Admit it… teaching and learning online isn’t easy!

According to Star Trek mythology, humanity’s nemesis is the Borg, a lifeform that strives for perfection by assimilating every species they encounter by injecting nanoprobes into their victims’ bodies and surgically augmenting them with cybernetic components. As ‘resistance is futile’, the assimilated species become part of the Borg’s hive mind, “the Collective”. 

The one species which proves, time and again, to be difficult for the Borg to assimilate is SPECIES 5618 – Humans, who they characterise as weak, highly flawed, and subject to the ravages of emotions such as compassion, empathy, grief and guilt.

Up to the mid-1990s, ‘Humanity vs the Borg’ seemed to me a perfectly good analogy to depict the political divide between democratic and anti-democratic forces and its related beliefs in the value of individualism. The different approaches towards technology used by the Borg and human explorers on Starfleet ships continually maintained a belief in the need to sustain a unique sense of identity. The ‘prime directive’ ensured that colonisation was not their goal, born out of the egalitarian world order that was now a way of life on Earth

But I’m not so sure that the analogy is the ‘value proposition’ which comes through the ‘digital disruption’ of stories arising from our collective and individual lives today? The metaphors ‘trending’ with the 4.5 billion people who have access to connecting and communicating on the internet seems to be much more about ‘war and peace’? We seem beset by stories about the weakening of our parliamentary democracies by idiosyncratic autocrats who use social media and the world wide web to fuel divisions in areas in which we were beginning to make progress, for instance, like in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians? 

It would be true to say that when progressive visions of digital learning are considered along with the phrase ‘digital disruption’, some interesting perspectives are revealed. For instance, according to Neil Selwyn (2013), we should be alerted to “the significant but uneasy relationship between education and digital technology that has developed over the past three decades. Consequently, he concludes that

‘Digital education’ is therefore best understood as a site of struggle and intense conflict. These struggles take place across a number of fronts – from the allocation of resources and maximization of profit, to concerns with epistemology or equality of educational opportunities.

Neil Selwyn

Fifth International Roundtable on Discourse Analysis, City University, Hong Kong, May 23-25, 2013. Now printed in a revised form as a chapter in Jones, Chik & Hafner [eds] (2015) ‘Discourse & Digital Practice’ Routledge

What exactly is the educational problem?

Returning to the ‘Humanity versus the Borg’ metaphor to depict political struggles in education, let me relate to you a pivotal moment in Series 5, Episode 16 of Voyager when the Borg Queen captures Seven Of Nine, a former Drone who has been living on the starship Voyager and undertaking the learning necessary for returning her to being fully human.  However, in Episode 16 we discover than rather than escaping the Collective, Seven’s time on Voyager has been planned by the Borg Queen all along, in order that Seven acquire a detailed knowledge of humans to use in programming nanoprobes which are planned to be released into the Earth’s atmosphere to infect all human life. 

The Queen is clear that with Seven’s help, humanity will be prevented from taking advantage of their chaotic and compassionate ways, which makes them so hard to assimilate en masse. Seven’s reprogrammed nanoprobes will transform half of Earth’s population into drones, by which time, the Queen explains, the Borg will launch an all-out attack and take over the Earth. 

How brilliant a plan is that! The slow alteration of the human condition itself! Unfortunately, Seven refuses of course as she’s already too human for use by the Borg Queen. Nonetheless, both the Queen’s long-term nanoprobes strategy and Seven’s two-year human enculturation both surfaces a problem with education and technology on ‘timetabling’ change. How should we build confidence in ourselves and our students that allows us to know when we have arrived at meaningful milestones?

I explore the challenges curriculum content creators and leaders face with the organisation of meaningful learning experience in the context of a ‘knowledge tsunami’. From Cognitive Load Theory to existentialist threats in the search for truth, all school-based curriculum providers contend within an information-rich digitally enhanced environment. So, ‘the problem’ which I want to focus on is the curriculum writer’s and manager’s ability to perform their epistemological function as ‘knowledge managers’. 

Starting with Why

Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on “How Great Leaders Inspire Action”, last time I checked on 1/2/2020, has been viewed 48,370,841 times. His ‘Golden Circle Method’ for human communications begins with ‘why you do what you do’, after which, he advises, only then go onto how you will help your audience and only then communicate what you offer as a solution.

Remarkably, Sinek’s ‘inside-out’ storytelling speaks to my training in the performing arts and in education. Both have taught me how ‘affective’ responses always come before intellectual understanding. This is because evolutionary forces have hardwired our ‘fight or flight’ response into us. Quite literally, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our emotional responses. Furthermore, how long have we been told by marketing people that the ‘sizzle’ comes before the ‘steak’?

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe.

Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Communicating about the curriculum is now enacted in a digital environment which is dominated by the proliferation of online content. From my experience, much of what is offered promises that because it’s on a platform, a device, an App or webpage, it must be different from past educational materials. However, as Neil Selwyn’s 2007 cautionary tale on New Labour’s Curriculum Online and Digital Curriculum shows, the reality may be far nearer to ‘more of the same’ as

the predominant positioning of digital learning by political and commercial actors is centred firmly around a conservative continuation of teaching and learning. Digital learning resources are being constructed in ways that (re)present the politics and practices of ‘learning’ as they were before-merely in a slightly enhanced digital guise. Thus many of the examined texts act primarily to frame demand for decidedly non-active, non-personalised and non-empowering forms of digital content. If digital learning remains rooted in the structures and power dynamics of education, then there is a danger that policies such as Curriculum Online and Digital Curriculum will serve to reproduce (or even reinforce) existing inequalities.

On the other hand, maybe we should be reading education and technology through a longer view, the longue duree, as Norman Friesen’s history of the textbook and the lecture illustrates.  When a 4000- year perspective is put in place, he argues, we get to see the on-going dynamic between the technologies of writing and teaching that support deep cultural change. It is by looking at the longevity of education and key educational forms, for instance, that he arrives at the opportunity to look at the ‘old’ and most basic media out of which technologies are constructed, such as speech, writing and printing.

The specific forms that I investigate are quite different from what are sometimes called ‘game changers’: new or ‘hot’ technologies (like phone and tablet apps today) or buzzwords (like ‘MOOCs’ in 2012 of the ‘flipped classroom’ later) that admittedly come and go.  Unlike these game changers, my focus is on the game itself: What are its rules, limits and possibilities? What is behind its inertia or, at most, its gradual change? In short, I examine the stability and longevity of actual, persistent settings and methods, rather than hypothetical or desired ones that only  might someday occur.

Norman Friesen: The Textbook and the Lecture: Education in the Age of New Media

I believe the role of curriculum writer and manager holds with viewing ‘the game’ over the perennial appearance of ‘game changers’. This can be seen in the way curriculum leaders participate in the creation of their school cultures by focusing on their shaping and use of documents and technologies that communicate egalitarian, equitable and democratic cultures.

For instance, there are two dominant forms of documents that proliferate official educational websites. The first is the ‘policy document’ supplied by government and educational sector authorities aimed at supporting school leaders in managing financial, legal and pedagogical processes at the local level.  The second is the plethora of online lesson plans and resources that aim to enable students to teach and monitor themselves. Questions around more personalised and differentiated curricula seem inevitable.

Via ‘the long view’, for instance, we are able to see curriculum content produced in schools within a highly disrupted publishing industry.  The latter is due mostly to the ‘democratising’ power of self-publishing technologies that by-pass the gate-keeping editorial process of book publishers and put in place, for tens of thousands of ‘indie publishers’, ways of directly selling to readers on bookseller platforms, mostly Amazon & Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) but also iBooks, Kobo and Nook.

In more recent years, provocations from learning theories such as Reggio Emilia and its emphasis on narrative forms of pedagogical documentation have also contributed to the production of program publications and multimedia exhibits in classrooms. For that reason, in Chapter 4, I have also positioned my experiences of working in a primary school setting and identifying a number of scenarios which, I believe, will benefit from self-publishing to develop curricula which differentiate them at the local level.  

Combining educational and independent publishing experiences has made me appreciate Friesen ‘long view’  to also acknowledge the difficult-to-replace services once managed by publishing houses such as editing, designing and publicity. Add to this, Amazon’s influence for preferring all works to be in multiple formats – print, ebook and audio which, at a company policy level, highlights the concept of a ‘user experience’ being sought by the customer. Nonetheless, as even a casual look at IBIS business reports show, the book publishing industry continues to shrink while the internet publishing industry grows in a substantial way.  I know from first-hand experience, that the young writers we work with are particularly motivated by the sense of control they have over their work.  From that position, they are willing to look for investment and financial backing through platforms like Patreon and KickStart and also from private backers who support their vision for the kinds of books they want to write and publish. At the time of writing this book, the models we have discovered for writers are starting to be tested in schools too.

Self-Publishing Scenarios For Schools

Assuming that Year Books, Newsletters, classroom documentation and other multimedia forms of publishing already take place in school, I focus on five aspects of school-based publishing which I believe would benefit school leaders, curriculum writers and managers;

  • The first scenario works to extend the school leader’s influence as a ‘thought leader’ which in the past has been in the form of essays, journal articles, newsletter articles and school strategic plans. It looks to put the e-book into the publication media mix to focus conversations and dialogue around the school’s vision and mission.
  • The second scenario relates to also supporting the communication of the school’s vision through documents that reveal its raison d’etre, its reason for being. The aim is to create an interactive elearning program based specifically for the school staff to use as a reflective tool to continue to grow the efficacy and effectiveness of the school’s learning principles
  • The third scenario deals with the time pressure of extremely busy curriculum leaders like assistant principals and education technologist who require materials as part of their delivery of professional development. It looks at producing e-booklets or web pages based on Frequently Asked Questions which can then continue to be developed into other publications, including a uniquely authored book on innovative practices.
  • The fourth scenario regards pedagogically interesting ‘school stories’.  These are sourced from teachers and students for publishing on blogs or zines. The process of writing the story also becomes a means for building the individual author’s ‘indie publishing’ capacity.
  • The fifth scenario is the capacity for co-authoring to be a form of mentoring of young teachers (teachers in the first five years of their careers).  While the end product may not be very different from the ‘school story’ scenario, the methodology would not be the same as mentoring processes would draw together foundational practices on how to build a future career in teaching. 
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