The liberatory revolution of technology in the post-pandemic university – but liberation from what?

Adam Matthews


Technology has long been cited as a disruptor of higher education, and at the start of the pandemic in 2020 a revolutionary attitude was adopted by many. This attitude positions technology as liberator but liberty can be obstructed as well as enacted by many different regulators. 

In March 2020, those who have worked in the margins on new technologies in higher education were thrust centre stage to oversee and orchestrate the new learning revolution which would see flexible higher education maximising the use of digital technologies. A new dawn would emerge from the ruins of the pandemic and technology would be at the forefront. 

In June 2021, the revolutionary mood is not quite so chest pumping and well, revolutionary. I have observed two discourses playing out between the technology enthusiasts in their centre stage role advocating all manner of new technologies to ‘enhance’ learning, and a more traditional conservative discourse around ‘face to face’ being the premium product and online as ‘second best’. As an alumnus of the Open University I am used to the ‘is it a real degree’ question. Some balance in between these two discourses and nuance is called for. In the UK however, non-tertiary education is set to unleash longer days in the classroom, extra tutoring and the banning of mobile phones. This speaks of a more traditional stance which endures within that sector at least. 

As an advocate of digital technologies for learning for the past twenty years, I have become a little weary as to why technologies haven’t broadened access to knowledge and education. Part-time higher education has been in steep decline in the UK, while the three year residential undergraduate degree has remained and flourished despite increases in tuition fees, a culture war against ‘woke’ universities and a global pandemic in which we have all been confined to our homes and the same walk around our local areas for 15 months. 

With the help of Science and Technology Studies (STS), I have reflected on my own naivety that technology would set us all free to access knowledge in a democratic fashion. STS, among many other ways of analysing society and technology, has helped me to move away from seeing technology in education as a mere neutral tool. The post-pandemic university is sociotechnical in that society and technology are intertwined, or, as Bruno Latour said, We Have Never Been Modern

Code is Law – Markets, law, architecture and norms

A way of thinking about the intertwined networks of society and technology was suggested by legal scholar, Lawrence Lessig, in his article Code Is Law and book, Code. Lessig was writing at the beginning of the 21st century in a time of great hope and freedom for cyberspace. In an extended version of the article in Technology and Society,  Lessig uses the example of the fall of the Berlin wall as a an analogy for the new-found revolutionary freedom of cyberspace in the early 2000s – not dissimilar to the revolutionary mood of some in higher education in March 2020. A Cold War dichotomy of freedom from the market or freedom from government is also a useful analogy for EdTech in 2021. Lessig cites John Stuart Mill and threats to liberty as not just emerging from oppressive big government but from markets, law, architecture and norms.

In the diagram below, Lessig looks at how the dot (in the centre) is regulated. I have re-imagined the the ‘dot’ as the post-pandemic university and how the university, academics and students are ‘regulated’.

Based on Lessig, L. (2009) ‘Code Is Law’, in Technology and society: building our sociotechnical future. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press (Inside technology).

Markets

Both EdTech and higher education have become highly influenced and ‘regulated’ or ‘set free’, depending on your perspective, by fee market ideologies. EdTech venture capital has grown 32-foldsince 2010, reaching a record $16.1B in 2020 and the Higher Education and Research Act 2017 in the UK advocates a regulatory framework for increased competition.  Such competition has also become a global competition.

Law

In the UK, legislation advocates markets for higher education and competition. Laws extend to institutional regulation and processes which regulate the degree and how students achieve their qualifications.

Architecture

Lessig uses architecture and code interchangeably to describe the regulatory characteristics of the non-human. Code in online environments regulates higher education with all manner of systems – virtual learning environments, library systems, video platforms, exam proctoring. Lessig uses architecture interchangeably with code because the built environment also regulates behaviour in learning environments on campuses. This idea of architecture is getting more important as the cyber and physical become more intwined in the ‘fourth industrial age’.

Norms

As described above, the on-campus three year degree at the age of 18 remains the norm and is deeply embedded into the undergraduate ‘student experience’. This can result in rejection of new ways of going about education with digital technologies or simply replicating the offline in the online.

Lessig’s analysis of cyberspace in the early 2000s is a useful lens with to look at the post-pandemic university and what will emerge from the global pandemic. In a similar way, Andrew Feenberg describes such a connected way of thinking about technologies as the Technosystem which incorporates technologies, markets and administrations (governance). Ben Williamson describes such connected assemblages and networks as Meta EdTech:

It designates a huge variety of actors (human and nonhuman), organizations (public, private or multisector), material and technical forms (hardware, software, supporting documents), modes of practice (of teachers, designers, promoters), and framing discourses, as well as being a highly varied field of research, development and critical inquiry.

The emerging post-pandemic university won’t be revolutionised by technology alone or by technology automatically and uncritically ‘enhancing’ learning. There is a lot of work to do to shape the future of the university as a social good with many diverse regulators – markets, law, architecture, and norms. Liberty from extreme marketisation and governance is a slow, complex, plod and a game of inches and not big bang ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’.

“If you are hoping that new technologies will be able to radically accelerate human development, the conclusion that change happens incrementally is probably a disappointment. But if you think that global human development is a game of inches – a slow, complex, maddening, plodding process with two steps back for every three steps forward – then Wikipedia is about as good as it gets. New technologies get introduced into complex learning ecologies, and those complex learning ecologies, require multiple changes at multiple levels to take advantage of new technologies.” (Reich, 2020, p. 245)


Photo by Basil James on Unsplash

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