May I Have Some More, Please?

Touchstones to hold digital education accountable for learning

Author: Nishant Shah – 01 April 2020

The corona pandemic confronts us with something completely new. All education digital. This brings with it many beautiful new possibilities. But what are the dangers and limits of this form of education? Does it offer opportunities for everyone or can it actually reinforce inequality and abuse of power? How do we handle this form of education wisely? How can digital education contribute to the emancipation of art education and a safe, inclusive and caring learning environment? We collect examples and challenging experiments that make us think about what art education might look like in the future. Do you want to share your vision? Mail us! Studiumgenerale@artez.nl. Below an essay about digital learning by Nishant Shah, Director of Research and Outreach, and a Professor of Aesthetics and Cultures of Technology at ArtEZ University of the Arts.

In 2003, when the digital was still a new word and the Internet was a new world, I used to work with a tech company as an Information Architect to build remote and online communities. Part of my work was to review proposals from different stakeholders for a competition to build platforms for distributed and blended communities. In those days before the phrase ’ed-tech’ was coined, there were a few initial proposals that were flirting with the idea of online learning. In our final short-list there were three proposals which were all interesting and innovative. Interestingly, all of them were more or less pitching a same concept, though with different constituents in mind. For our 7 member jury, the dilemma was that 1 of the projects had submitted a budget that was five times larger than both the other proposals put together.

Unable to understand this discrepancy, we eventually ended up calling all the three teams together, to see why their plans and estimates were so different. It turned out that the two teams asking for less money were comprised entirely of engineers and managers who were calculating the cost of infrastructure: hardware, software, servers, traffic. The other team was made of educators and learning activists, who were calculating the costs of education: learning resources, teaching, customized attention to students, care practices, and community building. It took us less than 30 minutes to award the substantial prize to the team of teachers. That team taught me two founding principles of digital learning that have stood me in good stead: Do not confuse education with the technologies of information delivery; Do not underestimate the fact that the technologies of information delivery substantially inform the ways in which education is conducted.
These principles have been particularly useful because they help me notice two common impulses that drive digital education without paying attention to the practices of learning:

The first is an impulse to replace in-person education with digital practices under the rhetoric of efficiency and access.

This impulse is driven by technocratic measures that continue to imagine education as merely a skill-and-information transfer, that do not understand pedagogy and learning beyond quantified measurements of information retention. They see the digital as a more efficient system of production, storage, sorting, retrieval, circulation, distribution, and consumption. They prefer it because it is less messy and more subject to regulation and control than the person-dependent education that is as messy and variable as human interaction always is.

The second impulse calls for an ‘easy transfer’ of in-person learning to content and learning management systems.

This impulse is generally championed by authorities who have never stepped into a learning environment. They overlook the fact that the medium of instruction, the environment that nurtures learning, the demands and aesthetics of the media through which learning happens, have a substantial role to play in the education process. They don’t recognize that a teacher is a curator of learning resources and experiences, who connects with the learners to co-create co-learning environments that help the production and retention of knowledge. Thus, all learning is reduced to processes which can then be mapped on to complexity management systems that regulate processes and forget the practices of learning.

In the face of the current Coronavirus pandemic crisis, as educational institutions start shifting to online modes of education, I find it important to learn from the successful digital learning projects that I have been a part of and contributed to. I offer seven foundational touchstones that unpack the politics, poesis, and principles of learning in online environments. These touchstones can help us resist the naturalization of these technology transfers and instead insist that Learning is…

1. … Material: Infrastructure is material, but the materiality of learning is more than the learning material. It includes thoughts, ideas, concepts, intuitions, hunches, creativity, trust, safety, and the joy of being a part of a movement. The physical material is important to learning but it is merely the vehicle through which learning develops. Learning is not the sum total of all the infrastructure, and a digital learning environment needs to be able to capture these ineffable, unspoken, half-thought utterances and traces that become the invisible signposts of learning and education.

2. … Affective: In the current system of learning measurements and outcome driven matrices, we are often made to believe that learning is a rational, measurable, quantifiable process that can be regulated through policies. However, everybody in a good learning environment knows that learning is affective. It has moments of individual epiphanies and collective empathy. It is generative because of bonds of trust, affection, love, generosity, sharing, and caring that go beyond the visible flows of information. An online learning environment that does not make space for affective bonding is an exercise in futility.

3. ... Embodied: More than anywhere else, education in the arts is grounded deep in our bodies. Beyond craft, skill, talent, and practice, are the sensational, sensory, and sensitive modes of learning that are translated in our muscles, imprinted in our brains. The body becomes both the genesis of our learning and the site through which it is materialized. The limitations, endurances, and span of our bodies are critical elements which challenge the learning principles of digital education.

4. … Laborious: Labour is beyond work that is recognized in our contractual obligations. Labour resides in non-productive but critical forms of care, intimacy, nurture, and solidarity. Our in-person interactions are not just transactions that can be mapped on sterile platforms and unforgiving archives. Learning takes up many forms of labour: translation, mediation, critique, and conversation that becomes the scaffolding upon which education rests. A move to the online media needs a recognition both, of the extra layer of work that is required to learn how to learn, to teach how to teach, and to compensate for the physical presences of collective labour that get erased in the individual driven digital systems of monitor and control.

5. … Situated: The universalizing myths of online learning environments that reduce learning into modules of media and archives of formats needs to be resisted. Learning is not only located but also situated, and the situatedness of learning allows for multiplicity of modes of inquiry and ways of being that leads to a diversity of thought, ideas, and actions. The contexts within which we locate our learning has direct consequences on the ways in which we learn and how we teach, and flattening them in the digital world is a disservice to the ambition and principles of what constitutes effective education.

6. … Political: At the heart of learning is expression. And all expressions are political. Effective learning environments encourage expressions that are authentic and creative, in a safe space where arguments can be staged and debates can be rehearsed. This needs spaces that are both forgiving and forgetting, allowing for curious and even unpopular expressions to be uttered so that they can be moulded and shaped around different ideologies and ideation. We need digital spaces that accommodate for these spaces and invite expressions that are beyond a performative archival utterance.

7. … Taciturn: One of the biggest challenges of learning is to be simultaneously unique and uniform. An in-person learning environment enables its participants to recognize difference, to address power imbalances, to listen to the silences and tacit knowledges which are present in our midst. It is important that the digital environments, which only measure the explicit and the documented, make space for the taciturn knowledges and experiences to find voice in the learning process.

When I look at my own list, I sometimes question whether I am against online and digital learning. I am not. But like the Dickensian character who asked for more, I hold that if we take digital education seriously, we cannot shy away from engaging with these touchstones. Once the dust settles over the logistics and logics of platforms and connections, our focus has to be on the principles of pedagogy, direction of didactics, impulses of information, and the love of learning that make us into the strong community that we are. And thus, even as we appreciate the care, commitment, labour and effort that everybody is putting in this shift to online learning, we have to recognize it as a short-term measure; a stop-gap that buys us time to prepare for an ethical, inclusive, diverse, and collective learning practice. Thus, we do not naturalize this current adhoc and unprepared shift to digital platforms; we do not mistake it as a replacement of our learning or indeed even an approximation of our existing education, but take it as an opportunity to unpack and engage with these touchstones and hold ourselves accountable to shaping a collective and caring learning environment.

Nishant Shah is the Director of Research and Outreach, and a Professor of Aesthetics and Cultures of Technology at ArtEZ University of the Arts. He is a feminist, humanist, technologist, working as a researcher, educator, academic, and annotator.