December 6, 2016

Technology, alienation and the role of education: an introduction

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One definition of alienation Image: Reuters

One definition of alienation
Image: Reuters

Is there a problem here?

I live a 30 minute drive from the U.S. border, and like many of my fellow Canadians (and many U.S. colleagues) I have been watching with a mixture of disgust and horror the Donald Trump presidential campaign gathering increasing momentum. However unlike most Canadians, I am not surprised at Trump’s growing success (nor is Canada immune – Rob Ford’s support also comes from the same origins). Trump derives his support from an ever expanding body of people who feel alienated and marginalized by technology, globalization and the growing gap between rich and poor.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the supporters of Bernie Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the anti-austerity movements in Europe, are also driven by increasing alienation due to perceived failures of the capitalist/’democratic’ system to meet the interests of ordinary people. Both sides see government as having been captured by special interest groups, especially but not exclusively financial establishments and the major media and Internet companies.

There is of course no single reason for this growing alienation, but the way technology, and particularly digital technology, has been moving recently is one major cause of this alienation. People feel they are losing control to forces they do not understand. In particular, there is a growing sense that the benefits of technology are going to an increasingly smaller and richer group of people. The public, the end users of technology, increasingly feel that they are being exploited for the benefit of those that control the technology. People are losing jobs and those that have jobs are working harder or longer to stand still.

Dealing with the problem (or challenge)

I plan to explore this issue further in several blog posts that focus particularly on the role of education, and how we deal with technology, both as a field of study, and with its use for teaching and learning. I will argue that educators have a special responsibility to prepare students better for this rapidly changing and increasingly threatening digital world, so students can try to wrest some control and make technology work better for them in the future. I will also be arguing that some potential developments in the use of technology in education could be more harmful than beneficial, and will further increase feelings of alienation, if we are not careful.

This is very much an exploratory journey on my part. I will outline a series of topics for discussion in different blog posts, but this may well change as we get into it. In particular, I am looking for discussion and interaction, an exchange of views, and different perspectives on what I see as an increasingly important topic. The focus will always be on the implications for teaching and learning.

Here is my initial breakdown of topics:

  • introduction (this post)
  • technology and alienation: symptoms, causes and a framework for discussion (next post)
  • skills development and the labour market: are we fighting the last war? (This will include a discussion of competency-based learning, and the difference between skills and competencies – or competences, if you are European), with the goal of better preparing learners for an increasingly hostile digital age;
  • automation vs empowerment in educational technology (already done; maybe some revisions)
  • unbundling of educational services: who benefits; alternative models; privatisation versus state funding; risk management
  • the myth of the autonomous learner: the changing relationship between teachers and learners; creating effective learning environments (partly done); how to personalise learning to the benefit of the learner
  • teaching ‘defensive’ skills: protecting privacy, avoiding monopolies, citizen engagement, understanding and controlling the technology
  • globalization and online learning: think/learn globally, act/do locally; ways to open the curriculum; building bridges with other cultures
  • wrap-up.

Help!

This is starting to look like a mini-course, maybe even a cMOOC, but my thinking is so unformed at this stage that I want to keep the topic and approach as open as possible, and in particular I want to clarify my own thoughts through the process of writing (yes, that does work sometimes). So:

  • do you believe that alienation is increasing/a serious problem, due to the way technology is being managed and controlled? Or am I being paranoid?
  • what topics would you add to this list? Is there anything essential in discussing the topic of technology-based alienation and the role of education that needs to be included that I have missed?
  • can education really make a difference? Can it help prevent alienation – or should it encourage it? Or are we already stitched up?
  • would you be interesting in contributing to this discussion; if so how? (e.g. guest posts; comments; suggested readings/videos)
  • are you thinking: ‘Don’t even go there, Tony – it’s a waste of time!’?

Comments

  1. Thanks for this, I share your assessment that there is something wrong here.

    I think alienation through technology is a serious problem for the generation who has seen their jobs change drastically in the last decade or so. Some jobs to the extend that they are unrecognizable and require some serious skills upgrading, others to the extend that they have been lost to automization while the promise of other and better job opportunities has largely not been fulfilled. For the younger generation the issue may be more one of disenfranchisement through technology but indirectly since many are avid users of social and entertainment media. There are more young people competing for less jobs and they may feel less part of established processes in work places and politics that influence the way we work. This is just a hunch but looking at who the people seem to be supporting the likes of Trump, Ford, and anti-refugee movements in Europe it seems there may be a generational problem there.

    As far as education is concerned, what I think is lacking from the list and the discourse about the use of technology overall is our increasing roles of consumers offering up valuable data in return for seemingly free products. How can we educate people better about the interest of companies and the role of the individual participating in exchanges with them or on their products? Isn’t it irresponsible to make youth consumers and share their private data without asking for their permission? If one cannot vote then their data should also be protected or do young people vote by virtue of their actions using technology and political parties as well as companies making decisions based on that data? If that is so then education about the value and impact of virtual actions would be even more important.

    • Many thanks for your comments, Matthias. It’s good to know that I am not alone in worrying about this! I hope to build on some of your comments in later posts in this series

  2. Tony
    A really interesting post. I share your concerns and agree that educators do have a vitally important role in this situation. Although I do agree with the reasons that you have outlined in the post, I think the situation is complex and there are good ideas to be found amoung the many explanations being offered up from various sources and disciplines. For myself I found this post that looked at a cognitive linguistics explanation interesting, ( http://evonomics.com/no-one-knows-why-trump-is-winning/ ) as is this piece by Umair Haque on the more general rise in fascism ( https://medium.com/leadership-in-the-age-of-rage/why-fascism-is-rising-again-and-what-you-can-learn-from-it-d5b853a7dccc#.gimtc6m4t )

    For sure alarm bells should be ringing and educators do have a role to play.

    As I believe this is a complex and multifaceted problem, any kind of useful response is also likely to require a multi- disciplinary approach and although I agree with you that the alienation of technology is a factor, I also believe that economic and historical illiteracy are factors. I say that while being fortunate enough to work as a teacher educator in Finland, recently named the most literate country in the world and yet also seeing the same worrying trends emerge.

    I think you may also be correct that this is more than a series of blog posts but might also be an interesting MOOC that may even lead to a movement amoung educators, I live in hope.

    Thank you for the post.
    Mark

  3. thanks for great post.
    i think job outsourcing and new life style mixture with new technology create too many marginalized people. The true problem is not why they vote for Trump! The problem is why society marginalizes so many people?
    i think this is not something just about Trump but about media, education and ….

  4. Nicky Lupo says:

    Professor Bates:

    I just came across a news report which reinforced my previous observation that Trump supporters do not fit the crude stereotype conveyed by the mainstream media.

    Liberal pollster Nate Silver performed on the ground research which revealed Trump voters are in fact better educated and wealthier than the American average . This might be of interest to you:

    http://qz.com/679589/trump-voters-earn-more-and-are-better-educated-than-the-typical-american/

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