The underlying argument is that current approaches to learning technologies are archaic and stifle effective learning in a modern digital age. Although the term “colonialism” is an uncomfortable one, it is perhaps indicative of the way in which we deploy digital spaces within education. One aspect of colonialism considers that “it is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony”.
If we then take this literal meaning and apply it to conventional higher education technology implementations it does perhaps, on the surface, seem to apply. With the virtual learning environment (VLE) as an example, the power imbalance is clear. The institution (colonial power) owns, manages and services the digital system, providing students (colony) access to it for a limited period.
The control remains with the institution and this affects the behaviour of the learners (as Teresa MacKinnon noted in one of the blog comments).
The VLE lives on
Some have argued for a few years that the VLE is a redundant tool and yet it is still very much alive and I think there are good reasons for that. It provides a managed space, reliable (most of the time) access to resources and materials and also a place to connect learners and teachers. It’s also a common space for all learners which doesn’t require students to create accounts or know how to build websites.
However, it also has a number of weaknesses. It is a closed system, separating their learning experience from the rest of the world. Access to it is determined by institutional requirements and once a student has graduated they lose access to all of that learning (including their own contributions).
In essence it is fundamentally a space where the control is so far removed from the learner that we shouldn’t be surprised students don’t always enjoy being there. The learner’s behaviour to it is predicated by their relationship with it.
If we are to move away from digital colonialism then we must change both the control and the behaviour with regards to our digital systems, but this must be a guided and supported process for both our academic staff and students. If we see “digital independence” at the other end of the continuum then there are already great examples of where this is has proven to be successful.
Most notably this includes the work on a Domain of One’s Own from University of Mary Washington, where students (and staff) are provided with a web space to develop, connect and more importantly own and keep beyond their formal relationship with the institution. This approach of making students digitally independent is about giving them opportunities to manage their own their digital identity and give them an online voice, shifting the control from institution (colonial power) to the learner (colonist).
This concept is part of the much broader conversation around “The Web We Need to Give Students.”
We should totally aspire to the notion of our students achieving digital independence and it is with that goal in mind we must develop our digital strategies. However, there are real challenges that exist if we do not do this in a supportive and guided way. Sometimes those unequal relationships of digital colonialism are purposeful and supportive and believe it or not some students actually like the VLE.
It does in fact have some strengths. It is after all a common safe space for students and teachers, particularly those who might lack the digital confidence to run a domain of their own. But education is about challenges and achievements and so we should challenge our students and staff to become digitally independent.
Our role in developing and deploying any kind of digital learning strategy is to guide students through to that digital independence, not to keep them locked into specific technology and not to overwhelm them immediately with the open web and all it can offer. We must remember that not all students are digital residents and as such forcing independence on them might be as destructive as digital colonialism.
If we are to achieve this then we must make a shift from the technology focused e-learning initiatives of the past to a stronger emphasis on digital pedagogies where we construct the learning relationships and experiences around the person, but supported digitally.
If in this digital age (or post digital age as some are calling it) we consider that the “person” is the key aspect of our decisions around digital and not the technology, then we can begin to make real differences to our learners experiences supporting them to become digitally independent and moving them away from digital colonialism.
“Digital should be seen for what it is: a utility, a conduit – not an end in itself. Post-digital is human congregation, and thank goodness for that."
Simon Jenkins, The Guardian