Internal coherence : external incongruence

There is ample evidence of a systemic problem in the field of education when it comes to comprehending the social significance of digital technologies, and adapting educational organizational structures to reflect our involvements with digital technologies. I have been conceptualizing the problem of teachers’ ICT perspectives assumed but not prepared as a phenomenon of hidden bias. I am working with Banaji and Greenwald’s work, which explains how the physiological phenomenon of blindspots and blindsight can also be applied to understand hidden bias toward social groups.

A recent example of educational blindspots and blindsight with regards to educational responses to digital technologies and knowledge-age societies can be found in an email broadcast from the President of a large regional university (LRU) in Western Canada. This email announces changes at the university level to implement flexible learning through new learning models and online delivery formats. The president writes, “LRU has long been strong in learning innovation and takes pride in offering a creative mix of experiential learning and traditional lectures to its students.  In areas such as Medicine and Education we are seen as leaders in providing broad access to the best programs through creative use of flexible and distributed options.”

This statement, referring to learning innovation through the creative use of flexible and distributed options in the Faculty of Education, is not supported in fact. For instance, there is no coherent university response with regards to FIPPA legislation and the innovative use of online social resources in public education. Additionally, even last summer (2012), in one of their last courses of their teacher education program, there were teacher candidates who had never used the computer lab at the university for learning in their courses, much less for learning to teach using digital technologies. These teacher candidates were struggling to understand the relevance of learning to teach with and about digital technologies in their teaching practice, much less acting as leaders to guide future social formations in digitized human societies. The President’s reference to “new learning models and online delivery formats” should be a red flag for anyone interested in an evolving education system capable of utilizing digital resources to enhance, enable and enrich learning. The use of the term ‘model’ and the idea of using ‘delivery formats’ speaks to a standardized approach for educational interaction. Institutional standardization is not conducive to flexibility, innovation, creativity, nor criticality. The very conceptualization of structuring the initiative based on models and delivery formats indicates in incongruent conceptualization of the intention of the initiative and the application of the initiative in the real world.

The President describes the strategy for implementing these changes on the university campus as, “…we need to evolve our teaching model further to one that more systematically blends traditional classroom environments with online components, interactive distance dialogues, and small support groups.” However, the strategy to ‘evolve our teaching model’ involves supporting participating faculty in transitioning their courses to this new approach. The strategy is to work with faculty most interested in new teaching methods. The problem with this approach is that it does not address the relational aspect of these changes. It assumes that faculty are simply going to re-write their courses to fit new teaching methods: personalized learning, flexibility, and integrating online and face to face interactivity. The President is assuming the social, cultural, and technological dimensions of these changes are going to take care of themselves through redeveloping teaching programs according to individual faculty most interested in new teaching methods.

Unfortunately, the President is implementing a program approach that has been shown to be profoundly unsuccessful in the field of education: signalling technological change without providing adequate preparation to incorporate the change in teaching practice. According to the President, these changes are being implemented as a strategic response to changes in the field of education rather than faculty initiated change in response to philosophical, pedagogical, and curricular needs. If the changes were being initiated because faculty recognized the significance of knowledge-age society and the need for all educators to take an ethically based responsibility for providing societal leadership in the field, the President would not be implementing this initiative. The President would be scrambling to accommodate faculty requests for flexible, faculty-led, online server resources to support their philosophical, pedagogical, and curricular initiatives arising from their student-led experiential inquiry-based learning approach.

 

If the President truly understood the significance of the change the university needs to undertake, he would not be talking about new learning models, rather, he would be talking about active learning networks, distributed leadership, efficacious pedagogies, and evolving methods of study. Instead, the President is attempting to utilizing existing industrial era hierarchical organizational structures to implement knowledge-based social learning networks. What the President is missing is that these are not simply models that can purchased over the counter and implemented in a learning organization. These are cognitive, cultural, and technological dispositions, that reflect complex dimensions of human interactivity, learning, and connectivity.

 

This example shows how, from the President’s point of view, a coherent initiative is being implemented to address a problem the university if facing. What the President is incapable of perceiving is the tautological self-reproduction of the organizational structure of the institution, which is antithetical to the very initiative and problem the President hopes to address. For those whose tautological self-reproduction are aligned with the President, this initiative is going to seem coherent and logical. What the President cannot perceive is the unexamined assumptions that are forming the basis for the initiative, assumptions that are incongruent to the espoused outcomes of the initiative. The President is unable to perceive the influence of these unseen assumptions because they are operating below conscious awareness. They are so normalized they are unquestioned.

 

This seeming internal coherence, however, can, and likely, will, be experienced as external incongruence by those who face the day to day realities of teaching within the organizational structure of the university. They will not have adequate preparation for these changes because the magnitude of change, the complexity of the change process, and the implications of these changes in what constitutes exemplary teaching are so far removed from the day to day realities of teaching within industrial era hierarchies. These are the unseen cognitive, cultural, and technological dimensions that actually constitute life in the institution. If these dimensions remain in operation below the level of change implementation, they will influence the experiences of those who are attempting to implement the changes, even if they are not immediately understood as barriers or obstacles to real, and lasting change.

 

In this sense, I am applying Banaji and Greenwald’s explanation of blindspots and blindsight operating in hidden bias toward identifiable social groups, and bringing them to help explain why educational change, with regards to the social life of digital technologies in a knowledge-based society, are going to continue to struggle and fail. The internal coherence that has resulted in billions of dollars expended to equip schools with digital technologies only to have them used to reinforce unimaginative knowledge transmission, is still at play in this initiative.

Unfortunately, many people will put their best efforts into making this initiative a success, only to find, in two or three years time, that faculty have reverted to familiar teaching techniques, simply adapting digital technologies to traditional learning activities. The problem facing every educational institution today, is that students have a new power of agency and autonomy with regards to their learning. If educational institutions are unable to significantly adapt to a new reality of human learning networks based on real social imperatives, they are simply going to become an anachronistic institution whose activities are devoid of meaning. What they are doing in that institution might make sense to those who perpetuate the organizational structure and systems of connectivity, but they will appear incongruent to the realities of knowledge-age society facing multiple crisis of human existence.

It is actually not so difficult to implement these changes when one considers ecological formations of learning networks. But the essential structural component of ecological formations is that the participants whose interactivity and communicativity give the ecological system life. By attempting to individualize the implementation of this initiative, the President has neglected to foster the very properties that will transform industrial era hierarchical organizational structures to evolving knowledge generative learning networks. These networks are not formed and sustained through individual effort, they are the result of collective agency enacted through day to day practice.

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