29 November 2011

Pessimist or realist?

Maybe it's just because it's the festive season, and maybe there's a change in the air, but this week I have come across two articles dealing with similar issues - one serious, one very silly. Both gave me comfort.

I have long lamented the tendency among those of my tribe who proselytize, touting the bright-shiny things in a firm belief, unquestioned and unqualified, that more technology in education is the thing. These colleagues are people I love dearly for their passion and their knowledge about the detail of the code and the finickity specifications of the widgets. These colleagues know, deep in their hearts and in every atom of their being, that they hold the key to better student engagement and much higher quality learning - and that the key is digital technologies in teaching and learning.

I'm not so sure. I'm the one on the side, asking questions like "Is there another, simpler way to achieve the end? Is this new bright-shiny absolutely robust and reliable? Where do the less confident go if they can't figure out how to work it?" and "Which is the best tool for the task I have on the table right now?".

Now I have a label for myself.  Neil Selwyn calls me 'pessimistic'. In defining the term, he writes: "... pessimism ... is not "a dogmatic blanket negativity towards education and technology", but while it "allows room for an acceptance that specific things are getting better", the "pessimistic educational technologist ... accepts that digital technology is not bringing about the changes and transformations that many people would like to believe".

And so it is, here in the world I live in, embedded as I am in an academic organizational unit that is responsible for teaching the business disciplines in a research-intensive university. That is why I am sometimes perceived to be anti-technology: I do not adhere to the belief that increased use of digital technologies in education is automatically followed by an improvement in quality in teaching and learning, even if the technologies are wielded expertly. I would call myself cynical rather than pessimistic, but the idea is the same.

Selwyn writes:
"Surely, there is nothing wrong with attempting to develop realistic and honest ways of working with digital technologies in education that involve thinking the worst (rather than the best) of them. Of course, that would mean reorienting the educational technology mindset so that it is accepting the social world as it is and is comfortable in its inability to offer definite technological answers to what are indefinite problems. This would therefore mean refocusing the imaginations of educational technologists away from some of the wilder 'science fictions' of their particular areas of education, technology and society."
Fabulous thinking. His editorial is in the latest edition of the British Journal of Educational Technology (see below for the full citation).

The other academic piece that has made my day is Jon Baggaley's article in Distance Education: "Flexible learning: a Luddite view" (full reference below). Tongue in cheek, he writes:
"... I confidently look forward to the day when inflexibility, and its by-products IL [inflexible learning] and OM [obduracy maintenance], will be lauded as redeeming educational solutions. In anticipating that future, it is recommended that educators should celebrate the inherent inflexibility of their colleagues rather than lamenting it, and should stimulate inflexibility in teaching and learning by the development of IL centres, intervention programmes, journals, profeissional associations, and events."
He goes on to remind us of the motto for the new Society for Inflexible Learning: non inflexibilitas sed constantia ("not inflexibility but regularity").

I like it. I plan to order a badge for Christmas.

Baggaley, J (2011). Flexible learning: a Luddite view. Distance Education, 32(3), 457-462.
(Thanks to Tony Bates for mentioning this one in his regular blog at http://www.tonybates.ca/.)

Selwyn, N. (2011). Editorial: In praise of pessimism - the need for negativity in educational technology. British Journal of Educational Technology, 42(5), 713-718.
(Thanks to my colleague James M. for bringing this one to my attention.)

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