Is digital technology a boon to learner autonomy?
In glowing reports of the new digital technology written by educationalists, one of the most prominent buzzwords is: autonomy. Digital technology is great for learner autonomy, we hear. But is it? Of course, there are a thousand and one new things that you can do with the new technology in school (even if some are just new ways of doing old things – things like keeping records of student progress and, for school owners, increasing the number of students while reducing the number of teachers on the payroll), but does that really mean that the new technology marks some sort of revolution so that now, for the first time in history, learners can at last become autonomous?
To answer that question we need an example of edtech evangelism that might demonstrate the connection between the new technology and student freedom. How about this nice video where Sugata Mitra shows how once a school has the internet the teacher can effectively step aside and let the children educate themselves?
“Children can teach themselves almost anything.”
Firstly, to make one thing clear: we don’t want to flatly dismiss this. Mitra is encouraging the children to do things on their own. This is great. The problem is that Mitra is helping to spin a whole series of mystifications, and he ends up affirming something that, once we see it in a more critical light, starts to look like a new kind of servitude.
Mystifying the new heteronomy
One of the mystifications Mitra lends support to is the idea that the only threat to our freedom comes from people. Flesh and blood tyrants are the only enemies of freedom, and in education the tyrants are the teachers – those megalomaniacs who insist on telling the students what the answers are.
To begin to see through this mystification let’s look again at what happens in the video. We see the children being given the question: “Why do we dream?” Then we see them typing those exact words into Google and looking for the answer. Hasn’t the all-knowing Google here replaced the all-knowing teacher? If the sage on the classroom stage is bad, how can the sage online be good? Is there such a colossal difference between the heteronomy perpetuated by the worst teachers and that perpetuated by Google?
Mystifying the past
People who ought to know better – people like Sir Ken Robinson – peddle a massive over-simplification between a terrible past in which education was industrialised, and a bright new future where education will be personalised, thanks to the new technology. But if we look again at Mitra’s fact-finding students using Google to answer the teacher’s questions, we see a form of learning that is much poorer than a lot of what we were doing in school in the bad old days. Take science, for instance. In our nasty, gulag-like schools in the UK we were learning science by conducting our own experiments. Surely that is heaps better than just looking the answers up online?
Cognitive proletarians: free but dispossessed
At times Mitra is alarmingly candid – he blurts out things that any half-decent PR team would urge him to keep quiet about. For instance, he says: “If the stuff is on Google, why do you need to stuff it into your head?” Now that really helps us flesh out what learner autonomy might become in the digital age. There will be no point actually learning anything any longer because it will already be on the internet. All you need to learn is how to access and evaluate the information.
It is hard to resist drawing a parallel here with the market economy. Mitra’s autonomous but ignorant fact-finders are in a similar position to the autonomous but dispossessed proletarians. The proletarian is free to do work of his own choosing but he has been dispossessed of the means of production that are an essential part of that work. In a parallel way, the digital learner is free to find bits of knowledge, but he has been dispossessed of all knowledge, which is now stored online.
Because of this proletarianisation of the learner, Mitra comes close to affirming the exact opposite of what he intends. He wants to affirm that the learner is not a tabula rasa. Learning happens when the learner reconstructs the knowledge for him or herself. But because the knowledge is already on the internet it is easy for learners to feel that there is no point in bothering with the difficult work of reconstruction, and Mitra himself asks: “Why bother?” But when the learners are happy to selectively copy and paste, rather than reconstructing the knowledge and making it their own, they start to approximate the dreaded tabula rasa.
Concealing the attack on local forms of autonomy
When Mitra foregrounds online learning he pushes local forms of learning way, way into the background. These are forms of learning and knowing that have their own kind of autonomy (admittedly not the liberal sort that Mitra likes). The traditional communities, like those in India that Mitra wants to see get connected to the internet, are repositories of knowledge accumulated over generations and passed down by word of mouth. Here the children learn the proper ways to speak, to dance, to kill, etc., etc. learning from flesh and blood Experts – knowledge sustained without the massive panoply of generators, fibre-optic cables, servers, factories, and all the rest of the machinery and business needed to keep the electronic collective memory stored and functioning. That local knowing is their knowing – a knowing that is part of their being – not the disembodied, weightless, meaningless knowing stored on the global internet. Without even coming into view as something to be considered – as a repository that might contain something valuable – the local forms of knowing are dismissed, and the children are encouraged to turn their backs on the old ways and depend henceforth on the internet for their learning. And this is part of their dispossession – the dispossession that is the flip side of their liberation.
Autonomy: easy or hard?
One final mystification: the idea that autonomy is easy. This is the same idea seen in the liberal natural rights discourse (which talks of people being born free). The children are free, so all the teacher needs to do is let them exercise their freedom, and what better way to do that than let them find the answers to questions online. No. This is a mystification of how hard real autonomy is – the autonomy evident in an independently minded individual for whom freedom has become a guiding principle. Such autonomy is difficult to achieve. Teachers and schools that are serious about it need an entire curriculum to achieve it. In the process, they will be doing the opposite of what Mitra suggests: they will be teaching more, not less.
Let me pick out a few elements of that curriculum and, in passing, consider the contribution of the new technology.
Autonomy and the love of learning
The autonomous learner has to believe that learning matters. Does the internet help or hinder that? Obviously it is a huge hindrance. The internet is great at encouraging young people to play games, to chat, to watch videos and to shop (see the stats). It’s not so hot at encouraging them to learn something beyond the mechanics of life online and to explore the world that they live in and have inherited.
Clearly, in a world dominated by media that channel the child’s natural inquisitiveness into areas that are of almost zero educational significance, we need teachers who can create the impression that their subjects are things of wonder – things that call out to be investigated and explored. In other cases, it might be better to present the phenomenon to be studied as something mysterious, or disturbing or outrageous – as, in short, something questionable. The hope is that the students begin asking their own questions. Asking their own questions! Now that would be an autonomy beyond the one Mitra describes.
Autonomy and a stronger sense of the subject
Students on the road to autonomy need a deeper understanding of themselves as beings who can make sense of the world. For this it might be easier to leave aside the facts that Mitra has his students chasing, and look instead at things like literature – original texts carefully chosen by the teacher as being just sufficiently challenging for the students (and chosen also because the summaries are not already on SparkNotes.com). “What do you make of the text?” the teacher will ask. Prompted by questions of that sort, the student – no longer a cognitive proletarian – might start to get a sense of her full intellectual power.
Similarly, to be edged further along the road to autonomy, learners will have to be asked again and again about their experiences. A better teacher than Mitra would have begun his lesson on dreams by asking the students about their dreams, letting the students feel the importance of them having their own ideas and having their own perspective on the matter being discussed.
Autonomy and being productive
Autonomous students need to be productive – they need to enjoy producing pieces of work. Of course, at first sight, the internet widens the opportunities for publishing work, but it can also create a sense of the complete futility of it. The sheer size of the internet, which can initially seem such a plus, can end up being discouraging. It easily becomes a question of numbers, and when I think of the miniscule number of online netizens who will see my little piece of work, I start to wonder why I bother publishing anything. To counteract this, teachers and schools need to keep on doing what they were doing before: creating their own audiences for the students’ work, even when it is published online.
Autonomy and the conscience
Autonomy is nothing without the super-ego – that little tyrant within us. Here, the internet is a bad influence. For instance, it sends out a clear message to young people that whatever they publish online needs to be short, snappy and easily digestible. It is also a place that rewards copying (sharing on the social media and retweeting tweets (the sign of their success) is effectively copying). Here teachers and schools need to intervene and insist that work that is par for the course online is just not good enough. They have to inspire their students to produce work of greater length, or depth, or subtlety or nuance. Work that has been pieced together from stuff found online will not be accepted. Schools will have to praise and reward work that shows originality and signs of an independent mind. This is something that is neither valued online, nor is it spontaneously valued by the children themselves. In many cases, some benevolent tyranny from the teacher might usefully awaken this sort of conscience in the student.
In other ways, too, the teacher concerned about autonomy will find herself challenging the culture disseminated by the internet. The taste for randomness spun as something progressive by edtech entrepreneurs like Marc Prensky is but the flip side of a loss of the ability to concentrate – and the internet, with all its distractions, is the enemy of concentration. With his own brand of uncritical and undivergent thinking, Prensky just accepts this as a fact of the new digital native, but no one can be independently minded if they can’t sustain a thought long enough to develop the argument to which it belongs. Here, especially, we need more teaching and a concerted opposition to the pernicious influences of the internet, all for the sake of autonomy – the autonomy of an individual able to switch all that damn stuff off for a while so that they can get to the bottom of something or finally discover something within themselves.
Autonomy and peer pressure
The nonsense perpetuated by peer groups cannot be left unchallenged. Teachers will miss no opportunity to ask students individually what they believe and insist that they defend their beliefs. Why believe such things? Children need to get a lot of practise in challenging the values that they are bullied into espousing outside the classroom. Autonomy demands it. The internet is no help here. It welcomes all regardless of the nonsense that they want to proclaim. Witness, for instance, the popularity on some social media sites of teenagers referring to huge swathes of their peers as “peasants”. Teachers, exerting a little more benevolent despotism, can actually do a fair amount to weaken the heteronomy exercised outside the classroom.
Autonomy and the media
Mitra is happy to see children living their freedom through an electronic medium while remaining clueless as to the influence that that medium is having on them and their world. Isn’t he ignoring things like McLuhan’s description of how the new electronic media cultivate a new tribalism? But no teacher seriously concerned about autonomy would be happy to leave the students ignorant of the huge media environment that is such an influential part of their lives.
Autonomy, agonism and democracy
Ultimately, the concern for autonomy is a concern for a world animated by the ideals of freedom. The shape of that world is a subject for debate. There is no philosophical notion of personal freedom from which the details of a culture and society can be logically deduced. Essentially, this is a political task – the task of struggling together to imagine what a free society might be like. It may be democratic, but saying that simply begs a further question. However, we have to start somewhere, and why not start with the conviction that no individual can be fully free in an unfree society? With that in mind, through our teaching we will want to promote some idea of a free society. Arguably, it also makes sense for that idea of a free society to embrace the idea of struggle, and so shouldn’t an education for autonomy make sure that students become ready to carry on that struggle – making sure that, for instance, they are trained in the fine arts of intellectual combat? If so, the students will also need to be prompted to look at the history of the struggle for a free society, and to think about the best ways of carrying it forward.
Thinking along these lines, some teachers will see the value of establishing an agonistic relationship between themselves and the students. They will not rush away from the front of the classroom as quickly as possible to hover out of sight on the side-lines. No, they will see the value of challenging the students, asserting ideas and beliefs firmly, but letting the students know at the same time that what we welcome most of all is for them to come back and challenge those ideas and beliefs, and have the intellectual strength and discipline to develop their arguments.
Autonomy and meaning
No one can enjoy their autonomy if they feel lost – and here we are talking about how even a grade A student who has excelled in all the standard school courses can still end up feeling intellectually lost. Camille Paglia described the problem well: “Young people today are flooded with disconnected images but lack a sympathetic instrument to analyze them as well as a historical frame of reference in which to situate them…The new generation, raised on TV and the personal computer…has become unmoored from the mother ship of culture.”
Unlike the edtech enthusiasts, for whom digital natives are generally robust , healthy individuals, Paglia likens the digital native to the astronaut in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey “his air hose cut by the master computer gone amok, spinning helplessly off into space.”
Paglia has spotted a huge problem that the mystifying Mitra misses and conceals. When students are sent off looking for facts on the internet it is not hard for them to start seeing which facts are more factual than others, but when it comes to questions of value, they are more than likely to despair or fall back on some unreflective framework of meaning that they have picked up along the way.
Paglia is absolutely right that teachers need to suggest a framework of meaning that ties in with their concern for autonomy. Within the school it can be asserted as something that is both an authoritative basis for discussion, and also something that deserves to be challenged. Only if students are confident that they can make sense of the world, will they have the courage to challenge that world in the intelligent way that it deserves to be challenged.