Postdigital Education

On the opening day of the University of Edinburgh Learning and Teaching Conference 2021, I was invited to talk for 5 minutes about another blog post: Pedagogy and Technology from a Postdigital Perspective. (Am I meta-blogging right now?). This is a rough account of those thoughts. Note: some of the ideas from that earlier post are re-hashed here.

The earlier blog post was inspired by responses I heard from colleagues, worried that technology might be driving pedagogy, that the reverse should be the case: “pedagogy needs to drive technology”. I wrote the post to express why I think it’s not that simple.

As I wrote, we can’t just choose a pedagogy and then a technology. In fact, technology is part of pedagogy: “pedagogy is the thoughtful combination of methods, technologies, social and physical designs and on-the-fly interactions” to stimulate particular kinds of learning. All elements inevitably shape the ways in which the other elements are engaged with and experienced.

I explained that my worry was less that teachers first choose a technology and then think about what to do with it; and more that they often choose a method (e.g. lecture, tutorial, simulation) before thinking enough about the purpose of their teaching. Choices about technology are then shaped by what is possible and available within an already-constrained conception of teaching.

I think this was particularly problematic during last year’s emergency remote teaching as so many teachers seemed to assume that you have to record video lectures and run synchronous video classes. This was often accompanied by worries that it was difficult to tell if students were engaged (particularly if they had their cameras off). Yet by choosing methods first (e.g. recorded lectures and Zoom classes), we can miss out on teaching practices that might be more suitable to our new and diverse online contexts.

This is a bit complicated when viewed through a postdigital perspective in which nothing is strictly digital or non digital. Rather, anything digital is always tangled up in social and material activity. This view challenges various binaries like online / on campus, or virtual / face to face (see my paper on Postdigital Education in Design and Practice). Digital tech has permeated classrooms, homes and social spaces, and so on campus or classroom education is, to a significant extent, digital and online. Remote online learning, on the other hand, is social and material. It doesn’t happen inside a computer – it is embodied; students sit at desks or in buses and cafes or walk around, some lie in bed. Their bodies, and living and learning conditions, powerfully shape their experiences of learning and what it is physically possible to do.

Talking about digital technology as if it is separate from the material and social activity in which it is embedded makes us susceptible to instrumentalism and determinism. Crudely, instrumentalism is the idea that tools are neutral, and we exercise rational control over them and over the outcomes of their use. Determinism, on the other hand, is the idea that technology drives change, and that tools themselves are responsible for the outcomes of their use. Both hide the importance of the diversity of ways in which people actually interact with technologies, in situations that are also shaped by environment, culture, policy, economics, etc.

Sketch of a model of pedagogy and technology

We need to look beyond binary ideas about modalities (e.g. online/digital/e-learning/virtual vs face-to-face, on-campus/in-person) and beyond methods, to the ways that students’ personal circumstances, study environments, etc., might make some activities problematic and may further increase the drive for students to subvert expectations. For me, this is most usefully thought about through the combination of design and orchestration: what we prepare in advance and what we do on the fly, responding to the somewhat unpredictable subversions and diversions of students. This needs to look beyond scheduled classes and fixed modalities, to the places that learning spills out into informal and asynchronous, holistic activity.

Sabine Rolle, in her own talk, mentioned worries about “contact time”. This is, for me, a problematic term because the value of education is actually distributed across time and across different elements, rather than primarily being about how much time the students spend in the same space as the teacher. An entangled pedagogy helps us see the relational aspects of education—that our choices of methods and technology need to be reconciled with our contexts and those of our students, and the purposes in play.

My hope is that this way of thinking can help people think more freely and creatively about the possibilities within any kind of education, but also more realistically in relation to the constraints and possibilities of their students in their particular circumstances.