Year: 2022

Technology as a Constructed Reality

Digital technology introduced me to the idea that the world is an inherently constructed artifact. When I was a freshman in high school, my father gave me a blank slate called an Apple ][+. Over the next few years, I kept discovering new things that I could construct with it. When I got to graduate school a decade later, I discovered the work of postmodernist thinkers who were advancing the theory that language, stories, and structures of power construct our realities. These ideas, particularly the constructivist ones, resonated with me, because I recognized in them the same possibilities that I saw with my first computer.

If you can construct a world, you can also deconstruct the one that exists. There are no immutable laws, only human constructions. We can build our worlds anew.

Digital technology augments our ability to understand and redefine reality. By starting with basic ideas of what we are trying to accomplish, we can construct new technologies and systems to achieve those goals. We can work backwards (sideways?) from Foucault to Woz. The needs of the user should always define the shape of the constructed technology. This is the uniting philosophy of my work from IdeaSpaces to the ShapingEDU team’s work with the Teaching Toolset Project.

In postmodernist analysis, language creates and enforces power. How we define something constructs how we use it. Websters defines technology as ”a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.” Douglas Engelbart’s conception of technology expands on this definition:

The conceptual framework we seek must orient us toward the real possibilities and problems associated with using modern technology to give direct aid to an individual in comprehending complex situations, isolating the significant factors, and solving problems.

If we start with the concept that technology is supposed to “solve problems”, we need to look much further than what we would typically refer to as “gadgets.” On one level, everything was high tech once, including the mundane like clothes, pencils, paper, walls, etc. Therefore, we need to think backwards and forwards as we consider technological solutions. On another level, human organizations, from governments to educational systems to corporations, are also technologies.

Adding human organizations runs against Don Ihde’s definition, which rejects “technology equivalent to any calculative or rational technique.” (P. 47, emphasis in original). Distinguishing technique from technology has a rational purpose because it separates the physical manifestation of technology from the mental manifestation of the task. The problem occurs when we become fascinated with the physical manifestations of technologies and overlook the mental aspects of what we use technology for. As a result, we are often frustrated in our tasks by the very technologies we create to fulfill them.

This central conundrum is the starting point of my new book, Discovering Digital Humanity, where I argue that our fascination with creating more and more technologies has overwhelmed our capacity to focus on tasks and to “augment” ourselves. If you want to drive a nail, it’s probably better to employ a hammer than a screwdriver. With mundane technologies, this seems obvious.

However, consider all the technological options we suddenly have for the task of expressing our ideas: pencils, word processors, concept mapping tools, blogging software, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Now take this up a level of abstraction and consider the integration of idea expression into the task of teaching someone else how to incorporate, modify, create, express, and share their own ideas and the complexity of the task of teaching becomes clear.

We need systems of technologies to approach teaching. We should also consider these systems technologies whose purpose is rationalizing and scaling the other technologies. They are ineffective in isolation from one another but share the goals of the original technologies employed.

Let us consider yet another definition of the concept of technology, that of German philosopher Martin Heidegger “as an ordering of the world to make it available as a “standing reserve” poised for problem solving and, therefore, as the means to an end. This challenging of man to order the world and in so doing to reveal its essence is called enframing” (Bijker, Hughes, Pinch, 2012, pp. 47-48).

Heidegger’s definition encompasses both physical and mental constructions of technology. Otherwise it’s impossible to “order the world.” Gadgets don’t order the world. Human structures do. Those structures fail because limited conceptions of technology limit our ability to assess how our systems fail. We like to point our fingers at broken technologies without considering the broken contexts in which they exist. We blame the tool and refuse to look in the mirror at our own failings. Technology failures almost always begin and end with humans.

Systems define relationships. Church and state define marriage, a human relationship. The “rules” of a profession often frames our relationship with technology. Frameworks shape how we express ideas. Environments shape our capacities to use technologies and technologies shape the environment that contains them. These are all systemic relationships.

Too many of our systems, from marketing to “best practices,” drive us toward thinking about technology as a thing that must be treated in isolation. This is one of the mental barriers we have had to confront with the Toolset Project. Most work in this arena takes place within systems of humans whose primary interest is the technology itself. Most of the participants in the brainstorming sessions were technologists conditioned to seeing technology as an end, not a means.

The technologist mindset is not typical of the world at large. The vast majority of humans have been taught to accept technologies and systems that compromise their goals. This is not some vast plot, but flows from this separation between physically and mentally constructed worlds. At the college level, we no longer teach people how to write in the technical sense of the word. We teach people how to express ideas and how to think about ideas. Writing is closely associated with a range of technologies and thinking closely associated with writing, but there’s an element of separation between thinking and technologies that we constantly struggle with, both as teachers and thinkers.

If we are going to create human-centered technologies and systems, we must acknowledge the centrality of the human-constructed paradigms in all our decisions. Constructing good paradigms and understanding bad ones is critical to our ability to achieve any significant goal.

All three levels of the IdeaSpaces framework are constructed paradigms. Space encompasses what most people think of when they think of technology. However, it goes much further than technical objects and includes everything that we might build into a physical or virtual environment. Time, as we understand it, is a human construct. We define the workday, the class period, and even when the sun comes up and down through our constructs of time. Structures are human constructions that establish frameworks, but they are also paradigms themselves. Therefore, just like any other technology, we can alter and adapt them to suit the needs of those who work within them.

There are many who might find this constructed world disconcerting. Digital technology creates a postmodernist technology environment. We are no longer constrained by massive built environments in the same way as we were during the height of the industrial era. We are no longer part of the machine, no longer subject to the factory clock, and therefore should not structure human organizations around these increasingly anachronistic realities.

Now is the time to drill deeply into what we need to accomplish as human beings, societies, and organizations and build up from there. There is nothing stopping us from imagining the shape of new worlds with the vast array of technology suddenly available to us. Being a part of constructing new worlds is why I love working with all the teams of creative minds exploring this terrain at ShapingEDU.

Mending the Meaning Gap

Higher education is struggling with the buffeting that is occurring because of several trends that have been going on for years, if not decades. The release of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Final Report on Enrollment, which showed significant enrollment declines across the board, has stimulated many recent conversations on the present and future health of education. Declines were particularly deep among more disadvantaged populations. My good friend Bryan Alexander analyzed these numbers in a recent blog. The ice sheets are clearly moving here and everyone is trying to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Bryan has hosted several conversations that implicitly or explicitly touched on this data on his Future Trends Forum. In the first, the Forum interviewed the authors of Leadership Matters: Confronting the Hard Choices Facing Higher Education, W. Joseph King and Brian C. Mitchell. Although both authors came from the liberal arts college space, they were concerned about the decline in equity reflected in the 2-year college numbers.

As someone who teaches at a 2-year college, I asked whether they thought the problem was partly a cultural one. Over the past century, we have attempted to scale systems originally designed to educate an elite student body. With growing equity following World War II, the implied promise to the middle class was that they too could join that elite if only they could gain admission to their exclusive colleges. Simultaneously, however, we established alternative tiers of higher education, ranging from large public colleges to community colleges that claimed to offer “the same” quality educational experience.

Despite the best efforts of these next level institutions to ape the experiences of their more hallowed cousins, there was a widespread acknowledgement that they could not hope to match the experience of the older, elite institutions. However, what they did import were the systems and cultures of those institutions. Grades, credit hours, and a general elite mentality that “this is the best way to learn” transferred from the Carnegie systems established in the early part of the 20th century. These systems assumed a general acceptance of “academic culture.” “Rigor” came to imply close conformity to those systems of operation.

However, for most of the new students, these systems were alien. At best, they learned how to “play along” just enough to “get a degree” with little appreciation of what that degree really meant other than opening the doors to jobs. At worst, they bounced off and decided that college “was not for me” and settled (often with crushing debt from their incomplete work) for jobs that did not require a degree.

I see a lot of these students in my courses. They do not know how to learn in the prescribed manner. At best, they have learned a work ethic that keeps them in the game but remained focused on the game of school rather than the task of learning. At worst, they quickly lose interest and stop doing the work, failing, or dropping the class. In either case, the work has little meaning to them.

When I asked King and Mitchell about this idea that the college system was disconnected from the realities of most students, they focused on student and teacher preparation. However, I think the problem is far deeper and more systemic than that. What they were talking about was easing the students’ conformity to the game. What I’m suggesting is perhaps we need to look at the game itself.

Most of us are products of this system and it’s no surprise when people miss the elephant in the room. It’s hard to shift paradigms far enough to where we view our own development critically. We are happy with our accomplishments, and deservedly so.

Some college professors may have risen from cultures traditionally excluded by the educational establishment, but they have done so by adopting the vestments of the new culture. Others, myself included, grew up within these systems (my father was a university professor) and take them for granted.

I think that there is a reckoning happening with this cultural disconnect and that this is a big part of the decline in more marginalized higher education students. They rationalize: “What’s the point of going to college? Everyone I know who has tried    , has dropped out. And they tell me that the kinds of stuff they are teaching there like Shakespeare, Calculus, history, and government aren’t really very useful for getting ahead in life.

So what’s the solution? Perhaps if we break it up into smaller chunks and then monetize those chunks so education becomes like currency, that will make it easier for people to get through the process. This was essentially what the Web3 advocates that appeared on The Forum a week later were arguing. Modularized education is the answer, if only we can operationalize it. People can get exposed to the system in smaller chunks and still get credit for the experience.

There is something to recommend in this approach. One challenge my students face is maintaining consistent effort over a long 16-week semester while life happens to them. Again, this is a legacy of the luxuries of industrial education. If you are living on campus or your life revolves exclusively around school, this length makes sense. Most of my students don’t have that luxury. They must deal with jobs, family, and a host of other issues, many of which have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Disruptions are a matter of course. Life gives them short attention spans.

The problem with Web3 is that it applies an economic logic to something that isn’t quantifiable: what does it mean to learn something? Learning is an internalized process. College changed me. It changed how I thought about problems. It changed how I viewed the world. Web3 does nothing to make that easier for my students. The problem isn’t just one of time. More deeply, it’s the aforementioned lack of meaning in the activities that we ask them to pursue. We ask them to “trust us” that this has value. Arbitrarily assigning extrinsic value to something doesn’t give it an intrinsic value, especially for something as ephemeral as learning.

We can use digital tools to create deeper meaning for every learner, whatever their background or capabilities. The problem is that the Industrial Thinking systems that we have constructed around education do not do this for most students. In an article for Current Issues in Education last year, I described how we could set up systems using the same technologies advocated by Web3 proponents. Instead of using the tools to verify “playing the game,” we could use these tools to establish ownership of meaningful artifacts of learning and connect those to a networked community of learning that extends far beyond the traditional boundaries of any institution, or, for that matter, higher education itself.

Ultimately, we are what we build. We build families. We build ourselves. We build our imaginations. Higher education may help us in some of these tasks, but it is itself only a tool to do so. I tell my students that I don’t teach them. They teach themselves. They probably see this as a shirking of my responsibility to them initially. However, a lot of them discover over the course of the semester that what I mean is that I can’t build learning in them. They must do that themselves.

Colleges don’t educate. They provide resources to help their students educate themselves. Until we get away from thinking that says that you have to be good at college to succeed, we’re never going to overcome the meaning gap that we have created for ourselves. Students will continue to be nothing more than cogs in our industrial wheels. It should come as no surprise when more and more of them refuse to allow themselves to be drawn into the grinder.

© 2022 IdeaSpaces

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑