The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

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This year’s Association for Learning Technology Conference in Manchester, UK, focussed on Shaping the Future of Learning Together. By all accounts the conference was a great success trending on Twitter as never before.

I attended two keynotes virtually: Jonathan Worth’s keynote (I’m not sure if there was a title for this – if there was I didn’t see it) and Laura Czerniewicz who talked about Inequality in Higher Education.

I found both keynotes thought-provoking. It seemed to me that they presented micro and macro issues being faced by the Edtech world at the moment.

Jonathan’s keynote addressed issues of vulnerability, privacy and trust in open learning, at the local level of the learner. Laura took a global perspective, providing evidence for Inequality in the Higher Education landscape, particularly between the global north and the global south.

Jonathan is of course well known for his photography and Phonar MOOC so it is not surprising that he is used to looking closely at the world around him and took a local, intimate perspective of learning in a digital age. He talked about the difference between the image and the photograph and told us that there have been two major paradigm shifts in photography, the first when photography broke away from painting and became an art in its own right, and the second is happening now as the image breaks away from the photograph. Unlike a photograph, an image is not about evidence; an image is about experience. The image is an algorithm, it is what is behind the photo. Thinking about this I have wondered whether this is just a play on words and what the significance is for learning. My understanding is that all photos are images, but not all images are photos. For me the significance of thinking about this is that online we mostly see photos – not images – i.e. it’s hard to get behind what you see, which is why people still value face-to-face meetings and recognise what a difference that makes to online relationships. But to get behind the photo, to see images, we have to recognise that this can make people vulnerable. Audrey Watters has said that vulnerability is essential to the learning dynamic, but this brings with it issues of trust and the right to privacy. If we want to see more images, rather than photos, then we need to recognise the vulnerability of the subject or in the case of education, the learner. This shouldn’t be a surprise. It has been written about for decades and longer, but perhaps in recent frenetic digital times has been forgotten.

Similarly Laura’s talk about inequality on a global scale should not have come as a surprise. The surprise should be that people still need reminding. As she pointed out, inequality is literally a life and death issue, but the challenge these days is to address inequality in an austerity environment and particularly in new online landscapes. Inequality is about power, agency, ownership and choice, about the nature of relationships and who decides. Laura’s message was powerful and affective. She suggested that we need critical research, inequality-framed experimentation, policy and advocacy. We also need to shift from a broadcast culture to one of equal partnership and foster global partnerships. She said she is a researcher – she can raise the questions, but doesn’t have the answers. I suspect that the answers will rely on attention to both macro and micro views of the problem. Jonathan’s focus on vulnerability and trying to see the image clearly will inform issues of inequality and Laura’s focus on inequality will inform Jonathan’s concerns about privacy, trust and vulnerability.

10 thoughts on “The Micro and the Macro of the EdTech World

  1. francesbell September 11, 2015 / 3:08 pm

    Well Jenny, here I am puzzling about all of this and you come in and link those two keynotes in an enlightening flash. Thank you -and thanks to Laura and Jonathan.

  2. jennymackness September 11, 2015 / 3:23 pm

    Well I’m glad it made sense. Thanks Frances.

  3. catherinecronin September 11, 2015 / 4:51 pm

    I agree with Frances 🙂 what a wonderful connection you’ve made, Jenny, between these two keynotes. These were such a highlight of the conference for me. What struck me about both Jonathan and Laura was their courage and humility in sharing the difficult questions, as they see them, without feeling compelled to provide “answers” or glib soundbites. It was the antithesis of that, in fact. I felt that by framing these enormously important questions for us, Laura and Jonathan made it difficult for any of us listening to sit back and “receive”. I experienced each keynote as a rallying cry for ethical practice, and for action. I’m still thinking today – many thanks for writing about these ideas so well.

  4. Jonathan Worth (@Jonathan_Worth) September 11, 2015 / 6:30 pm

    Thank you Jenny for taking the time to listen to and reflect on my talk. I too thought Laura’s was fantastic and important. I don’t think I made my points very well and think you did a better job of extrapolating them than I did , so thanks for that too. What I should have said [better] was that my reference point is always going to be photography and the paradigm shift that I argue for can be reduced to the difference between paper (photographs) and pixels (images).

    My problem there is when we use old language to describe new media. Photographs aren’t images, photographs are locked in time and space , their metadata is the writing on the back and the creases and light damage on the front. The image is an algorithm who’s trace qualities remind us of the photographic process. But by describing technologies in terms of what they look like, we lose track of what they might come to mean. In the case of the image , the data bundled inside it will have a legacy that we don’t acknowledge when we call it a photograph, and that’s not an informed position to take ourselves or impose on other people.

    The second related point was that the duty of care a photojournalist owes to their subject/source, is no different to that which the teacher owes the student. Both are operating from a position relative power within the relationship. A photographic example might be when my mentor Fred Ritchin describes a photo story that he edited, (as Photo Editor of the New York Times, pre digital camera but post-internet ) of particular children secretly living with HIV in Africa. Although the children had been willingly photographed they had no concept of the what the final context of their images might be. Fred argued that once digitised the images could be on screens local to the children at any point in time from then on and insisted that the faces be redacted. Had he not done so the consequences for those children could have been catastrophic.

    They (the children) gave their consent but it wasn’t informed consent.

    I’m arguing that our post-digital students might be in similar positions (though hopefully not as stark), where neither we nor they can imagine the future contexts and legacies of their digital learning data, but we’re not giving them the option to be redacted – to have control over their own delete key. And again I don’t have an answer but neither can I think of better people to ask the questions of.

  5. jennymackness September 11, 2015 / 7:26 pm

    Thank you Catherine. It would be really interesting to know how keynotes such as these do impact on ethical practice and action in real terms. I wrote the post because it occurred to me that thinking in terms of micro and macro might be a way of thinking about the design of an open course or MOOC.

  6. Glenyan September 11, 2015 / 9:07 pm

    Hi Jenny, nice post. I often think about the difference between education in context (applied) and out of context (in and of itself), and get frustrated. I like the terms macro and micro as you use them here, and maybe will start thinking like this – it seems to make more sense. Thanks.

    While reading your description of Jonathan’s keynote, I kept trying to compare the photograph/image distinction to language. Where the photo is the sentence, the paragraph…the representation; and the image is the word itself. I don’t know if the image/word comparison holds up, but it might in a sense that words have attached meanings and connotations which they gain though social negotiation, experience. Anyway, just a random thought.

  7. jennymackness September 12, 2015 / 8:11 am

    Jonathan – thanks so much for your full response to my post and in particular for your explanation of the difference between a photograph and an image. I thought I probably hadn’t fully grasped what you meant. I did though understand your point about the power difference between photographers and their subjects and how that relates to teachers and learners, but didn’t express it as well as you have – so your comments are really helpful.

    It is interesting to consider how many different interpretations of your keynote there might have been. I clearly didn’t interpret it quite as you intended, but for me what I got out of it was very thought-provoking and even more so now with your added explanation. I suppose it’s a bit like looking at a photograph. Everyone will be seeing something different.

    I suppose the big question now is – if everyone sees something different and interprets messages differently, how easy will it be to ensure informed consent even if we can give people control over the delete key?

  8. jennymackness September 12, 2015 / 8:13 am

    Hi Glen – thanks for adding your random thought which seems plausible to me. Hope you manage to get back here and read Jonathan’s comment which has helped clarify some of my thinking and will maybe help you with yours too. Good to hear from you.

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