwyn’s book Distrusting Educational Technology was introduced to us by Siobhan Clay in a recent session on inclusivity in the context of technology assisted learning. Her summary of some of the book’s arguments chimed with a few things I’ve already been thinking about here, in particularly the seldom unconsidered politics of these technologies, which tend to be heralded in uncritical, even evangelistic terms by their users. I’m currently thinking about making this issue the topic of investigation for the independent experiment I need to undertake for the technology enhanced learning unit and so reviewing Selwyn’s ideas in more depth seemed like a good starting point. His critique of these technologies is lengthy and intricate and so for the purposes of this post I’m just going briefly summarise the introduction, which gives a good overview of his rationale for critiquing these technologies, and the first chapter of the book which examines their ideological pinnings and the political reasons that these technologies appeal to some of the disparate groups that employ them.

In the introduction, Selwyn sets out an overview of the prevailing attitudes towards educational technology and offers a justification for a more involved critique of these technologies. He questions the deceptive simplicity of these platforms and is critical of the tendency towards unquestioning evangelism that is often encountered in this field, quoting Langdon Winner’s description of a ‘technological somnambulism’ that seems to pervade western society. Selwyn notes the lack of critical voices in the field of technology enhanced learning, writing that the tendency is towards only asking questions rooted in technical and procedural matters (i.e. an over emphasis on the how rather than why). More nuanced critiques tend to be rooted either in psycho-neurological concerns over the effects of these technologies on our minds and bodies, or in ideas about their moral tolerability. He argues we should in fact presume these technologies to be ideologically loaded and ‘to acknowledge the differences that persist throughout educational technology between those who produce and those who consume, those who are empowered and those who are exploited.’ He argues that as such they need ‘to be understood as a knot of social, political, economic and cultural agendas that is riddled with complications, contradictions and conflicts’ and as a result also that technology enhanced learning is a field as beset with value preferences; ‘social imaginaries and ideological formations that present common (and often persuasive) understandings of how things ‘should be’ and ‘will be’.’ As if anticipating criticism in return for his critical stance, Selwyn also somewhat defensively makes a case for the importance of pessimism in this field, suggesting doing so is not simply being difficult for the sake of being difficult, but is a case of realism and an important part of breaking free from educationalist hype. He summarises this as ‘approaching educational technology from a position similar to Gramsci’s notion of being a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will’.

In the second chapter Selywn attempts to view educational technologies in light of the ideologies they support by offering a deliberately political analysis of education and technology in counterpoint to the ‘commonsensical’ discourse often used about them in educational circles. In doing so he also seeks to create a framework for identifying these ideological interests and their consequences. He starts with a discussion and definition of ideology, aptly starting with Marx and moving through to more contemporary analysis. Selwyn reviews the evolution of ideas about ideology to produce an eventual definition which could loosely be summarised as the idea that ideology seeks to decontest or naturalise the meanings of certain things in order to create a common consensus about them. One can, he suggests speak of a dominant ideology of technology assisted learning or teaching in general, which permits certain activities and frowns on others.

Next Selwyn proceeds to identify the dominant ideologies of our present moment and of the technologies that define our moment. Referencing Andrew Feenberg, Selwyn suggests technologies are often rightly seen seen as sites of struggle between competing ideologies, and this view of them should also extend to digital realm. Selwyn sees our contemporary moment as underpinned by several key ideologies. One is libertarianism, a basic trust in the moral and political primacy of the individual and in North American context particularly their pursuit of individual self-interest. Libertarian ideology is basically humanist Selwyn suggests, having at it’s core a basic trust in the good of people, but also often tips in other directions. Liberatian ideas are heavily connected also to ideas about the power of technology, and extend into the digital as ‘cyber-liberalism’. Selwyn argues that ‘digital technology offers a ready canvas for various strains of libertarian thinking to be imagined and (in part) operationalized – in particular the privileging of the sovereign user and the principles of self-responsibilization and self-determination.’ The internet as a largely unregulated sphere of activity, exists as an example of this.

Next Selwyn discusses neo-liberalism, essentially an extension and updating of libertarianism but with a particular emphasis on consumer choice, free markets and private interest above communal activity or the interests of the state. Under this system every area of life becomes potentially subject to reorganisation along the lines of market principles. While neo-liberialsm is arguably the dominant ideology of our age, Selwyn suggests it is important to see it ‘an unfinished project seeking to remould the world in its image.’ Finally Selwyn discusses what he terms the new economy, a less clearly defined ideology articulated as the changing form of capitalism over recent decades away from Fordist models of production towards modern flexible, information based economies, the products of which are often immaterial in nature. In this new economy profit is gained from the production of knowledge and information, which is produced through a globally networked capitalism with the computer as the steam engine of the modern age. In turn these technologies help to colonise ever more areas of life as profit generators, including interpersonal communication, a transformation suggests Selwyn (quoting Antonio Negri) from the ‘mass worker’ of the factory to the contemporary ‘social worker’. As a result of this ‘the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, ‘innovation’ and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as malleability of working practices’.

Next Selwyn argues we should see educational technology itself in terms of the ideologies that give rise to and promote it. In doing so he acknowledges that ‘it is difficult at first glance to see educational technology as entwined with any aspect of the dominant ideologies just described. Yet, as was noted earlier, one of the core characteristics of hegemony is the ability of dominant ideologies to permeate commonsensical understandings and meaning.’ Selwyn identifies five key ideologies within educational technology. The first, learner centered learning is maybe the most obviously pedagogical, and reflects that the origins of much interest in educational technologies is in a progressive ideal for education designed to better meet the needs of learners. He suggests that ‘this approach frames digital technology as a key means of providing learners with enhanced access to sources of knowledge and expertise that exist outside of their immediate environment.’ Equally it ties to aspirations for education to be dispersed, non-authoritarian and autonomous. In this sense educational technology is sometimes seen as a so-called ‘trojan mouse’ intended to introduce agendas and ideas into the institution which might be difficult in the traditional classroom (although Selwyn also questions the extent to which technology is really necessary to realize these subversive goals).

Next, the efficiencies of education, emphasises the importance of maximum effectiveness and efficiency in education over and above individual or collective empowerment. Seen through this prism educational technologies are more about the economics of education rather than the result for it’s users, with online teaching facilitating ‘efficient logistics of educational provision; the idea of technology contributing to the profitability and commoditization of education; and the idea of technology contributing to countries’ economic competitiveness and efficiency of labour and knowledge production.’ Selwyn suggests that amongst some groups there is a clear sense that technology can be the means to realise a largely corporate model of education planned along market lines and without state intervention. This is counter-balanced at the same time by the perception in other groups that technology can be the means to ever greater national economic competitiveness, reconfiguring workers mindsets towards a knowledge drive economy, and the exporting of education as a product overseas, in effect serving state goals rather than breaking free from them. Next, communitarianism and anti-establishment thinking also underpins some advocacy of educational technology. Selwyn highlights the origins of the computer industry in 1960’s Californian counter-culture and efforts to reposition the computer as a social rather than war machine, and argues this extends to the present in the form of contemporary counter-technology. This thinking most often manifests today in a communiatarian ideal of technology as a way of reimagining and reorganising society along the lines of mutual empathy, understanding and cooperation, an ideal partly played out in debates about net neutrality.

Somewhat related to this is the ideology of Anti-institutionalism, which might be seen as a more active process of sabotage against existing institutions and norms. Selwyn writes that ‘The key here is the perceived ability of digital technologies to support ‘self-organization’ within networks that is decentralized, distributed and bottom-up, therefore opposing the planned and controlled nature of institutional organization.’ He suggests these ideas have informed some contemporary strands of critical pedagogy, advocates of which sometimes view educational technologies as a potential means for revolutionary ends, breaking beyond the rigid structures of conventional schooling and education. ‘In these terms, digital technology is seen as a potential means of resisting the ‘banking model’ of accumulating ‘knowledge content’, and instead supporting open discussion, open debate, radical questioning, continuous experimentation and the sharing of knowledge.’ Lastly, techno fundamentalism, the enchantment with technology and technological progress, might seem a less obvious value but is still, Selwyn suggests, an important one. He writes that ‘the techno-fundamentalist mindset reflects an implicit belief that technology offers a means to substantially improve current forms of everyday life and social relations – including education.’ Part of this is what has been termed ‘computationalism’ or the idea that the world can be framed in terms of data, algorithms and Boolean logic. This perspective assumes digital technology has the means of expression to understand and ultimately resolve the world’s problems and to some extent reflects a deeply ingrained western belief in technology as progress, something which at times borders on a new religion.

Selwyn notes how interesting it is that educational technologies can comfortably incorporate such different, even contradictory ideologies reflecting the idea of these technologies as a contested space. Partly he suggests this might be explained by the fact that dominant ideologies need to attract and retain a wide array of groups, and these technologies may offer precisely that compromise in their flexibility of use. What is also common amongst these disparate groups is the view of educational technology as a means to improve or better education. He calls on educators to think critically about these issues through a series of six questions that end the chapter: These include to routinely question the ideological dimensions of educational technology, to ask what forms of engagement are promoted through these technologies, and which are marginalized or silenced. What freedoms and unfreedoms are associated with these technologies. How they alter the relationship between individual and commons and public and private, and what are the emotional and human outcomes from their use. Lastly and maybe most importantly we should be aware of the continuities and discontinuities they create between new ways of teaching and learning, and the old.

Exercises: Object Based Learning

As part of this blog I’m trying to briefly write up and assess various exercises, workshops and other learning activities I’ve been involved in, either as a teacher or a student, and to think about how they might be improved and reused in future sessions.

Our latest classroom exercise for our core Teaching and Learning unit was to devise an object based learning exercise to be carried out by our peer groups. Amongst my interests are the politics of specific technologies, and also the ways in which information informs the way people read objects (particularly photographic images). Initially I was tempted to give my group a photographic print and ask them to respond to it, before revealing new information about the image and seeing how that information might alter their readings.

Instead I decided instead to try something a little more complex and perhaps risky, particularly given the 10 minutes we had for the exercise. Instead of a print I presented the group with one of my cameras, a FED-2 35mm rangefinder and then asked them to discuss and respond to it in several rapid fire discussions. I timed each discussion to make sure we kept to time and also kept notes on the discussion. After a few minutes I revealed a new piece of information about the camera and the discussion continued, reflecting on how this change the group’s understanding of the object. Full exercise plan follows:

The Exercise

Preamble: The aim of this exercise is to stimulate thinking about how new information changes ones relationship to an object and also to think about how photography is politicised by the ways it is used.

You have 3 minutes, I want to describe and discuss this object based on observation alone.

After three minutes, are some facts about this camera:

This is an updated version of the FED camera. A Russian copy of the iconic Lecia 35mm rangefinder, the FED was the first mass-produced Soviet camera, made from 1934. It’s development was the brainchild of Anton Semyonovich Makarenko, a Ukrainian educator revered in the Soviet Union but virtually unknown outside of it. The cameras were to be made by children under a innovative work-education scheme and through it Makarenko hoped to help make the Soviet Union self-sufficient in cameras. Camera production was zero in 1928, but by 1939 100,000 FEDs had been produced alone.

For the next three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, here are a few more facts about this camera:

The initials FED stand for stand for Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, also known as Iron Felix, he was the head of the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB secret police. The cameras were made at the Dzerzhinsky Commune in Khrakiv, Ukraine. This was a colony for ‘the rehabilitation of youth’ who were mostly children left orphaned by the civil war and by a massive state engineered famine known as the Holodomor, which occurred between 1932 and 1933 and killed as many as seven million Ukrainians. The camp was administered by the Soviet secret police and overseen by Makarenko. It had 600 inmates by 1934. It was destroyed during the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.

For the last three minutes, I want you to look again at this object and discuss it again based on this new information. How has your view of it changed, what new insight does this information give into this object, how do you feel about it?

After three minutes, end of exercise.

(Source for all information: The Dzerzhinsky Commune: Birth of the Soviet 35mm Camera Industry, by Oscar Fricke, published in History Of Photography, Volume 3, Number 2, April 1979)


It was very interesting to see how the group (all non-photographers) responded to each new bit of information about the camera, and how it went from a simple piece of photographic equipment, to something that was perhaps politically quite benign and even rather significant in terms pedagogy and photographic history, to finally an object that was the product of a system of state repression, indeed an object made by the children of that state’s victims. The fast pace of the exercise was useful in getting people moving and responding to the object quickly. If I had more time for the exercise I might have added some other stages, perhaps showing an image from the camera or from it’s production (like the photograph above) or asking the group to reflect on how photography was used as part of the repressive apparatus of a state like the Soviet Union. I would also have liked to allow more time for discussion and reflection because three minutes per discussion was very, very fast. More time might also make it possible to produce a visual response like a list of bullet points or a mind map as part of the exercise.

e-Learning: Inclusivity in the Online Classroom

For our latest Technology Enhanced Learning session, educational developer Siobhan Clay talked to us about the issue of inclusivity. While inclusivity is something that tends to be much considered in relation to the real-world classroom there is a tendency to make assumptions that online platforms do not pose the same obstacles and almost inherently inclusive. Clearly this is not always the case and while these platforms can lower barriers in some areas they can also create new ones.

Siobhan talked us through a few ideas and texts of interests, introducing concepts along the way. One was Pierre Bourdieu and Loic Wacquant’s idea of ‘habitus’, the innate qualities we derived from our upbringing and experiences. Our habitus predisposes us to successful navigation of some situations and a more challenging experience in others. Online teaching is an example of this, students who perhaps come from homes and backgrounds where digital technologies are extensively used and who do not regard them as intimidating are likely to inherently find these environments more accessible than those students who have not had this experience.

Siobhan also introduced us to Neil Selwyn’s Distrusting educational technology which looks at some of the pitfalls of online spaces and questions the extent to which they can support detrimental agendas. Issues of social exclusion (low income, lack of motivation, exclusion through physical and mental health disabilities) digital exclusion (Lack of hardware, access to internet) and accessibility (Urban vs Rural, ICT and information literacy) all need to be considered before praising the openness of these platforms.

Siobhan also shared some interesting statistics gathered from students at UAL which questioned the idea of young people as ‘digial natives’. A quarter of students were mildly anxious about sharing work online. A third felt overwhelmed by the digital information they received from the college and course. We also discussed community building around these platforms particularly in light of our experiences over the past several weeks with Tweetchats. Does social media generate a community? I think to some extent you can view things like social media are a framework or scaffold for communities which may or may not survive in their absence. In the context of Twitter and photography has become an alternative space, photography exiles not really welcome in the traditional venues of discussion and debate. Are they really community building?

Lastly for this session we discussed plans for our self-initiated projects for this unit. I’m still undecided about the course I will take with it. One idea I had was to look at how various platforms could be used for collaborative online teaching, testing some of them out with students. However the impending easter break and the timescale for this assignment means it would be difficult to do this to the extent I’d like. Alternatively, building on the discussions of this session and some of my previous writing on the topic I may look at the ways that these online platforms and spaces incorporate certain biases and obsctacles and perpetuate sometimes unhelpful power relations. I’ll be researching both of these ideas over the coming week and for the latter I think the Selwyn book will be a particularly useful starting point for.

Reading: Decolonising the Curriculum

In recent years a number of protests and movements around the world have drawn renewed attention to the idea of decolonising the university curriculum. In South Africa, protests have coalesced around a number of issues including representations of divisive colonial figures like Cecil Rhodes on University Campuses, as well as more systemic issues. Similar protests have taken place in the southern United States, and also to a lesser degree in the United Kingdom. Clearly to be effective this decolonisation must go beyond just challenging the celebration of divisive histories, and must extend into the classroom and curriculums that are being taught.

In a 2016 paper, Lesley le Grange of South Africa’s Stellenbosch University offers some ideas for how this might occur. While he writes in the very specific context of the South African university system with its history of colonialism and apartheid and it’s diverse ethnic and cultural makeup there is much which might be adopted and adapted into other systems. Le Grange opens by discussing the South African education system, particularly highlighting the very low retention rates of black students. He suggests these retention rates are linked not only to inadequacies in public schools (a widely recognised issue) but also to the environment of the university itself.. In his paper Le Grange sets out to discuss three areas. First what is meant by decolonisation and why the need to decolonise, secondly what is normally meant by curriculum and alternative ways of understanding this term, and finally, he discusses the actual process of decolonisation.

Le Grange opens by attempting to define what is meant by decolonisation by reviewing a number of models for this, mostly informed by post-colonial theory. These all essentially set out a gradual process of awakening, and mounting activism, challenging the entrenched priorities and inequalities inherited from the colonial era. Le Grange writes that ‘decolonisation is a necessary response to first and second generation colonialism, neo-colonialism and the recent (re)ascendency of neoliberalism’ and provides examples of how each of these stages have undermined indigenous culture and knowledge. While he is clearly writing in a very post-colonial context which might not be directly transferable to the United Kingdom, his statement is intriguing to me in it’s very direct connection between the legacy of colonialism and rise of global neoliberal capitalism. Le Grange is however also realistic about the challenges of the decolonisation, and critiques the suggestion inherent in this term of going backwards to a previous state, something he points out is neither desirable nor possible. Drawing on examples from New Zealand and Canada, he also notes that even relatively successful programs of decolonisation can have their pitfalls and weak points.

In the next section, le Grange turns to a discussion of curriculum. He critiques the lack of reflection on university curriculums (in comparison to say school level curriculums) and calls for a move away from a Taylorist, outcomes focused university curriculum. He offers a few alternative definitions and forms, including Ted Aoki’s call for teachers to consider the curriculum not just as a plan but as something which is lived by students. He also delves into the Latin origins of the term curriculum, from currere, meaning to run, and reflects on various interpretations of this including those by William Pinar, and later by Jason Wallin who propose multiple interpretations stemming from this adjective. Running (pun unintended) through this section is a sense of discontent with the rather linear and static way that curriculum is usually understood in higher education, and its inherent lack of flexibility or ability to incorporate the experiences and ideas of different students.

In the final section le Grange discusses approaches to actively decolonising the curriculum. Citing himself in the third person (something which even in academia I find slightly bizarre) le Grange argues an important starting point might be a move away from a Descartesian emphasis on knowledge and the individual and towards a more encompassing celebration of our connections to others and to the world. He writes that ‘A decolonised curriculum is evidenced by a shift in subjectivity from the arrogant ‘I’ (of Western individualism) to the humble ‘I’ – to the ‘I’ that is embedded, embodied, extended and enacted.’ From here he goes on to a critique of the foundations of many western disciplines, which he quotes Odora-Hoppers and Richards describing as ‘distant, antiseptic and removed from the experiences of the lived world [that] comes from recognising the pain, anger and anguish being experienced in society’. Le Grange suggests that as part of the proccess of decolonisation we may need to create new spaces that allow other modes of knowledge to co-exist alongside the western binary of empirical knowledge verification/falsification.

Le Grange is writing in a highly specific context, but his thoughts on how South African universities might decolonise are intriguing and clearly encourage thought about the extent to which practices in universities in the former colonising countries (like the United Kingdom) echo those in the former colonies. Many post-colonial thinkers, not least Stuart Hall, have reflected on the close binaries that exist between centre and periphery, coloniser and colonised. The impetus might be much clearer and more urgent in post-colonial countries to decolonise their higher education systems, which were so often clearly products and parts of colonialism. But when one considers that many older British universities also existed in a close symbiosis with empire, it is intriguing to ponder what a very direct emulating le Grange’s suggestions to the university system in the United Kingdom might look like.