Earlier this month I met with several dozen people at Georgetown University to discuss an unusual question: should educational technology become an academic discipline? Carl Straumsheim wrote up a fine account, not to mention the bits where he interviewed me.
The meeting raised some rich questions, and the main topic is quite stimulating, so I wanted to share various thoughts.
The meeting was premised on a sense of recent education and technology history. Organizers noted that the past few years have seen serious growth in online learning, combined with a new look at redesigning digital pedagogy, on top of recent concerns about the quality of undergrad education. The meeting also drew on the recent MIT report about online learning, specifically its call for connecting the emergent science of learning to pedagogical design. (Although the Georgetown group was, on the whole, nonplussed about the very MIT call for labeling people “learning engineers”)
What present work responds to this set of developments? The organizers also drew attention to paracurricular centers, such as teaching and learning campus centers, which they saw as progressive, but not doing enough. Specifically, they needed to scale up, professionalize, and form a networked community of practice. (Is this accurate? I’m not sure, to be honest.) Educational technology could be the profession for taking things forward, but it needs to be fortified with design thinking and especially learning science. In that new form it could become a new academic discipline.
That’s where this meeting took off. I need to say it was ably hosted by Georgetown’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (some yeoman work, seriously) and facilitated brilliantly. Eddy Maloney was grand, juggling more than most humans could handle. The meeting’s organizers asked as excellent questions, and we worked energetically at answering them. That’s what the majority of the event was about.
I admit to being skeptical. I have enough poststructuralism under my belt to view the very idea of discipline with political resistance or at least ironic detachment. More to the point, the components assembled on the table didn’t connect together clearly. Nothing necessarily leads educational technologists to design thinking or, especially, to the new science of learning. Even less leads learning scientists to educational technology. As I brooded to Carl, “it felt like we were duct-taping two worlds together.”
Further, we weren’t fully convinced that there had to be such a discipline. One reason to create one was to win academic legitimacy. This makes sense, especially given IT’s intellectual marginalization in the academy (hint: that’s what happens when you make something a utility). But we weren’t convinced this could actually happen, at least not for a long time. Consider the field of education, which very few outside of it really take seriously. Or consider my duct-tape problem; why shouldn’t academics simply pay attention to learning science (assuming they ever do) on its own terms, in its current housing in psychology and neurobiology?
Moreover, a discipline must exclude, by definition. What would this field lose in the process of formation? For instance, the plethora of “accidental technologists” who currently work in ed tech could become marginalized, and non-professionally-trained but interested and capable people discouraged – i.e., amateurs blocked out by professionalization. Alternatively, the new field could settle firmly on certain approaches to the negation of others. Think of controversies, such as social media versus the LMS, or pro- and anti-gamification. Would the new discipline include all sides?
Over at the IHE article one commentator raised yet another objection:
Kyforever: “The “new discipline” already exists. Why not take advantage of the 200 existing programs in instructional design & technology/learning sciences/educational technology/instructional systems and add the analytics as a fundamental component?”
Perhaps those programs are where this discipline is arising. Notice how many terms Kyforever had to boxcar together. Maybe the discipline is just an act of naming and maybe some basic organizational connection.
Back in Georgetown, I played a mean trick on my collaborators. Before the meetings began I thought that this hypothetical discipline resembled the library profession, with its combination of technical skill, a service orientation, and a sense of its own academic mission and issues. Unusually, I didn’t say anything, and waited to see if the parallel occurred to anyone else. Not only did nobody share the same idea, but not once (in my hearing) did anyone mention the library field. One IHE commentator saw the link, and that’s about all. Which made me sad as a library supporter. This instance of professional invisibility doesn’t bode well for the hypothetical discipline.
However, those same colleagues were more productive than I. They addressed one prompt in particular so very well:
“What are the core questions this discipline seeks to answer?”
(Compare with biology, which wants to know: what is life?)
We broke into groups to address this, and mine offered some solid answers. They are threefold:
- How can academic institutions best improve teaching and learning?
- How should academic institutions position themselves to respond to external changes?
- What are the aims of higher education?
What I like about how my confreres framed this is, first, it connects micro and macro. Answering #1 can occur at any scale, including a single class. #2 drives thought to the level of institutional transformation.
Second, this trio of deep questions is quietly ethical and political in nature. Imagine posing #1+2 to, say, a group of the 1%, and they end up answering by forming a rich kids’ academy staffed solely by Uber-ized adjuncts for the benefit of a hedge fund. That would be a sound answer, formally. #3 forces the designers to be open about the solution. Ethical and political answers to #3 could drive interesting responses to #1+2.
So should this go forward? Must we discipline ourselves?
I hate to play a classic humanities card, but it works here. The question and resulting discussion are interesting and productive enough at the present, without committing to a strategic decision. They summon up good considerations of professionalization, ethics, technology, institutional politics, etc, We can ride with these for now and enrich the field. Then let’s see what surfaces.