Policy: why should we care?
Policy shapes and re-shapes the educational landscape in the UK. Policy is not neutral it emerges from political parties, from belief systems and from ideology. Arguably, all educationalists should acquaint themselves with – and be able to critique – policies with respect to the learning, teaching and assessment practices with which they are expected to engage.
“The Strategic Management of Pedagogy
Further governmental policies that were intended to enhance the quality of Higher Education have added to the process of top down management described above. In particular, pedagogy, once purely the concern of the academics directly involved in course delivery, has now become an issue for strategy. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has linked elements of University funding to the creation and implementation of Teaching and Learning Strategies. The consequence of this is that, in many institutions, pedagogy has been placed in the hands of strategic management for the first time.
Moreover, with the choice of pedagogic approach a matter of strategy rather than tactics, the lecturers’ primary tool (pedagogic approaches) for coping with the current push for Mass HE and Widening Participation, and the consequent increasing student diversity and numbers, is being taken out of their control. Although some degree of latitude does remain, the choice of teaching techniques is becoming constrained by the decisions of senior management. In line with other trends towards centralisation, the establishment of such strategies seems likely to promote further conformity in order to establish common standards.” (Sinfield, Burns and Holley 2004 in Satterthwaite, Atkinson and Martin (eds) 2004; 141)
It could be argued that knowing and understanding policy allows us to better meet our obligations as public servants. Understanding them in the University context allows us to demonstrate that we are meeting our targets.
What is policy anyway?
Policy is not one easily definable thing:
- Policy as strategy…
- ‘Our policy for investment in future growth is…’
- Policy as position…
- ‘Our policy on migration is….’
- Policy as procedure…
- ‘The grievance policy says….’
‘Public policy focuses on what Dewey (1927) once expressed as “the public and its problems”. It is concerned with how issues and problems come to be defined and constructed and how they are placed on the political and policy agenda. But it is also the study of “how, why and to what effect governments pursue particular courses of action and inaction”’ (Heidenheimer et al cited in Parsons 1995: XV).
It is assumed that policy rationally emerges from a process that could be summarised as: problem identification – solution generated; trialled; evaluated. A refined policy is then formally implemented. However, ‘It is a common experience to find that little attention has been given to problem formulation in policy making’ (Pratt 2006:14). More commonly Government Policy seems to start with solutions – and evaluation focuses on whether the policy has been implemented – and not on whether it solves the problem for which it was supposedly designed (Schwabenland, LondonMet MBA programme 2012).
Government E-learning Policy
The teaching and learning landscape is undeniably set in a global context that is shaped by the ubiquity of ICT. As practitioners, most of us will want to embrace aspects of the digital to be current and relevant. At the same time, the what, when, where and how of Technology Enhanced Learning is also formally inscribed in – and shaped by – Government and Institution Policy documents. This article explores both Government and Institutional e-learning policy through the prism of policy critique and e-learning practice.
My starting point for engaging with E-learning Policy was an analysis of Government Policy as encompassed in its 2005 (revised 2008) policy document, ‘Harnessing Technology’. With colleagues Tom Burns and Debbie Holley, I analysed this document to see what it was ‘really’ saying about ICT and University learning, teaching and assessment. (See Sinfield, Burns and Holley (2009) ‘A journey into silence: students, stakeholders and the impact of a strategic Governmental Policy Document in the UK’ In: Social Responsibility Journal, Vol. 5 No. 4, 2009 pp 566-574 )
Within the context of the British University system, electronic learning (e-learning) strategies within the UK will be analysed via a single policy text. This process provides insights into the interests of dominant stakeholders, namely Government and Business, with respect to the education agenda. Our analysis includes reference to a speech made by David Blunkett, when Secretary of State for Education at Greenwich University in 2000, where he firmly positions e-learning and the needs of the ‘UK PLC’ within a globalised economy. Critical analysis of the Government e-learning strategy (2005) will draw upon the work of Macherey (1990) and others to expose the continued silencing of the student as stakeholder, where the voices that are not repressed are those with economic and institutional power. Our analysis will show the student is constructed as either silent or deficit and our conclusions suggest that rather than a discourse of transformation, ‘regulation not education’ (Lillis 2001), is the real goal of the dominant educational stakeholders. This critical approach to policy analysis can be adapted by others seeking to critique policy in a variety of different contexts. (For full text, see Appendix 1.)
Whilst E-learning, ICT and the Digital offer the potential for enhancing the education landscape, ushering in a more multimodal Learning, Teaching and Assessment age; the ‘Harnessing Technology’ document talks repeatedly of ‘training’ rather than ‘education’ – and of making safe technology decisions to meet the ICT needs of business.
‘Harnessing Technology’ seems only to celebrate that ICT will offer choice of when and where we learn – without mention of the ‘what, the why and the multiplicity of hows’ that we learn. The student stakeholder is not addressed in the document except in terms of deficit. Where students are ‘hard to reach’, they are diagnosed as cognitively impaired or as having Special Education Needs. No mention is made of community or classed positions of exclusion. The suggestion is that deficit students can be plugged into ICT packages to be ‘fixed’.
Typically early innovators and champions of e-learning are happily unaware of this policy and these reductive visions of e-learning; but that does not mean that this reductive vision can be wished away. If we want more from e-learning, we will have to re-define and re-colonise this landscape for ourselves.
It doesn’t have to be like that: re-defining Policy – re-claiming the vision
We did not accept that our blended learning adventures had to be narrowly defined by reductive Government Policy and set out to explore and re-define this landscape for ourselves. (See Burns, Sinfield and Holley (2012) ‘The Shipwrecked Shore – and other metaphors: what we can learn from occupation of – and representations in – virtual worlds’ In Investigations of University Teaching and Learning 2012)
In cyberspace, it is well known, one’s body can be represented by one’s own textual description: ‘the obese can be slender, the beautiful plain’, (Turkle1999: 643).Our case study (cf Stake 1995) sought to explore the opportunities offered to students when they come to class in a virtual world and a differently created learning space. We consider Bullinghurst and Dünsers (2012) work on augmenting reality for learners to combine the ‘real and the virtual’ to enable students to deal with the abstract. This paper explores student representations in Second Life, a 3D immersive world (www.secondlife.com), and as we engage, we see that the virtual not only enhances both curriculum and practice, but an emergent scope for visual hermeneutics as both a digital literacy and analytical research tool. The focus of the case is a first year FoLSC group of students, based in Computing, and a first year module with embedded study and academic skills. Our conclusions suggest that offering learning opportunities in different spaces, can, indeed, disrupt – but in a powerful and positive way.
(For full text, see Appendix2.)
See also: Sarah Ramsden HEAcademy article on using VLE to build student relationships and meaningful learning encounters:
Notes: Whilst Government Policy documents on TEL appear limited, the potential of TEL continues to inspire practitioners. Currently practice trumps or transcends policy – perhaps it is time to celebrate that.
See CELT Guidelines https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Minimum_Standards_for_Digital_Learning_and_Teaching.pdf
The Londonmet institutional e-learning policy document sets a Minimum Standard for VLE presence and use. Every module must have an active WebLearn presence and staff are expected to routinely use ICT where they are necessary and appropriate to extend and enhance student learning.
Digital Literacy (DL) for students is defined – and is to be addressed by staff within and outwith the curriculum – from induction onwards. DL, instrumental, informational and strategic, is essential for without DL competences our students would be at a disadvantage in the world and at work.
The minimum guidelines state that staff will be adequately resourced and supported in their own digital development – including via CELT (though in actual fact it mentions many elements of the new CELT that have been heavily cut – for example the LDU and the Writing Specialists) – and with timetabled time for Professional Development.
Safety is inscribed in that access to external resources and links should be accessed from the WebLearn shell – and tutors are exhorted to consider issues of induction, communication, assessment and feedback from within WebLearn itself.
Risks to the University include issues of Data Protection and require compliance with HEA, HEFCE, JISC and QAA Policies and Practices:
HEFCE http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/hefceframework.aspx and http://www.jisc.ac.uk/media/documents/projects/UKOnlineLearningStudy-FinalReport-Mar10-FINAL-FORPUB.pdf
QAA: http://www.qaa.ac.uk/Publications/InformationAndGuidance/Pages/Code-of-practice-section-2.aspx and
‘It’s my own messy chaos’
With all these Guidelines and Targets, with the lack of time and real resources, with the frustrations of limited technology and the lack of freedom to upload their own Apps and Resources to their work PCs; staff often feel constrained and oppressed by the various Policies and Practices that exist – especially at Institutional level.
Here are some links and resources that might help:
Peter Bryant’s blog post: http://peterbryant.smegradio.com/?p=432
All CELT Guides can be accessed here: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/celt/learning-teaching-assessment/staff-guides-resources.cfm Individual Guides indicated below:
Teaching for student engagement: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Staff_Guide_Teaching_for_Student_Engagement_June_%202011.pdf
Quick Guide to Blended Learning: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Quick_Guide_to_Blended_Learning.pdf
Quick Guide to Embedding Information Literacies: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Quick%20Guide%20to%20Embedding%20Information%20Literacy%20in%20Your%20Modules%20(Library%20Services).pdf
Quick Guide to Compiling Module Resources Lists: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Quick%20Guide%20to%20Compiling%20Module%20Resource%20Lists%20(Library%20Services).pdf
Guide to Giving Feedback: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/Feedback%20via%20WebLearn%20table.pdf
Guide to Blended Learning Tools in Large Groups: https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/fms/MRSite/psd/hr/capd/good-practice/BL%20tools%20for%20LG%20sessions%20(fv).pdf
Embedding Academic Literacies and Learning Development: Staff Guide to Academic Literacies and Embedding Learning Development-1.doc
Notes: Practitioners are assessed in Peer and Performance Review on their compliance with institutional e-learning policy. Whilst compliance is easily achievable in re WebLearn, practitioners wishing to excel might consider joining or setting up Communities of Practice in order to set and meet their own goals. Recommendation – join www.jiscmail.ac.uk/ldhen the Learning Development discussion group which is exceedingly supportive in all areas of LD work including TEL.
WORD DOC COULD END HERE – OR CAN INCLUDE APPENDICES BELOW
Appendix 1 Full text
Sinfield, Burns and Holley (2009) ‘A journey into silence: students, stakeholders and the impact of a strategic Governmental Policy Document in the UK’In: Social Responsibility Journal, Vol. 5 No. 4, 2009 pp 566-574
Keywords: Analytical tool, E-learning, stakeholders, students, government e-learning strategy
Within the context of the British University system, electronic learning (e-learning) strategies within the UK will be analysed via a single policy text. This process provides insights into the interests of dominant stakeholders, namely Government and Business, with respect to the education agenda. Our analysis includes reference to a speech made by David Blunkett, when Secretary of State for Education at Greenwich University in 2000, where he firmly positions e-learning and the needs of the ‘UK PLC’ within a globalised economy. Critical analysis of the Government e-learning strategy (2005) will draw upon the work of Macherey (1990) and others to expose the continued silencing of the student as stakeholder, where the voices that are not repressed are those with economic and institutional power. Our analysis will show the student is constructed as either silent or deficit and our conclusions suggest that rather than a discourse of transformation, ‘regulation not education’ (Lillis 2001), is the real goal of the dominant educational stakeholders. This critical approach to policy analysis can be adapted by others seeking to critique policy in a variety of different contexts.
‘The powerhouses of the new global economy are innovation and ideas, skills and knowledge. These are now the tools for success and prosperity as much as natural resources and physical labour power were in the past century. Higher education is at the centre of these developments. Across the world, its shape, structure and purposes are undergoing transformation because of globalisation. At the same time, it provides research and innovation, scholarship and teaching which equip individuals and businesses to respond to global change. World class higher education ensures that countries can grow and sustain high-skill businesses, and attract and retain the most highly-skilled people. It endows people with creative and moral capacities, thinking skills and depth knowledge that underpin our economic competitiveness and our wider quality of life. It is therefore at the heart of the productive capacity of the new economy and the prosperity of our democracy.’ David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, Speech at Greenwich University, 15th February 2000 (http://cms1.gre.ac.uk).
In the United Kingdom (UK), Higher Education (HE) is being positioned as the new global business, and the power relations between its various stakeholders – society, the business community, management, staff or students – makes this not only uncharted but contested ground. This paper maps the new terrain with a focus on, and analysis of, one key government policy document that locates Information and Communications Technology (ICT) at the heart of provision for children and families in the UK from birth through to further, higher and lifelong learning. The ‘Harnessing Technology’ (2005) document is explored particularly in relation to its impact on prime stakeholders within the new context of HE today. Government policy, and e-learning policy, has a pervasive impact on all levels of education and it is therefore an issue of concern that so little attention is paid to what is arguably the main stakeholder group – the student – that will be the first to navigate and negotiate the new e-Environment.
The UK approach to ‘encouraging’ alternatives to traditional classroom teaching can best be located within an international context. The increasing political intervention into higher education is justified from governmental perspectives as meeting the needs of a “knowledge economy” (Hodge, 2002) enabling the UK to compete within the international trading environment. Writers such as White & Davis (2002) set the context of technology as breaking down international barriers to education. At their best, computer–mediated learning environments make possible whole new ways of learning. They can create global learning communities of student and professor practitioners. They “connect people across cultures, learning styles, and industries, and they enable global conversations about issues and ideas that matter. They have extraordinary power to stitch together practical experience, academic theory, personal reflection and deep emotion” (White & Davis 2002, p.233).
However, in the UK, the use of central funding to promote a competitive and expansionist market in Further and Higher Education has already radically altered the culture in many institutions where governmental policies that were intended to enhance the quality of Higher Education have rather added to a process of centralisation initiated by Margaret Thatcher from 1979 (see Sinfield et al 2004, Burns & Sinfield 2004):
‘During the 1980s the dominant ideology, especially in Reagan’s USA and Thatcher’s UK, became free market economics, also referred to as laissez-faire or neo-liberalism. The main thrust was towards ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state’. State intervention was to be reduced, nationalised industries were to be sold off to the private sector, private industry was to be given a free reign with the economy. As private industry and its capitalist owners became richer, the rest of us would also benefit, as wealth gained at the top ‘trickled down’ through the system to the rest of us’http://www.cultsock.ndirect.co.uk/MUHome/cshtml/media/eu.html
In particular, pedagogy, once purely the concern of the academics directly involved in course delivery, has now become an issue for strategy, directed by Government policy. Indeed, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has linked elements of University funding to the creation and implementation of teaching and learning strategies– and e-learning strategies, whereby universities in the public sector must comply if they seek to receive Government funding.
It is in this context that this paper raises questions about power and the role of stakeholders in the formulation and implementation of a wide ranging policy that arguably seeks to focus Higher Education towards the needs of industry. By doing so, it attempts to unpick Government attitudes towards education, e-learning, the student (learner) and ultimately towards education and society itself.
‘Post-structuralists treat regimes of truth as real, material, cultural artefacts, which are sustained in discourse and as such can be explored’ (Crowther & Mraovic 2005; 80).
Crowther and Mraovic (op cit) offer a paradigmatic model with respect to the application of the critical and analytical tools of literary theory to organisational documents with a special focus on accounting documentation. The authors provide an informed overview of the theoretical field alongside a discussion of the ‘myths’, ‘truth’ and ideological signs of organisational documentation. Citing Levi-Strauss (1980) and Leach (1982, 1983) they argue that ‘to decode the message embodied in the myth as a whole [one] must search for the structural pattern underlying the entire series of metaphors’ (Crowther op cit; 77) where language is the ideological sign … [offering] concrete not abstract views of the world … inseparable from the social praxis and class struggle’ (Ibid; 93). This model offers an explanation at organisational level, and we have developed this work further to explore societal issues via the critical analysis of a government document. The framework for our analysis suggests that the government text in question offers a series of metaphors that construct myths around education.
Macherey’s essay ‘The text says what it does not say’ (in Walder 1990) where he argues that it is ‘useful and legitimate to ask of every production what it tacitly implies, what it does not say … for in order to say anything there are things which must not be said (Ibid; 217) (his italics), is a starting point for our analysis. All works have their ‘margins’ – the incompleteness that reveals their birth and production… What is important in the work is what it does not say… what the work cannot say … because there the elaboration of the utterances is acted out, in a sort of journey to silence’ (Ibid; 218). Macherey himself posits the use of Nietzsche’s key questions when exploring any text – and indeed these are questions that can be applied most tellingly to the document we investigate: What is it meant to conceal? What is it meant to draw our attention from? What prejudice does it seek to raise? (Ibid – and drawn from Nietzsche The Dawn of the Day, section 523).
For Nietzsche shows that texts cannot do anything but lie. Therefore to judge the truthfulness of a text it has to be treated as a lie. Our government document both conforms to and extends the Nietzschian doctrine – dictating imperially from on high and embodying the rationale that if all statements offer fragments and lie, then this will constitute a big lie, atomised into as many parts as possible: the citizenry can only pay homage to that which would exclude them. The aesthetics of the text can further illuminate this (Eagleton1986) and expose the flawed and failed ideology of the project, what Noble (2002) describes as fragments that cannot constitute a whole. However, as Macherey points out, all texts are incomplete, but they can offer a sense of the whole. ‘Harnessing Technology’, as with any corporate document, sets forth a future that is going to improve, where the shortcomings of the past are superseded by technological and management utopianism: where ‘things can only get better.
Case study – analysis of policy document
To open our analysis of ‘Harnessing Technology’ we begin with the first paragraph of that Executive Summary, entitled, ‘the technology context.’
Digital technology is already changing how we do business and live our lives. Most schools – and every university and college – now have broadband access. Teachers increasingly use information and communications technology (ICT) to improve their own skills and knowledge – and bring their lessons to life. People working with children, families, young people, and adults are testing out new and better ways to deliver services, with common processes supported by technology. The technology is making many administrative and assessment tasks easier (p.4).
Or to re-emphasise:
Technology changes how we do business; teachers use this to increase their skills, others to deliver services and the technology is making many administrative and assessment tasks...
Once we re-emphasise, this becomes a fundamentally accurate opening statement – ICT is indeed about servicing business; everybody must increase their skills (whither knowledge, transformation, transcendence?); and rather than rounded subjects (Crowther op cit) we are instead reduced to recipients of services: learners are constructed here – and throughout the text – as needy and in need of support VIA ANY MECHANISM BAR A TUTOR. Finally, strategic approaches – as generated by government and business – have increased administration and assessment exponentially – without increasing resources, time or e-administration.
‘Freedom’ is mentioned in the third paragraph, not in reference to academic freedom or freedom to research or the freedom to discover meaningful curricula with which to engage the disenfranchised (rather than the individually needy), but in terms of the haphazard way that incompatible systems have been purchased by institutions because they had the ‘freedom to buy [their] own system and support services’ (p.4). Hence the need for ‘A strategic approach to ICT’ which entitles the fourth paragraph wherein are laid out the goals for e-learning which are to:
- Transform teaching, learning and help to improve outcomes for children and young people, through shared ideas, more exciting lessons and online help for professionals
- Engage ’hard to reach’ learners, with special needs support, more motivating ways of learning, and more choice about how and where to learn
- Build an open and accessible system, with more information and services online for parents and carers…and more cross-organisation collaboration to improvepersonalised support and choice
- Achieve greater efficiency and effectiveness, with online research, access to shared ideas and lesson plans, improved systems and processes … shared procurement and easier administration (p.4)’ (our emphases).
Where the individual learner is constructed only in the deficit, having individual needs requiring individual support, hiding/denying that whole groups and classes of people are typically excluded from education because of their class or group position – not because of individual flaws or lack of aspiration.
Special needs stakeholders
Again we can see the emphasis on ‘help’, ‘support’, ‘information and services’ – but interestingly we also get the elision of hard to reach learners (surely an oxymoron then?) with special education needs. This particular elision or cathexis runs throughout the document and serves to mask the real alienation of those who do not consider themselves to be stakeholders in Blair’s new model labour Britain. See also p.19’: …but those that need the services most … least likely to use them… [must] make them accessible to all including people with disabilities’. For with ICT it is possible to (p.20) ‘customise … especially valuable for people with motor, visual or hearing difficulties’ and p.27: ‘New technology can transform the experience of learning for all, but has particular impact for those who might otherwise be excluded or even unwilling to access learning. Learners with special cognitive disabilities…’ and p28: ‘for learners with special needs, these aids can take them from total disengagement to eager participation’ and p44: ‘games technology could help motivate many pupils, including those with special needs who are turned off traditional lessons’.
However, there is little evidence that these are effective, nor that those groups familiar with IT games show more inclination to engage with ICT for educational purposes than previously experienced pedagogical devices.
Not only does this language of neediness and support set up a Foucauldian medical model discourse of education with the ‘learner’ as the special needs patient, it also fundamentally inscribes the ‘learner’ as an object, the passive recipient of courses and support that have been devised by the un-named and the unidentified, superior ‘other’. ICT is bruited because it is ‘engaging’, by this the document means interactive – where we have the sense that the physical interactivity of the computer-game-like skills package is offered instead or in place of intellectual engagement, of engagement with academics, of engagement with other students – or even the engagement in haptic or kinaesthetic activities relevant to one’s subject – the dissection required by the student doctor or the laboratory experiment by the engineer.
Learning, it is flagged up here, is to be opened up through e- and distance learning packages so that we can choose how and where to learn, and even when we learn, but nowhere is there to be choice or discussion about what and why we learn. The sole solution to all our skills – not education – problems is pedagogical innovation, the development of ‘new kinds of pedagogy … to succeed in innovating and transforming teaching and learning’ (p.28). Indeed, the document records an intent to (p.5): ‘transform the experience of learning’, through p.6 ‘flexible learning packages … [that meet] learners’ needs’ with ‘richer curriculum materials’ – rather than a richer curriculum. Flexibility is reified as a good in and of itself. Flexibility means that courses can be wholly or partly online (pp 6, 26, 27) – such that students will not need to queue to register (p.9) – as institutions re-think their boundaries (p.10) and the government expects ‘the technology to transform the way we engage and involve children, parents, learners, and the wider community’ (p.18) – engage in what or for what purpose is unclear, for the goal seems not to be expressed till page 27 where the document avows that: ‘Learners and employers want us to help improve their skills … making it easier for them to solve problems, manage information across networks, and understand how to use and apply ICT to their circumstances’. If a definition of education is to be inferred here it must be that education equals technology – and that e-learning is the problem free solution to all our skills’ ills, especially when ‘education and industry working together, through shared e-learning resources and support, will contribute to the aims of our Skills Strategy to improve basic and higher level skills, across the workforce, throughout life (p.6)’.
A semblance of an heteroglossic approach is contained in the document, one that has not only been corralled but one that completely misses the point of language and the dialogic. Instead of using language as the touchstone of knowledge, a social construct that contains rich diverse voices and the sum total of all knowledge, with language being the mechanism of its transmission, a few case studies are rounded up, with voices that are de-contextualised and disembodied. With respect to the e-Delivery of courses, no evidence base is drawn upon other than the example of an English GCSE that moved on-line with the assurance that enrolment and pass rates improved. No mention is made of the resources that must go into designing an on-line course – nor those that are required to run and maintain such a course – especially where detailed formative feedback is required by students. This silencing is necessary to further deny the role that e-learning plays in enabling the marketisation of education as a global commodity (Noble op cit) and the de-professionalising of the academic in the new university reality where for (non-traditional) students, already dismembered by the discourses of derision prevalent in the wider community – and the deficit discourse about learners, e-learning and education set up in the ‘Harnessing Technology’ document – university is no longer a place to dally after a lecture or seminar, to visit the library, to discuss big ideas in the canteen or to join extra-curricular societies for present interest and long-term networking and career opportunities.
And what does e-learning offer (our) university students? Well of course it can ‘support learners’ (p.56) with ‘appropriate business models for sharing resources’ (ibid). Indeed ‘Schools, colleges, universities can work more closely together to meet the needs of individual students who want something other than the traditional campus-only experience (ibid)’. Thus the mass are to be offered resources and e-learning opportunities rather than what the policy writers would recognise as an educational or a higher educational experience. Proof if more proof were needed that silencing the student stakeholder and denying their dreams does indeed impede the function of the educational organisation. How would the members of the UK elite universities relate to this as defining the goals of their institutions (p.57): ‘Partnerships between universities and industry will help develop courses that better equip graduates with the skills appropriate for a wide range of IT careers’?
The ‘Harnessing Technology’ (2005) document is brief constituting just 73 pages including Secretary of State’s foreword (she is very excited) and glossary. Most disturbing are the lack of any vision of education, the emphasis on skills and on the continued reference to learners rather than students. This use of the language of student-centeredness (see Rogers 1902-1987) gives us an experience of what Lash (Giddens, Beck and Lash 1996) calls hermeneutics and its double. Thehermeneutic allocated to the student is not one that engages thinking, reflecting and then acting; that embraces the modern and that acknowledges contingency and risk via expert systems (Ibid). Instead we are given a perverted hermeneutic and its double, not one of education but skills and its double, training. Not ‘education, education, education’, but training and skills. This constant hermeneutic and its double undermines the achievement of those (Widening Participation) students that have grasped the HE challenge and echoes hollowly around the global modernisation project: further marginalising those already marginalised, further dismembering the subject student.
For in this policy document training and skills replaces Gidden’s reflexive agent and reduces the student to automaton (Noble op cit). Skills’ training becomes the expert system, and the text means the opposite of what it says. Where previously the term ‘learner’ has been used to indicate that learning was an interactive, social and constructivist process – here the term is used to atomise the individual away from its community and the strength that that might confer. Further, in using the term ‘learner’, the student is excised from the debate – or reduced to a lack; again we see the paradox of the document: on the one hand it mystifies its ideological project but in the process it reduces itself to hysteria; citing that for which there is no evidence. The project the document offers could be one that embraces the reflexive modern, instead it is reduced to a Freudian construct, hysterical, bipolar, unable to let go, to move on. This failure to let go is not a healthy mourning of the past (Atkinson 2006) but a blindness that damns us to endlessly repeat it again and again.
To compound this reductionist view of the learner (as needy, deficit and atomised – classless – dislocated and dismembered), we also have a reductionist view of education per se, for, as indicated, what is strikingly absent from this document is any aspirational definition of the term education. This is apparent from an analysis of both the condensed text of the Executive Summary (pp 4-7) and of the expanded text of the Report proper and accords with Noble’s (op cit) assertion that e-learning is inextricably bound up with the denaturing and de-professionalizing of higher education. Noble argues that whilst e-learning is akin to training, which is purely for the benefit of others and where any assertion of the self would become a subversive activity, ‘education’ involves the integration of knowledge with the self – where knowledge is defined by and helps to define the self. He stresses that whilst typically the push for e-learning is predicated upon a belief in cost cutting, staff reduction and so forth; education relies on the quality of interpersonal relationships offered – and that to date educational research has at least demonstrated that good education requires a labour intensive, personal relationship between students and quality academics. In the ‘Harnessing Technology’ document, as there is no mention of education research – neither is there reference to previous research or projects bound up with promoting e-learning; instead there is a relentless percussive reiteration of the ‘skills’ refrain, where ICT skills are to service the needs not of the individual – but of industry. This documentation is indeed Noble’s vision manifest in government text – silencing, disassembling and de-skilling the academic professional alongside the new ‘learner’.
Pedagogic choice becomes a matter of strategy, rather than tactics, and e-learning facilitates what Noble (2002:3) argues is the increasing commodification of education; offering educational experience that has been disintegrated and distilled into ‘discrete, reified, and ultimately saleable things or packages of things’. The first step in this process is the assemblance of the course into packages: learning outcomes, syllabi, lessons, and exams. These commodities are subsequently removed from their producers, the teachers, so they are given an independent existence apart from the creator. This constitutes the alienation of ownership as control of the course material is surrendered. The final step is the assembled course sale, in the market place, for a profit, thus teachers become producers, students become consumers and their relationship takes on not ‘education, but a shadow of education, an assemblance of pieces without a whole’ (Noble 2002:4).
ICT, e-learning, has moved from being associated with peripheral innovations and developments to affecting all aspects of learning and teaching. Disempowering strategies such as those outlined in ‘Harnessing Technology’ represent for Conole, Smith & White (2006; 12) ‘knee-jerk policy which does not take account of evidence emerging from research’ but which have a huge impact on students, especially those who already come into University with low self-efficacy, and can add to the struggles identified by writers such as Anie (2001) and Leathwood (2003) faced by widening participation students in ‘this new cold climate’ (Sinfield, Burns & Holley 2004:143). Conole et al (op cit) suggest that the implementation of ICT within education requires ‘measured and reflective’ approaches that include the human aspects of implementing e-learning; they critique the government document as ‘naïve’; however, our analysis of that document would argue for a more sinister reading. E-learning is inscribed in this text in such a way as to silence students, to de-professionalize the academic and to reduce education to skills. The human, rather than needy, learner and his/her learning wishes, do not enter the debate at Governmental level. No wonder ‘that resistance regularly occurs …’ Akerland & Trevitt (1999:97).
The dismembered student and a dismembered practice emerge from dismembered discourse via this documentation. The student is moved to the periphery or centred to be damned. The policy and the practice it is designed to engender are stilted and afraid, halted by a double hermeneutic that will not embrace risk or dynamic (curriculum and student): an aesthetic that crumples and can not hold its own project together. The report breaks down into banal sentimentality and relies on dismembered voices that mask and neutralise not only those in the text, but all those stakeholders whose voices need to be heard.
The government strategy document can be seen as a script determining the interactions between participants and an instrument to diagnose their power relations (Crowther op cit; 93). The authors position themselves implicitly and explicitly as decision makers and, utilising the masks of heteroglossia, their monologic document reinforces the position that their ‘knowledge enable[d] them to make decisions on behalf of other stakeholders’ (Ibid; 84). The culminating statement of the text in its mindless vacuity attempts to prove that ‘the past has no place in determining the future … instead, the future is all that matters’ (Ibid; 89); whilst being condemned to repeating that very, mechanical past.
If we return to Nietzsche’s questions: What is it meant to conceal? What is it meant to draw our attention from? What prejudice does it seek to raise? We can see that whilst Blunkett did at least state that:
‘World class higher education ensures that countries can grow and sustain high-skill businesses, and attract and retain the most highly-skilled people. It endows people with creative and moral capacities, thinking skills and depth knowledge that underpin our economic competitiveness and our wider quality of life’ (Blunkett op cit).
‘Harnessing Technology’ conceals any iteration that education might work towards developing ‘creative and moral capacities’ or ‘depth knowledge’. By appearing to be learner-centred our attention is drawn away from the fact that that learner is dismembered, dislocated, atomised and silenced. Whilst the prejudice raised is that such a fractured and pathologised object deserves no voice and is fortunate to access on-line training in the Skills necessary to service Business.
To conclude, this paper has explored how the rhetoric, structure and aesthetic of this government policy document have rendered the student peripheral, absent, passive, problematised and silent; with ICT being offered as a panacea, thereby further dismembering the student. The skills process offers a Utopian future where ‘learners’ can be handed piecemeal to various agencies to be fixed. These agencies, also dismembered entities, will run the gauntlet of quality assurance and, of course, their services will be available and traded on-line, further rendering the on-lookers neutralised, passive and, instead of the second coming, waiting for a Pop Up or special offer to inform pedagogic practice.
‘Harnessing Technology’ has an aesthetic that suits its purpose – to fracture the ‘learner’ (student) such that the fragmented and decontextualised ‘education’ facilitated by a de-natured and safe ICT can be accepted. The monologic document offers only a semblance of heteroglossic voices, voices that have themselves been dismembered, rather than drawing on voices containing the characteristics of human discourse present in the 21st century: voices that embrace risk and contingency, that are fighting passionately to embrace agency. These are the students that are contributing to the government’s 50% target for HE participation, it is they who carry the greater risk, it is they who embrace modernity, it is they that should be supported – and it is they that are silenced. Where silencing the student as stakeholder in HE works to de-nature HE itself.
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Burns, Sinfield and Holley (2012) ‘The Shipwrecked Shore – and other metaphors: what we can learn from occupation of – and representations in – virtual worlds’ In Investigations of University Teaching and Learning 2012
In cyberspace, it is well known, one’s body can be represented by one’s own textual description: ‘the obese can be slender, the beautiful plain’, (Turkle1999: 643).Our case study (cf Stake 1995) sought to explore the opportunities offered to students when they come to class in a virtual world and a differently created learning space. We consider Bullinghurst and Dünsers(2012) work on augmenting reality for learners to combine the ‘real and the virtual’ to enable students to deal with the abstract. This paper explores student representations in Second Life, a 3D immersive world (www.secondlife.com), and as we engage, we see that the virtual not only enhances both curriculum and practice, but an emergent scope for visual hermeneutics as both a digital literacy and analytical research tool. The focus of the case is a first year FoLSC group of students, based in Computing, and a first year module with embedded study and academic skills. Our conclusions suggest that offering learning opportunities in different spaces, can, indeed, disrupt – but in a powerful and positive way
Keywords: Digital Literacy, Identity, Second Life, Study and Academic Skills, Virtual World
“Cyberspace opens the possibility of identity play, but it is very serious play.”(Turkle, 1999:648)
Billinghurst and Dünser (2012) state that augmented reality supports the understanding of complex phenomena by providing unique visual and interactive experiences that combine real and virtual information and help communicate abstract problems to learners. With educational paradigms shifting to include ‘online learning, hybrid learning and collaborative learning ‘(NMC2012:5); the NMC report points out that institutions that support their learners by offering affordances other than physical campuses leverage the online skills that learners bring with them to academia. Second Life is a ‘virtual world’, an electronic environment that visually mimics complex physical spaces, where people can interact with each other and with virtual objects, and where people are represented by animated characters called avatars (Bainbridge, 2007). We wanted to use these emerging technologies to solve pedagogical problems in learning and teaching; and to do so, we wanted to integrate them with the curriculum (Glynn and Thorn 2011).We wanted to explore how emancipatory practice can be developed in tandem both in the physical classroom and in the 3D Virtual world of Second Life (SL). At the same time we wanted to demonstrate that far from being a remedial outpost, academic and digital literacies can be covered in dynamic and empowering ways – and as an aspect of a fast changing education model. This paper focuses on the digital elements of the course concerned.
The focus of the case is a first year FoLSC group of students, based in Computing, and a first year module with embedded study and academic skills. An unfortunate perception of ‘skills’ modules can be that they have a remedial purpose: being designed to ‘fix’ deficit students as they enter the academy from non-advantaged backgrounds. In order to overcome such deficit perceptions, Computing and Learning Development staff worked together to develop an empowering module that harnessed the best ideas and research-informed practices from both their worlds.
Both the classroom and the SL experiences were designed to enhance student engagement by being meaningful – and playful; by being authentic and engaging – and also immersive and active. Winnicott (1971) argued that play is important in counteracting the implicit threat that occurs when we are in transitional spaces – between worlds, between social classes and in alien educational settings. Dewey (1938) advocated truly active learning, valuing participation, democracy and democratic values; where cognitive engagement is matched by affective and behavioural features. Thus the students found that instead of being route marched through a series of generic ‘study skills’ type exercises – paper based or online – multiple choice quiz or drag and drop test (all designed to mend their deficits); they were taught empowering and active and successful study practices in the physical classroom; and in SL were invited to create their own avatars and navigate round a beach space, encountering challenges and solving problems. They were encouraged to play and actively participate in creating and inhabiting their own learning spaces – and their own learning (http://slonthebeach.blogspot.co.uk/ ).
The Case Study: The Shipwrecked Shore – and other metaphors
To explore the opportunities offered to students when they come to class in a virtual world and a differently created learning space, we created an active and reflective space in SL – that disrupted expectations and enabled ‘difference’. First, we built reflective spaces on a beach, with a virtual sea and virtual waves washing up and down. When students fed back that this space was perhaps a little bit too empty and undefined, we built bonfires and deckchairs to enable the students to use the beach as a reflective space. To provoke active reflection on different elements of course content, we distributed various puzzle cubes about – with no instruction or explanation: students had to work in groups pooling their different talents and skills to de-code the puzzles. Students moved on to building their own spaces in SL: claiming and transforming their own places, making their own marks on the educational ‘landscape’. This is a virtual world away from a test designed to check that set learning outcomes have been met: here the social construction of meaning and knowledge was played out through the virtual student bodies – in participative, collective endeavour.
Our visual hermeneutics
As staff, we represented a fluid and participative knowledge-landscape not in a realist, mimetic representation of a classroom or a lecture theatre, but in the seashore, the deckchairs and the puzzles. When delivering new ‘supplies’ to our students, we shipwrecked a seventeenth century galleon on our twenty-first century beach. Arguably form and content are matched and merged conveying a message about education appropriate for the 21stCentury – and for our digital worlds. In this scene, epistemology and pedagogy are disrupted: ‘grounded’ to be de-centred, disembowelled – in a postmodern playground redolent of leisure activity – deckchairs and bonfire on the beach; transected by space and time – the galleon and its bounty. This narrative tableau has potential to transform production and ‘consumption’ of education: students explore the shipwreck; they ‘salvage’ the goods; they sit around the campfire, solve puzzles and discuss their learning; they stake claims in the landscape and build their own spaces and their own objects. They become both producers and consumers of knowledge in an unbounded/bounded meaning making process.
And what of the students themselves?
We wondered if the creative use of SL space would change how our students felt about education and studying – and perhaps how they felt about themselves as learners. We used Shields’ (2004) model of Lefebvre and Soja’s Trialectic as way to explore the challenges of conventional spaces and the potential of virtual spaces. We gained a temperature reading of how students operated in these spaces by analysing how they represented themselves – the avatars they created for themselves – in this new learning environment. All students gave informed consent for us to use their avatar images for the purposes of knowledge transfer. Given that, amongst other things, our students appeared as a Klingon; a female sea captain; and a bumblebee – we argue that alternative spaces can indeed be alternatively inhabited and prove to be emancipatory and empowering as learning spaces. The relative anonymity of life on the screen gives one the choice of being known only by one’s chosen “handle” or online name gives people the chance to express often unexplored aspects of the self (Turkle 1999:643).
If the First Space of Soja’s Trialectic can be taken as our common sense understanding of physical space; Second Space becomes the rules that are attached to or are mediated by our apprehensions of the First Space. Typically, we apprehend the ‘real’ world as autochthonous (sprung from the earth itself) rather than ‘man’ and ideology made. For students, especially those from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds, this can refer to the typical lecture theatre and computing lab – and of how the students’ ‘feelings’ of discomfort, of not belonging, of disempowerment – are naturalised, with the student and not the constructed space and its power being the ‘problem’.
Third Space offers the possibilities of re-imagining space and occupying it differently now and in the future. For Lefebvre, the proposition is that third space is a social morphology:
“Vis-à-vis lived experience, space is neither a mere frame, after the fashion of the frame to a painting, nor a form or container of a virtually neutral kind, designed simply to receive whatever is poured into it. Space is a social morphology: it is to lived experience what form itself is to the living organism, and just as intimately bound up with function and structure” (Lefebvre, 2003:93-94)
Thus our case study was designed to see how students constructed themselves within the Second Life learning spaces that were offered to them – and to consider by discussion and analysis of their avatars how powerfully they occupied this space.
Mini-case one: the Sea Captain
One student built her own sailing ship in SL, not sailing on the sea, however; if you look closely you can see the grey ‘stone’ of a building behind her – with the sea further behind – and below. . This throws up some challenges for us viewing the avatar in ‘her’ space. She is blond, pigtailed and in jeans: Barbie on the poop deck? And yet, the avatar is role playing ‘Captain’, and thus challenging possible femininities/masculinities – and the stereotype male role model – just by being there an (assumed) woman on the bridge of a ship. At the same time as wearing her branded tee-shirt, her reflexive device showing her links with her University, the expert institution, she is challenging and oppositional to the ‘blue stocking women’ from Russell Group Universities; adopting a classed, gendered position within her learning space. Here we can argue that Soja’s ‘Third space’ produces what might best be called a cumulative trialectic that is radically open to additional otherness.
Mini-case two: the Klingon
This student had to invest time and effort to purchase and then build up the Klingon avatar over his own initial ‘human’ avatar. In SL he had the confidence and courage to adopt this very powerful, but very unusual, look; and one reading of this avatar would be that this student built himself a strong avatar that allowed him to act powerfully within the learning environment. At the same time, there are those that might read this student’s choice of avatar as oppositional to University culture, that this presented an implicit challenge to the activities that were supposed to take place in this learning space. However, this was a student who already had experience of virtual worlds through gaming and he shared thiswith his fellow students, enabling them to develop their SL building skills for their benefit on this module. This can be seen as a positive third space endeavour: as the avatar changed into the Klingon, there was an enactment of potentiality, that change is possible: that nothing is fixed and fluidity is a reality.
Mini-case three: the Bumblebee
“It’s not easy to find a single reason why I chose that Avatar – I partly chose it because a bee is quite an out of the ordinary avatar in SL… and it’s such a big, rather clumsy but at the same time beautiful bee – it’s made up of a lot of complex shapes/pieces – it must have taken someone a long time to make and design it…
And it takes a long time to build up over my original avatar, so I get to appreciate the complexity every time I change into a bee, and see the transformation in slow motion (also a little bit grotesque).
When I’m flying it buzzes its wings, unlike people avatars whose arms don’t really do anything.
Finally I really enjoy seeing a bee sitting in a lecture theatre for example. There is something a little bit absurd about virtual worlds, and I like to make the most of that ” Student C
Here we can see how the student’s choice of avatar allows a different entity into the learning space. The bumblebee avatar represents a very thoughtful and controlled choice of something natural – but potentially out of place in the ‘real’ University. It also represents an additional investment of time by the student in herself and in her learning: for this construction of something that is both beautiful and clumsy and grotesque all at the same time is time-consuming. Arguably the learning space is itself transformed by the actions and choices that the student makes about herself in that space. A space that can be experienced as traditionally passive, controlled and controlling, with the mind and body being acted upon,is transformed into a space that can be used as a tool for thought and action in powerful, nuanced and quite humorous ways.
The ambiguity of the virtual world is not to be ‘designed out’- instead, it ‘renders strange’ the conventions that underlie teaching, including teacher roles and student roles, classroom layout and assessment practices (Carr 2012: 13).In SL, the themes of physical and pedagogic spaces have been drawn into a new debate: what happens when we and our students leave our physical presence and start to engage with our learning in cyberspace? Our study has offered some small scale insights into this wider debate by exploring the possibilities students may find in inhabiting a ‘third space’. Our reading of our students’ avatars indicates that whilst policy documents constrain funding of, recruitment to and space within Universities, particularly for non-traditional students, this can be positively disrupted – in powerful and empowering ways.
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