This post continues the discussion of the disappearance of the social agenda for distance education which I began in my last post. Both these articles were originally published in Spanish in Traspasando la linea, a blog edited by Albert Sangrà which appears in El País, a Madrid-based newspaper.
Another consequence of this myopic focus on information and communication technology (ICT) for skill development is that the educational agenda can get hijacked by the technologists and the emphasis shifts to IT skills as opposed to broader educational competencies that are developed and enhanced through the use of ICTs. ICT becomes conflated with IT. We see evidence of this in the sudden urgency around implementing national tablet initiatives before coherent plans have been developed for how they will be used to support the achievement of educational goals. Considerable effort is spent developing the technical specifications but much less time spent considering the educational specifications. How will the technology be used to support teaching and learning? What content will available on the devices? How will the communicative affordances of the technology be exploited? As Michael Trucano observed in his recent review and discussion of tablet initiatives, “All too often, the … question being asked is not ‘what challenges are we trying to solve, and what approaches and tools might best help us solve them?’, but rather, ‘we know what our technology ‘solution’ is, can you please help us direct it at the right problems?‘.
Also overlooked in this mad rush to jump on the technology bandwagon is the readiness of students and teachers. The uncritical acceptance of the net generation discourse has deluded us into thinking that our students will be like fish in water when they are given the devices. The evidence suggests otherwise. For example, this study concluded that the 17,000 doctoral students it investigated “operate in an environment where their research behaviour does not use the full potential of innovative technology” and that they are “insufficiently trained or informed to be able to fully embrace the latest opportunities in the digital information environment”. At least we are more realistic when it comes to teacher readiness but all too often these technology initiatives are rolled out without a sound plan for teacher development.
Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs have also played a part in this shift by subtly appropriating the access agenda. As so simplistically articulated by Thomas Friedman in his infamous New York Times column of 2012, MOOCs represent the magic bullet. Everybody who wants an Ivy League education will be able to get one by simply enrolling in a MOOC. There will be no credit attached, and the courses will probably not deal with any of the issues of local relevance but that’s a small price to pay if you’re getting access to a prestigious American university.
Even the narrative underlying the Open Educational Resources (OER) agenda has shifted subtly from emancipatory access to access in support of the knowledge economy. We see evidence of this in the aligning of OER and ICT in Education policies, with the latter being driven by a technological/economic imperative.
What can be done about this troubling trend? First, I think those of us who are working in the field of open and distance learning need to remind ourselves what we are purpose is (or should be): to educate, to open up access to education, and to foster social change and economic development. Our use of ICT in education and online learning should always be done with these principles in mind.
Second, we need to remember that, despite the talk of globalization and the rapid diffusion of technology, there are still huge differences in both the physical and, what I would call, the “cognitive” access to technology across the globe. Solutions that may work in South Africa are not necessarily appropriate for Guyana or Belize and we should not assume that the simple provision of physical access will result in the effective use of the technology.
Finally, it’s time we remembered that distance education emerged as a response to a social problem and that problem still exists today: how do we provide access to quality education for all? Allowing the focus to shift from solving the access problem to preparing for the “knowledge economy” may sound like a matter of semantics but I believe it has the potential to undermine our ability to achieve our goal to provide access for all.