Politics v personhood: #iltaedtech17 conversations

This week’s  EdTech 2017 Conference, the annual conference organised by the Irish Learning Technology Association (ILTA) had the theme: TEL in an Age of Supercomplexity: Challenges, Opportunities and Strategies. Some very interesting conversations have come out of the event, and you can explore the conversation on Twitter #iltaedtech17 or explore the hashtag and archive on TAGSExplorer as well as ILTA’s webpages for the programme and live streaming links with videos to follow shortly.

Last year at the event Audrey Watters gave a keynote talk called ‘The Rough Beasts of Education Technology‘ and at the time Audrey was looking at a future before the Brexit referendum or the Trump administration. One of the themes from Audrey’s talk last year that continued to resonate with me when listening to this year’s speakers was the role of machines in the future of education. Whether it’s AI, AR, VR or machine learning, one of the dominant narratives is one of inevitability, of machines taking the place of human beings, of technology dominating how we meet the challenges of our age. At the same time, there were many sessions I attended that a a focus on up-skilling and supporting staff in the deployment of Learning Technology, with the aim of building competence, confident and leadership.

Reflecting on the keynotes and breakout sessions I find myself exploring the tension between the politics of globalised, technological capitalism on the one hand and how our sense of being a person is defined by how we learn and teach on the other.

I heard of many examples of technology being used to scale up provision of teaching and assessment, to deliver content in more personalised, flexible ways, to collect and analyse data and make use of it to increase retention or enhance outcomes. The use of technology in this context is a response to solving the challenges presented by the labour market, the political climate, the shareholder – and reflects a transactional relationship between the learner and the institution that accredits the outcome. There is a sense of inevitability, of technological determinism, that points to a future in which we as human beings only find a use in education for ‘what we are good at’ or rather for what machines are not yet deemed good enough, like providing guidance or critical dialogue.

At the other end of the spectrum where a range of sessions that were focused on putting Learning Technology in the hands of the teachers and learners in more creative, empowered ways – to enhance not replace human learning and teaching. These highlighted how difficult it is to keep up with innovation and use of technology, how big a challenge it is to address ethical implications or build critical approaches while keeping pace with an ever changing technology landscape. And there were many, many examples of Learning Technology at its best: broadening access, supporting learning, transforming teaching and connecting people. One of these was awarded the Jennifer Burke Award at the conference for the #coolPE project, ‘focused on preparing pre-service teachers for the inclusive classroom in a digital era’. It showcased powerful examples of using Learning Technology to address issues like body image, bullying and confidence.

My own short talk at the conference was about how openness in professional practice in Learning Technology can promote equality. Before the conference I did a lot of reading about efforts to promote equality in different contexts, such as gender equality, pay equality, marriage equality and so forth. After the conference I thought more about how our rights are affected by the decisions of those who control the technology that increasingly shapes our understanding of who we are. These kinds of questions have been explored by writers far more eloquent that what I can write here, but it is important that events like this enable us to reflect as part of a community and continue the conversation.

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