One of the things that is oft-repeated in our line of work is “it’s not about the technology,” or “it’s not about the tool!”
While it sounds good as a slogan, it is actually a pretty ridiculous statement in this day and age. In fact, it is almost dangerous because it suggests that we can somehow separate the way we teach and learn from the technological systems in which we work. It seems disingenuous to say “it’s not about the tool” if you are using a Learning Management System (LMS, such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas) to teach a course. It would be like saying the utensils you use to cook are irrelevant to the food you produce - when we all know the difference a pot or oven can make, regardless of content.
We have both been in the line of work of supporting other faculty in their teaching and use of technology (Maha since 2003, Jim since 2004) and even though our contexts are very different, we have been interacting online for over two years now and take a critical stance (not a value-neutral one) about the relationship between technology and pedagogy. In our session entitled “Should EdTech have an ethos?” we tried to highlight the assumptions particular tools make about the teaching and learning experience.
For example, what assumptions does your average LMS make about a course experience? Although LMS’s differ slightly in their implementation, for the most part, they are true to their name: they attempt to “manage” learning in a “systematic” way - what does that say about how the LMS approaches learning, which we as educators know is messy and should be nurtured rather than managed? The LMS delivers on its name: It is a closed, copyright haven that makes giving quizzes and grading easier. How does that measure up in terms of ethos? It reinforces higher ed’s refusal to push back on draconian copyright laws, their intransigent fear of openly sharing, and the continued quest for efficiency around the management tasks of teaching. All of this can make sense in some contexts, but as an ethos for a rich, web-based teaching and learning experience it tends to fall short. Now you can certainly do more with such a tool, but few do—-and the tool itself is designed to reinforce the behaviors we have come to expect of the tool (there has been almost two decades of fine-tuning the LMS, so in that regard the tool is a reflection of our desires and priorities). We asked who makes decisions about which tools a university purchases. Should faculty (and even students) have a greater say in which tools the university chooses instead of constantly finding themselves as consumers of those forced upon them by the institution? Should faculty or students feel shamed for not using technology provided by the institution if they feel uncomfortable with it?
The tool is not besides the point, it is that much more important as an object of study. The tool has become the manifestation of our ethos, and hence the more we deconstruct the assumptions of our tools, the closer we come to laying bare the ethos we currently champion around our teaching and learning technologies.
In this regard the discussion around the LMS (as well as Turnitin, Google Apps for Education, etc.) at AMICAL was tricky because while some haven’t fully deconstructed the tools, most use them even though they fully (or at least partially, or even subconsciously) understand the limitations. And given this, once you articulate a critique of the tool it also becomes a critique of their teaching and learning practices. If you know something is subpar, why do you continue on with it especially given how important it is to the overall experience? This inability to separate the tool from the teaching and learning is demonstrative of how interdependent the two have become, and how problematic the idea is that teaching and learning in 2016 isn’t to some great degree informed by technologies we use.
The approach of this session was to directly challenge the ways many of our “teaching and learning” tools enable us to prioritize class management over engagement, hide from important copyright discussions, and assume our students are plagiarists and cheats. And while a difficult and at times agonistic session, we believe it was a really worthwhile conversation to have (and continue having). Tensions ran a bit high at certain points and individuals felt their practices were being challenged, but we think the discomfort resulting from a direct questioning of the assumptions around our everyday practices is why we got into the game of higher education. What’s more, such a discussion reinforces the importance of being able to articulate how and why the tools we use increasingly define our practices.We need to ensure that teachers have agency over how and why they integrate technology into their teaching, rather than give them tools the institution has pre-chosen and paid for, and tell them to limit their arsenal to those, to submit to management and systems instead of learning and engagement.
We had a rich, animated discussion, which Maha has always wanted to have on campus but did not have the courage to facilitate on her own (thanks Jim!). But the discussion need not end there - it is one thing to become more conscious of the conflicts between our philosophies and the ethos of our tools, and another to be able to take action based on this. We hope that AMICAL members will continue to ask these questions and support each other locally and consortially, in moving forward.
At the Digital Pedagogy Committee meeting following our session, all committee members (all had attended this session) wanted to continue this type of conversation across AMICAL, online synchronously and asynchronously over time.
As posted on AMICAL Connect, the Digital Pedagogy Committee have suggested a preliminary list of possible webinars/activities we can offer and we invite members to express interest at: http://bit.ly/digped2016
(The one that is a follow-up to the Ethos session is “Finding the mix of tools to support your teaching philosophy”.)
We will prioritize the webinars/activities that seem to be of most interest to AMICAL members. There is also room for anyone to suggest their own - if they have expertise in an area and are willing to support other AMICAL members in learning about it.
Maha BaliAssociate Professor of Practice · American University in Cairo
- Maha Bali & Jim Groom at AMICAL 2016 by Dimitris Tzouris / CC BY-NC-SA