What it means to conduct a critical study of technology and schools

INTRODUCTION

Ours is a deliberately critical study of schools and technology. But what does this mean in practice? Here are three aspects of our research approach that might not be obvious … and that we need to keep reminding ourselves of as our fieldwork progresses.

 

#1. Thinking otherwise (rather than against)

Being critical of technology and schools should not be conflated with being negative. At its heart, critical scholarship sets out to be a constructive rather than destructive process. Indeed, one of the central concerns of critical scholarship is ‘thinking otherwise’ – what Amin and Thrift (2005, p.221) describe as “a consistent belief that there must be better ways of doing things than are currently found in the world”.

In this spirit, the underlying aim of spending three years studying the realities of schools in the digital age is to develop some constructive, imaginative and (hopefully) important things to say about better ways of ‘doing’ digital technology in schools. Clearly, there are many aspects of technology use in school that are not ‘working’ as well as they could. Clearly, there are many ways in which digital technologies are implicated in the worsening of public education and diminishment of people’s everyday experiences of school. Clearly, then, there are many aspects of schools and schooling in the digital age that require serious thought.

Of course, we should not be hopelessly naïve about the imminent technological transformation of schools … yet neither should we be too defeatist in our conversations and conclusions. As Andy Hargreaves (1982, p.111) put it, even the most critical of research projects in education should aim to offer the “faint but very real possibility of social transformation, along with a glimpse of those places where such a project might be most usefully undertaken”. This is a time to be thinking about the possibilities of small victories, rather than dreaming of wholesale reforms.

 

#2. The researcher as secretary rather than visionary

 Aiming to identify even ‘faint possibilities’ for change is an ambitious undertaking, and requires a realistic sense of one’s limitations and (un)importance. When reading academic accounts of education, it can sometimes feel that the authors are rather too pleased with the prescience of their ‘findings’. There is often a sense that some academics believe that they are revealing insights and ‘truths’ that only they have been able to notice and make sense of.

On the contrary, it is highly unlikely that our investigations will ‘reveal’ anything that many teachers, students, parents and other school actors will not already be well aware of. Teachers and students are not unthinking dupes, and neither are visiting researchers somehow the only people able to recognize forms of oppression that are ‘hidden’ to those who are being oppressed (Banks & Deuze 2009). Conditions of exclusion, exploitation, marginalization and surveillance are all apparent in fairly immediate ways for those who are subject to them. As such, our research is based on the belief that individuals living and working within our case schools will be acutely aware of the crucial issues surrounding schools and digital technology.

This points to the perhaps most useful (and realistic) role that critical scholars can play – i.e. what Michel Apple (2012, p.271) described as acting as critical ‘secretaries’ to those groups of people within schools who are challenging existing relations of unequal power. The secretarial role of handling and communicating information on behalf of others is a neat way of thinking about what it is that we should be doing as researchers within our case study schools. There is clear value in developing rich, thick, detailed accounts of how different constituent groups encounter, experience and make sense of digital technologies within school. There is clear value in seeking out the views of those who are not usually the subject of education/technology research. This includes people in school who do not necessarily ‘do’ digital technology but have digital technology ‘done’ to them (in the form of systems, procedures and so on). These should involve students who do no self-identify as ‘digital natives’; teachers who are not early adopters; ancillary staff whose work is integral to the running of the school but feature rarely in ‘whole school’ accounts of Ed-Tech.

Another aspect of the secretarial role is to facilitate, coordinate and sustain discussion. In this sense, there is also clear value in starting conversations between different groups within our schools, and supporting forms of participation in planning and designing for alternate futures. Our research should not be a case of “telling people how it is”. Instead, we want to be told “how it is” … as well as being involved in talking about “how it could be”.

 

#3. Being open to surprises

One of the key elements to this secretarial role is an eagerness to memo and minute the experiences of others regardless of how their accounts fit with our own pre-conceived ideas and expectations. It is crucial that we go into schools without fixed ideas of what we want to see or how we want to understand the world. This is especially important when encountering instances of technology use that we might like to presume are ‘uncritical’ and/or reductive, restrictive or just plain stupid.

Of course, no piece of research is free of presumptions and preconceptions. We obviously planned this research project with a good idea of what we might find based on our previous 20 years of research in this area. Yet our research activities in this area should not simply be exercises in self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, we need to embrace the possibility of being surprised by what we find and being proven wrong.

For skeptically-minded researchers this involves being open to ‘good news’ and taking people’s positive perceptions of their technology use seriously. It is likely that many of our research participants will make sense of their school technology experiences in useful, pleasurable and optimistic terms. If so, we need to explore these understandings with genuine curiosity and vigor, rather than dismiss them as not fitting our critical agenda. As Banks & Deuze (2009, p.424) reason, the critical imperative can lead academics to position anyone expressing pleasure and/or enjoyment of their digital technology use “as in some sense unaware” of their exploitation.

This is something that any research project needs to avoid. Above all, rushing to any value judgments about the ‘good news’ that presents itself in the field diminishes the complexity of our accounts and, most importantly, severely limits our ability to identify any possibilities for change. As Banks and Deuze conclude:

 “The critical imperative can work to reduce the actors to informants who need to be disciplined and taught what they really are and what the contexts really are in which they are situated. At the crux of this kind of analysis is a traditional understanding of the academic as uncovering what is going on – lifting the veil from the eyes of otherwise hapless participants. Such critical stances and posturing often tell us very little about the material complexities, tensions and opportunities of these co-creative practices. The rhetoric of opposition and resistance can all too often ignore that it is precisely through these commercial networks that both consumers and media professionals explore the possibilities for participatory empowerment and emancipation” (Banks and Deuze 2009, p.425).

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

All these points relate to the overarching need for reflectivity and self-awareness on the part of the critical scholar. As Amin and Thrift (2005, p.221) put it, this involves …

a constant and unremitting critical reflexivity towards our own practices: no one is allowed to claim that they have the one and only answer or the one and only privileged vantage point. Indeed, to make such a claim is to become a part of the problem”.

So we need to go into our case study schools with open minds and a willingness to look far beyond binary conceptions of digital technologies in school as good/bad; liberatory/exploitative; empowering/exclusionary. Digital technologies are all these things at once – in different ways, for different people, at different times, under different circumstances. As such, we need to strive to provide rich descriptions of how digital technologies are being used in schools. We need to think why these uses and practices have come into existence; why they persist. We need to reflect on the broader logics and agendas that support them; and what their consequences are.

These are all considerable undertakings, and we can be sure that there are no clear, easy answers … and even if there were, academic researchers certainly will not be the only people in this study who are well placed to come up with them.

 

REFERENCES

Amin, A., & Thrift, N. 2005. What’s left? Just the future. Antipode, 37(2):220-238.

Apple, M.   2012.   Can education change society? New York, Routledge

Banks, J., & Deuze, M. 2009. Co-creative labor. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 12(5):419–431.

Hargreaves, A. 1982. ‘Resistance and relative autonomy theories: problems of distortion and incoherence in recent Marxist analyses of education’. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 3(2). pp. 60-72.