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Posted by on Jun 4, 2018

Surfacing Local Practice, Placelessness, And Digital Education

This was originally posted at Panoply Digital. I try to let my ICT4D work feed into my academic work and vice versa and this is a case where my research is directly informed by my work at Panoply. I am part of the Centre for Research in Digital Education at the University of Edinburgh and do quite a bit of research on technology that might have an impact on education: the normal cast of characters like blockchain, AI, VR, learning analytics, mobile learning, and the like.

We do a lot of work on open learning as well and it was clear there was tension between these open educational platforms (like Coursera, edX, etc.) and their use in local contexts, particularly in emerging economies. There is tension there. Open educational technologies are too often framed as a transparent instrument for educational export, keeping (specifically Western or Global North) curricula, pedagogy, and educational values intact whilst they are broadcast to a global population in deficit. This kind of digital education is presented as an agent of liberation from cultural, social, economic, or political restraints, made free by the “flattening out of hierarchies”, the “boosting of individual freedoms”, and the reduction of “centralized controls” (Selwyn 2009). In short, many of these technologies serve to negate local practice in favor of some sort of universal educational practice (largely articulated through Silicon Valley solutionism). We know that the local practices remain, or are reinjected into these technologies through use and community, but the values embedded in the code, in the UX design, in the data collection, are not local.

For example, how does learning happen when platforms, designed with notions of ‘openness’ and a ‘flattening of hierarchies’, are used in an East Asian context of tacit Confucianism, where hierarchy and social ordering play a significant role in any sort of learning? On these open platforms, there is no hierarchy as everything is flattened into a discussion board. East Asian students still actively participate in these spaces, of course, but they are doing so without local practices at their disposal. They are largely placeless, unmoored in a nebulous educational space. Many such examples exist.

We like to highlight these sorts of local practices and projects whenever possible. Angela did in her post on African fintech; Isabelle did with her discussion of a few WhatsApp projects here and here; Eko did in his posts on Indonesia and net neutrality here and here; Alex does routinely in all her posts, but especially here and here for Bangladesh. I would hope all of us do to some degree. Our projects tend to build on local practices, or at least some understanding of what the local practices are, and how any sort of use of technology needs to bolster these local practices rather than usurp them. Co-design with local stakeholders, autonomy and ownership of that design, goes a long way into ensuring these local practices are accounted for. Build community, build local capacity and avid the sort of “placelessness” that digital work engenders (Lehdonvirta 2016), a placelessness that places pressure on local communities.

A colleague of mine at the Centre, Jeremy Knox and I wanted to expose more and more of these types of examples so we put a special issue call out asking some of these questions:

  • How are local educational ideals being fostered and practiced with digital education?
  • How are educational technologies being resisted and transformed in cultural contexts?
  • What (local) learning practices, pedagogies, and systems are being largely unaccounted for in contemporary accounts of digital education?

The last one clearly struck a nerve as we had an overwhelming response, so much so we had to create two special issues. I am speaking about both at the upcoming Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) event in London on 20 July; abstract is below. I and some of the authors who submitted for the special issues will be speaking at the e/merge 2018 Festival of e-Learning in Africa in July.

Surfacing local educational and community practices amidst decisive models of universal educational systems

This presentation will discuss a call for special issues on local practices in digital education that challenge Silicon Valley narratives of universal educational systems. The call produced a very large response that allowed us to form two, distinct, special issues. The first for Learning, Media, and Technology attempts to surface perspectives and critiques that challenge the dominant narrative of a universal technological solutionism by foregrounding local pedagogical knowledge and practices of learning with technologies. This special issue will develop critical perspectives concerning the rise of digital education as a ‘global phenomenon’, and advance much more nuanced accounts of the tensions, compromises, idiosyncrasies, and obfuscations through which digital media is shaping (and being shaped by) local practices of teaching and learning across the globe.

The second for the European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning (EURODL) explores how these local practices coalesce or are orchestrated within communities of practice, which offer rich insights about digital technologies often overlooked by broad accounts of educational technology. The papers in this special issue advance an understanding of technology in-use, by surfacing specific groups, communities and practitioners that have come together around particular technologies, software and online spaces. Both special issues are attempts to foreground learning practices, pedagogies, communities, and systems largely unaccounted for in contemporary accounts of digital education.

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