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.