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Accepted Papers

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Logos and Mythos: The dilemma of learning technology provision in an accreditation-driven educational environment

Michael Begg, Rachel Ellaway, David Dewhurst, Hamish Macleod
University of Edinburgh

“Believers in progress are seeking from technology what they once looked for in political ideologies, and before that from religion: salvation from themselves” (Gray 2004)

Technology is never politically neutral (Graham 1999) and should be considered not as a single component but as an indicative element of a system (Bereano 2003). In a previous related paper (Ellaway, Begg et al. 2005) we suggested a typology of learning technology provision and assessed both the impact of the learning technologist on the learning environments they serve and the reciprocal impact of these learning environments upon the perceived roles of the learning technologists that work within them. In this present paper we continue our consideration of technology and technologists ‘in a glass darkly’ to develop broader perspectives drawing on contemporary thinking on what lies at the roots of societal collapse, faith in technology and the myth of progress (Diamond 1997).

With the growing focus on educational use of online technologies that pursue collaborative and sharing (so called Web 2.0 applications) (O'Reilly 2005; O'Hear 2006), the politics of learning technology provision and use in Higher Education may be becoming increasingly inconsistent. The devolution of authoring and control to the end user – a defining aspect of Web 2.0 - seems increasingly antithetical to the centralist and Fordist politics demonstrated by a growing number of HE institutions’ learning technology providers.

Primary among the principals of a secular society is the belief that advancing knowledge and understanding will lead towards a convergence of interests and a corresponding end to conflict and dissonance (Gray 2004). There is, Gray argues, little evidence to show that progress has yet to lead the way towards this kind of reconciliation. The aim of this paper is not to arrive at a position of harmonious learning technology provision within higher education. Indeed, that would only underline Gray’s observations that this kind of hopeful convergence amounts to little more than groundless faith in technology. Rather, by reflecting on their working environments, practices and processes, the authors hope to afford the community opportunities to reflect upon their own working contexts and identities, re-evaluate core values and consider them within their individual communities or networks of practice.

Faced with significant increases of student numbers, falling per capita funding and the domination of economic thinking institutions increasingly seem to favour single centralist systems to which all teaching contexts should adhere (Cook 2005). Additionally, it is increasingly clear that higher education has become a system driven by accreditation over education (Jacobs 2004).

"[Higher Education] is no longer considered as an investment that society makes in the next generation; it is seen as an investment that students make in themselves" (Jacobs 2004; Jacobs 2004).

At the same time there is a thriving interest in what Web 2.0 can offer educational practice. Learning technology services are increasingly focusing on the provision of such tools to enhance, enrich or expand upon the experience of learning, whilst affording users unprecedented administrative control over what it is that actually comprises these experiences.

Such moves are causing alarm among centralist thinkers as they perceive fundamental weakness and risk in such devolution of control. Most commonly, issues such as intellectual property, quality control, data protection, user privacy and ownership are put forward as valid reasons for delaying any centrally-supported uptake of Web 2.0 applications. There is little reference made to the fact that these concerns existed before Web 2.0 and will, in all likelihood exist well into the future. This leaves local learning technologists and teaching staff in the position of becoming partisans (a kind of academic underground) working towards provision and implementation of applications that offer exciting learning and teaching potential, but are perceived as working against centralist policies that focus on authority, control, exclusivity and arbitrary standards. While the idea of being part of a partisan underground may be romantically attractive to individual practitioners it is difficult to justify such a stance in a social climate in which there is the real possibility that neither students nor host institutions will welcome or even tolerate such a position.

What suppositions might be drawn from this? That Web 2.0 has somehow allowed institutions to observe previously existing issues as a clear and present danger that was previously opaque? That the uptake of such tools has made it more likely that such issues have to be addressed more systemically than they are at present or have been in the past? It would seem, at the very least, that there is a real misalignment between central and peripheral expectations for these tools.

Diamond (2005) highlights two possible factors contributing to the failure of societies: the ‘sunk-cost effect’ (the failure to abandon harmful policies on account of heavy prior investment) and ‘core value retention’ (the inability to recognise what values to hold onto and what values to discard, or revise). At a point where it is possible to see the enclosed VLE structure begin to dissolve as its embedded features become superseded by lighter, faster, more dynamic services and clients this would seem to be an opportune moment to ask what the efforts of learning technologists are really leading towards, and what kind of systems they are supporting.

Are learning technologists really working towards enhancing learning opportunities or is the majority of their work largely administrative supporting and promoting managerialist agendas? Even with the most altruistic intentions to create enriched, compelling learning opportunities, is it the case that these efforts are undermined not only by institutional priorities of control and constraint, but by students own priorities of gaining accreditation over knowledge?

This paper continues to look in a glass darkly and considers whether in our present processes, practices and beliefs there is greater alignment with Logos; an explicit, rational account of our activities as embodied in the affordances of Web 2.0, or Mythos; seeking solace, reason and strength in a figuratively significant representation of the past as represented by the centralist and managerialist cultures within higher education.

References

Bereano, P. (2003). Technology is a Tool of the Powerful. Computers, Ethics and Society. Erman, M.D. and Shauf, M.S. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 85-90.

Cook, J. (2005). Virtual Learning Environments in UK Medical Education: LTSN-01 Mini-project report, LTSN-01.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: how societies choose to fail or survive. London, Penguin.

Diamond, J. (1997). Guns, Germs and Steel. London, Vintage.

Ellaway, R., Begg, M., Dewhurst, D. and Macleod, H. (2005). "In A Glass Darkly: identity, agency and the role of the learning technologist in shaping the learning environment." E-Learning 3(1): 75-87.

Graham, G. (1999). The Internet://a philosophical enquiry, Routledge.

Gray, J. (2004). Heresies. London, Granta.

Jacobs, J. (2004). Dark Age Ahead. Toronto, Vintage Canada.

O'Hear, S. (2006). Web's second phase puts users in control. The Guardian, June 20 2006, http://education.guardian.co.uk/elearning/story/0,1801086,00.html accessed 28 November 2006. London.

O'Reilly, T. (2005). What Is Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software.

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updated 24 January 2007