Knowledge Abundance and Digital Pedagogy
Digital pedagogy takes it for granted that we live in an era of knowledge abundance. Part of the revolutionary character of digital has been its making available an abundance of knowledge for those fortunate enough to be on the right side of the digital divide. This is a game-changer for education, apparently, destroying the legitimation for traditional educational organisations (like brick and mortar schools).
According to the narrative, there is “a shift in education from ‘a pedagogy of scarcity’ to ‘a pedagogy of abundance’.” The former is a historical inevitability where access to content is scarce. Traditional schools were the places where children were given access to that scarce content by the equally scarce local experts.
One blogger, Elna Mortensen, cites Martin Weller, who describes a model of traditional education that rests on the following premises:
- Expertise is scarce;
- Learners come to the place where the experts are located;
- The lecture is the place for students’ physical interaction with the expert;
- Content – books and journals – are manufactured according to demand;
- Access to content is scarce and only accessible through libraries.
Something is here being projected back onto a fictional model of traditional education: The idea that content is what really matters. Content, though, has traditionally been less important than form. The idea that education might be about the accumulation of vast amounts of knowledge, requiring the sacrifice of almost all the joys of childhood is, in fact, a fairly recent development. The further back you go, the less concern there was with such content and the more concern there was with form – a form that, it was hoped, might become internal to the character of the individual.
A traditional school of that sort was a place where children were habituated to accept that beyond the narrow circle of family and friends there was a public sphere which had a certain form. Having the children assemble in an orderly fashion and sing Blake’s “Jerusalem” was more important than the lesson in trigonometry that might follow.
The uniform, the school bell, the more formal ways in which others were to be addressed, the rule against running in the corridors, the sports days, the prize-giving ceremonies, the harvest festival, the school trips and the holidays, etc., etc. were never grounded on a scarcity of content, but on a concern for form – on a concern to see a certain form become integral to the life of maturing children. (The concern for form and the idea of the school that goes along with it are part and parcel of the sort of love of a public world described by Arendt in her excellent essay on the crisis of education.)
There is, of course, a lot that could be (and has been) said against the particular type of form that various systems of schooling have tried to establish and their abject failure to integrate it with the life of the individual, but it is important not to lose sight of the immense value of achieving that integration, unless we want to raise a historically specific state of alienation into an eternal feature of human social life.
Although the digital pedagogies of abundance project back their own myopic concern with content onto traditional education, they too retain a certain interest in form, of a sort. They rest rather heavily on the binary of the vertical and the horizontal. Traditional schooling instils a sense of the vertical, which is bad, whereas online education and self-guided learning and networked learning and whatnot are much more horizontal, which is good. But what can appear here to be an insistence upon a rousingly radical conception of form is really the rejection of all public form. No assemblies, no uniform, no communal singing, no bells, no festivals, no Mondays (which also means no exquisite Fridays), no school trips, no ceremonies. Instead the complete freedom to do (or learn, in this case) what you want, whenever you want – which is, in effect, the liberation of life from all form. The idea is pure fantasy, but the resulting pressure exerted to the detriment of form is very real.
According to the discourse to which the digital pedagogies of abundance belong, this is radical – it challenges the status quo and pushes society forward. It is liberating, so it must be progressive, mustn’t it?
What the digital pedagogues – some of whom are more interested in their start-ups than in the education of children – ignore is that this rejection of form, which apparently liberates the individual, unwittingly allies itself to the form-rejecting forces of the market place. The narrative about the threat to liberty posed by a personalised teacherly hierarchy in schools conceals the greater threat posed by the impersonal hierarchy of a globalised market economy, where the law of profit silently rules with an unquestioning absolutism greater than that exercised by the most overbearing teacher. Liberating children from teachers and schools only serves to subjugate them all the more effectively to the barbarism of a market-dominated society.
The form cultivated by brick and mortar schools was never merely something to be imposed on children, but also something that was supposed to be valid for society as a whole. And if it wasn’t valid, the discrepancy could function as a basis for critique. Children touched by singing Blake’s “Jerusalem” together, might later in their adult lives wonder how society lost that sense of purpose – a sense of needing to build something that would realise the hopes of the past.
In practice, the new horizontal to be set against the verticality of the school is not the horizontality of a community that arises with a sublime spontaneity from the pure hearts self-motivated learners for whom the community is the curriculum. No, the horizontal actually gaining ascendance as the old verticality feebly maintained by some schools crumbles is nothing other than the barbarically levelling exchange principle. Beyond the school is not another New World with vast open prairies waiting for a new society to be built, but a vast and Byzantine globalised economy which has already commodified every blade of every prairie on the planet. Rather than giving people a passport to a bright New World, the effect of digital is to give that Byzantine globalised economy access to parts of people’s private lives that were previously inaccessible.
In this post-human world, we need to be wary of ideologies like the digital pedagogies of abundance that seem to herald a liberation of humanity, but which actually function to adapt people all the more effectively to the prevailing inhuman order. And although schools can rightly be criticised for cultivating the wrong kind of form, in this post-human society the insistence on form against the power of a barbaric formlessness is now what is most needful.
Provisional conclusion: Digital pedagogy needs to acknowledge that there is no watershed. Digital, for all the utility of the tech, does not represent an epochal shift from scarcity to abundance, but is, in fact, part of a much longer history in which a thoughtful concern with the form of life is gradually overpowered by forces antithetical to all form. Schools, for all their faults, are places where some vestige of that thoughtful concern for a living form might find refuge.
The supposed quantum leap in the abundance of knowledge merely concerns access to material that may or may not deserve to be called knowledge. And what has this done for the level of knowledge, understanding and comprehension that in-forms people’s lives (and information only has value – not price – insofar as it helps to give form to life)? To what extent has the overwhelming mass of conflicting, distracting or just plain useless information persuaded people that they must make do with remaining ignorant? A digitally-enhanced world is harder to comprehend. The growing abundance of (access to questionable) knowledge has done nothing to advance its comprehension. Comprehension is what really matters when talking about knowledge and the content of education, and that remains as scarce as ever.
That, though, is content, and we are arguing that in the world we live in form is returning as a more pressing concern, as it continues to lose the struggle against formlessness. Brick and mortar schools in local communties, staffed by teachers who are unapologetic about being teachers and exercising authority they know to rest not upon their iron will or their qualifications or their job description, but upon the validity of the form they are helping to inculcate, are essential to that struggle. The attack on schools launched in the name of liberation now that the knowledge they so miserly distributed exists in such abundance attacks one of the institutions that must be maintained, albeit transformed, if there is to be hope of a genuine liberation.
Postscript: Talk of knowledge abundance goes along with a celebration of connectivity and networking, which can sound like a new form for a new and vibrant type of community. What deserves more thought is the fact that mere connectedness (which is fine as far as it goes) is no substitute for the form that is being uncreatively destroyed.