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.


Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer. www.lewisbush.com www.disphotic.com

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