Time for a digital go slow? Just what are we doing with ed tech?

This is one of these posts I have to start with a caveat that I actually don’t really know what I am trying to say, so it will probably be a bit incoherent (well, a bit more incoherent than normal!)

Last week I attended the ALT Scotland annual meeting. The meeting was always planned as a hybrid event, and with the national rail strike this week, a few more people took advantage of that option. I did go in person as it was in Glasgow, so I had a low carbon travel footprint. I was originally going write something about the event -which was great – thanks to the organisation of the group co-chairs Joe Wilson and Louise Jones. You can see more about the event here.

It was great to be at a face to face event. Like everyone else I have missed being with people over the past 2 years. Over that time I have also got used to, and benefited from the flexibility and convenience of online meetings/conferences/events. But face to face is always best isn’t it? Well yes and no. During and after the event, I couldn’t help thinking about these words from the University of Edinburgh Manifesto for online teaching:

Distance is a positive principle, not a deficit. Online can be the privileged mode.

I don’t have access to EduRoam so didn’t try to connect to wifi. I was a wee bit late (another online meeting) and so when I got there I just wanted to listen/engage with speakers and people in the room. I didn’t join the zoom room. It turned out that most of the speakers were actually online, and being able to see the chat message notifications ping up on the “big screen” I was aware of missing out on quite a lot.

Now, I know I could have joined the online space too, but I did feel that would have been too much cognitive load for me aka I couldn’t be a**** to scroll through my email, find the link and join – after all I was in the room! So that got me thinking about hybrid teaching (which we did have a good discussion about in the room once the “official” meeting had ended), and just where and what screens should be showing – a screen with a chat window might be more useful than a camera on a person.

When we were leaving the room, a colleague from the college mentioned that the camera on the front of the “big screen” could track eye movements of people in the room, provide staff with data on engagement.

OMFG was the reaction from myself and a few others. Ethics? Data processing? Proxies for engagment – don’t know about you but some of my best thinking has been done when my eyes are closed and/or not staring at a screen. So I was going to write something about that but then I had forgotten about an University of Edinburgh seminar I had signed up for with Neil Selwyn titled digital education in times of climate crisis.

Now I am not even going to attempt to summarise Neil’s presentation, it was recorded and I’ll add the link here when it is available. Neil was very up front about the session being more of a provocation and an opportunity for him to present some “things” he has been thinking about in relation to the climate crisis and ed tech.

Although I am aware of the inequalities around technology and the digital divide, I probably have a bias towards a positive view of the benefits of technology in education. That’s not to say I am not critical of technology use, far from it. As Neil’s presentation unfolded, I did become acutely aware of how little I really consider the environmental impact of my use of technology.

As Neil pointed out, ed tech is actually based on excessive use, an always on culture with limitless data and storage. The irony of listening to that on my super-fast home broadband on my laptop, whilst checking my mobile phone notifications via my “very good mobile data” contract was not lost on my and I was once again so thankful for all the privileges I have. I also had that nagging voice in the back of my head about really needing to find time to work out the costs of getting solar panels on my roof.

Of course over the pandemic the issues of digital inequality and wider social inequalities came into stark view. Yet, the answers from ‘big tech’ don’t really seem to be addressing these issues. That pandemic amnesia (that ability to forget everything that as happened over the past 2 and half years) seems to be setting in again. Being back on campus will solve everything . . .

We can pay lip service to increasing, flexibility and accessibility through tech. Cameras in the classrooms will allow us all to be together. They can even automagically follow “the teacher” as they move around the room. But is that actually what anyone – staff or students need? What pedagogical principles is that supporting? How much energy is that using? Particularly if cameras are also tracking and sending to systems to process potentially vast amounts of data that as well as being ethically questionable might not actually be of any practical use to anyone.

Over the past year there does seem to have been a rush to buy lots of tech and refit learning spaces without that much consideration of how it can actually be used effectively and what its ROI will actually be. It is all to easy to be guilty of succumbing to the big tech promise of shiny, new solutions that cost us more and are ultimately causing us to use more energy (mainly from fossil fuels) that are killing the planet.

So what can we do? Neil used the lens of eco-justice to explore notions of decoupling technology form economic growth. Perhaps we need more “voluntary simplicity” with an accompanying focus on community, conviviality and care – a form of “digital de-growth”.

Of course, this is really challenging. How can we shake ourselves out of our comfortable complacency? If my current digital networks and connection opportunities were taken away, I would be bereft and probably unemployed. I have found online spaces full of positive conviviality and community. Can/could I find a digital equivalent to the slow cooking movement? An approach that would allow me to keep the most important elements of my digital needs whilst at the same time balancing my environmental impact? (Must, must check out those solar panels . . .)

How can we be “realistic but resistant” to ever more ed tech consumption? Neil suggested that perhaps one starting point was to think what might be ed techs version of the bicycle – is it the Raspberry Pi? Do we just need to be thinking smaller, less “shiny”, and be more connected with coding and making? My former colleague Christine Sinclair commented that maybe we all need a “cradle to grave” environmental impact assessment to help us make informed decisions.

Maybe . . . One throwaway comment Neil made was that he always encourages cameras off in online sessions. A small way to reduce energy consumption. That got me thinking of that scary, eye tracking camera – maybe we should just switch them all off too or at the very least have a conversation with our students about them and let them decide.

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