The Role of Technology in Digital Learning

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of four blogs on digital learning.

In their accidental and ironic hit Youtube song, “What does the Fox say?”, the Norwegian band Ylvis, who first produced it as an “anti-hit” production, takes up a school-book primer describing all the different noises that animals make, and make a critical intervention in this taxonomy of school-room sounds:

But, there’s one sound
that no one knows,
what does the fox say?

The viral hit song has been adopted by many different user-movements, who have used it to draw attention to the pockets of inattention and interstices of silence that are often operationalised in popular conversations around key questions. As I write this blog entry, we are wrapping up an online open courseware, which was incidentally massive (leading me to suggest OOCAM as a new acronym), on Managing the Arts, a collaboration between the Leuphana Digital School, where I work, and the Goethe Institute, for whom I was the academic director for this course. Spread over 14 weeks, with more than 17,000 students from more than 100 countries, and around 40% of the enrolees completing the course, we are deeply entrenched in thinking about the different aspects of teaching, learning, evaluation, pedagogy, interface, analytics and any other connected learning buzzword that you can think of. As can be expected, we are both excited and humbled, at the huge community of learners that this course attracted and the rich conversations and learning outcomes that have emerged.

However, as the analysis progresses, and we take in all the different human actors, intentions, desires, and impulses into account, I am beginning to feel increasingly like Ylvis, wanting to ask the question, what does the tech say? True, we have understood that technologies and media determine the contexts that we operate in (ala Kitler), and that the technological interfaces and platforms that we use are not mere tools but actual design of thought and experience, limiting and leveraging the possibilities that come in connected and digital learning. And yet, when it comes to an analysis of what technologies do, or say, or sound like, in our conversations around digital and connected learning, it seems to be missing. I am not suggesting that technology is a black hole. If anything, it has been so central, that it has been documented more than cute cat videos have been. And yet, in all this documentation, what we have is a description of what technology does, the limitations it imposes, and the possibilities it opens up — most of these discussions boil down to code, interface, licenses and usage.

Perhaps it is time to think about not what we can make technologies do, but what we make technologies do. This is a slight shift from the actor-network theory that presupposes that technologies also do things to us, and hence we need to think of them as actors. While I appreciate the moment of interaction between humans and technologies, which is gaining attention and scholarship in connected learning environments, I am suggesting that it is more a given rather than a provocation. Instead, it might be useful to think, given our cyborg existences, what role do we make technologies perform in our modelling and understanding of connected and digital learning.

In order to think about this role that we make technologies perform, I am going to propose a dualistic movement that the promise of connectivity is premised on: The movement which is simultaneously of distribution and consolidation. When we think about connected learning, what we are essentially proposing is that we are disconnected, we are distributed, and that the technologies connect us, consolidate us, and help us work together in clusters and communities across geographies and lifestyles. However, it might be worthwhile to think about this moment of connectivity and consolidation on a different register and scale.

Let us go back to the history of telecommunication and the emergence of the anxieties around the widespread usage of ICTs (information and communications technologies). When the telephone was first being introduced in India, there was a huge anxiety about how it was going to destroy social contact. People will only speak with each other through these speaking tubes, spouses will cheat on their partners, employees will lie to their bosses, and because the technology becomes the manifestation of the person, the person is now going to be mobile, circulating, unfixed and, hence, untrustworthy. It suddenly felt as if the only way to be human was to be fixed, in our bodies and our locations. To be human, was to be consolidated and to be whole. And, a technology that stands in as a proxy for us, allowing us  to be distributed and a co-presence was seen with angst.

Much later, when the telephone failed to collapse the social order and organisation and we had heaved a sigh of relief, the computer was interrupting social imaginations with similar anxieties. In the early 90s, Sherry Turkle was already pointing out to us that the users in Multiple User Dungeons — immersive virtual reality games — were thinking of their lives as lived across multiple split windows. They recycled their bodies between their avatars and between the many tabs open on their screens. The computer was not just an extension of the human, it was the metaphor through which we understood ourselves. The blackbox of the personal computer was the moment of consolidation where all our activities of being human were coming together. The body could now be stationary and static but it can still circulate through the digital networks and, thus, was in the condition of being forgotten.

With our contemporary modes of fragmented existence, with mobility and circulation as the metaphors of defining our traces and tracks, we have reached a point where the technologies and the human beings using them are both too distributed, unaccounted for, too scattered and, ineffably, non-agential. The promise of connectivity is constantly betrayed because the technologies that are supposed to be static and offer the consolidated node that enables the distributed human activities, have also gone mobile and have become cloudily non-territorial.

The anxieties around digital and connected learning, for me, have to be tied down to what are the ways in which the human is allowed to be distributed. And, in order to understand these anxieties of distributedness, we will have to start examining the ways in which the digital technologies are being contained and consolidated, regulated and restrained. If the problem that the connected learning is trying to solve is the distributed nature of its learners, teachers, and resources, than the true function of digital technology are moments of consolidation. This is what the tech says. Or, at least, this is what the tech does. If we take this provocative relationship seriously, then it opens up three different registers of distributedness that might be worth examining, which I am mapping out in the next three blogs with my colleagues at the Leuphana Digital School, where we are thinking, not of connected learning but of distributed learning, and what distributedness means when applied to learners, teachers, and resources of connected learning.

Banner image credit: Screen shot from Ylvis YouTube video.