An illusion of control

Lewin, D. (2013) No Place for Wisdom: Technological Thinking and the Erosion of Phronesis. Paper presented at the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain Annual Conference; New College, Oxford. 22-24 March.

My last few posts have all looked at the literature critiquing a ‘technological approach’ to teaching development, but without specifically focusing on ‘technology’ in terms of digital technologies. David Lewin’s paper was an incredibly interesting piece for me personally, immersed as I have been in the e-learning and blended learning world for the last few years, and particularly given my recent thinking about the place of digital technologies in teaching and learning.

Lewin opens with the claim that, while some educational theorists are exploring the impact of technology on pedagogy, this exploration tends to focus on specific processes, tools or devices. I’m not sure I would agree entirely with this – Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharpe’s New Pedagogy for a Digital Age, and Martin Weller’s Digital Scholar both look more generally at technology and educational/academic practice. However, while Weller speaks generally of values like openness, abundance, interdisciplinarity and reward, the central premise of his book appears to be that the value learners ascribe to digital technology provides the basis for us to apply technology in an educational context. In other words, technology in education is a response to the prevalence of technology in other walks of life, and its value in an educational context is assessed in terms of its practical relevance. The assumption that technology is a ‘theoretically neutral means to ends we determine’ is certainly never questioned explicitly, as Lewin attempts to do here.

If Lewin is making the claim that technology makes us behave in certain ways, I would agree with that. I don’t think we are powerless over it – not yet – but it is clear to me that our individual choices are swayed by social forces and therefore that our decisions about the use of technology are not entirely autonomous. I believe that we do submit ourselves to technologically-mediated interaction in a way that undermines our own agency, and of course that the ‘value’ of technologies highlighted by educational technologists and ed tech researchers arises from the ethical demands and commitments of education; a complex value framework that is rarely made explicit.

Lewin explains that the defining feature of technology – particularly digital technology – is the user interface; a feature that separates the ends of a process from the means, allowing us to ‘manage’ complex processes without understanding them. As the process becomes invisible, our focus shifts to the ends. The following quote really resonated with me:

“By its attempt to conceal complex (that is, fragile or insecure) interaction and deliberation, the interface denigrates and excludes the depth of things.”

I use digital technologies on the courses I teach – discussion boards and blogs – to ‘capture’ and ‘reify’ learning, and I’ve long suspected this reification is at least in part an illusion. It’s an effective illusion; my students’ blogs look amazing to me; I’m sure this blog looks impressive to you. But it’s just an interface. It doesn’t achieve control – it displays an illusion of it. Blogging about everything I read is not a neutral process, it influences the processing of what I read and directs my learning in a way that I am comfortable with. There are, no doubt, ways and things to learn that are not being realised in my own learning practices – certainly the more fragile, insecure connections are being frozen out in favour of those that can be easily communicated and/or appear to be of functional use.

Lewin also reminds us that, logically speaking, means can only be ‘effective’ if they are directed to clearly identified goals. In education, how clearly can we define our goals? This is a familiar question in Art & Design education, where unexpected outcomes are valued even within the context of a specific programme or unit of study.

So… for a start, technology distracts us from our ends because the means they provide are often so enchanting. But also – more importantly – the ends we prescribe can only be provisional. A line cannot be drawn around our REAL ENDS (what Tillich calls our ultimate concern), which are infinite.

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