Pulling threads

Frances Bell and Catherine Cronin are running what sounds like it’s going to be a brilliant ALT-C session this year – A personal, feminist and critical retrospective of Learning (and) Technology, 1994-2018.

Our session is based primarily on two perspectives. The first perspective is rooted in our analysis of the past 24 years of ALT-C — as represented in published websites for later conferences, and for earlier conferences, references to the conference in ALT-J (now Research in Learning Technology), the Association for Learning Technologies’ journal. The second perspective is our own personal histories that both exist beyond that narrative and intersect with it. Our initial analysis of ALT-C has identified Open/Active Learning and Community/Communities of Practice as themes that have persisted over several conferences and many years. We will summarise the themes and trajectories, highlighting how these ideas have been represented within ALT-C, how they have evolved, which perspectives have persisted and which have become irrelevant or have fallen out of favour. In addition, we acknowledge that the personal is political. Our respective critical approaches to this work reflect our own varied histories within and beyond HE, IT, and learning technology. We will develop and share this work in multiple ways. Prior to the conference, we will publish separate and joint blog posts based on our longitudinal ALT-C analysis and our personal mappings/reflections. We anticipate that this will facilitate online discussion leading up to the conference.

Sadly I can’t make it to ALT-C – someone has to be in charge of all the things, and worryingly, that someone is me.  However, I was struck by a number of similarities and contrasts between the two posts and so I wanted to draw out a few common threads as the starting point for my own thinking. This is not an exhaustive analysis by any means! I will also attempt to write and share some of my own story in due course, though some of it may be a little beyond me at the moment:

Inter-disciplinarity, or we don’t stay where we start:

“Another reason for signing up for the Women’s Studies programme was a recognition that many of the things that I loved in life — literature, history, culture — had been absent from my engineering education.” (Catherine)

“But there are also advantages of spanning different fields, sectors, and countries — in my case, working as both a technology professional and an educator, equipped with analytical tools to address power and inequality.” (Catherine)

“Though teaching in a Computer Science department, I became convinced of the importance of human and organisational factors, influenced by my experiences as programmer and analyst, resisting technological determinism before I knew the term existed.” (Frances)

“The 1990s was an exciting time in IS teaching as the Internet extended the scope of IS, prompting us to develop curricula that required additional input of ideas from sociology, media studies, philosophy and other fields, as issues of ethics, gender and power appeared in our curriculum.” (Frances)

Various female selves:

“I remember saying to friends at that time that although I enjoyed my work as an engineer, it felt as if I “couldn’t bring my whole self into work”.” (Catherine)

“Though I had some great male colleagues, sexism was present too. I realised shortly after I arrived that women wearing trousers was frowned on.” (Frances)

“Personally, during the 1990s I lived and worked in Ireland, Scotland, and the US, and continued to engage in political and feminist activism, as well as becoming a mother of two children.” (Catherine)

“Being a full-time mother to three children and observing babies and young children learn taught me a lot about the social and cultural aspects of learning.” (Frances)

Feminist influences:

“Over the next three years, I engaged in a body of work — and a way of learning — that stoked a fire within me. In studying Women’s Rights in History, Philosophical Approaches to Gender, Sociology of Education, and more, I engaged with literature in the areas of gender and science/technology, standpoint epistemology, and feminist pedagogy.” (Catherine)

“I first became aware of feminism as a movement in the 1960s and began to think more deeply about it in the early 1970s when I read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.  This and other reading provoked a lot of thinking about my upbringing as one of four children with three older brothers and a secondary education in an all-girls grammar school where subjects like Maths and Science were less popular but still seen as doable by girls.” (Frances)

Pedagogical influences:

“I engaged with literature in the areas of gender and science/technology, standpoint epistemology, and feminist pedagogy. For the first time, I encountered work by Audre Lorde, Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Cynthia Cockburn, and Paulo Freire.” (Catherine)

“From the mid- to late 2000s, I began to encounter open education — early MOOCs as well as work by danah boyd, Mimi Ito, Alec Couros, Howard Rheingold, Cathy Davidson, and Bernie Goldbach, among others.” (Catherine)

“This period of study and teaching practice gave me the opportunity to explore a range of theories and start to develop an educational philosophy that has evolved through my teaching and learning in different settings and sectors. What I learned from reading and applying ideas from authors like John Holt about how we learn and why some ‘fail’ fostered my interest in Active Learning that I first applied teaching Maths in a mixed sex secondary school and subsequently developed teaching Computing in FE” (Frances)

“Others were also looking back with Vygotsky’s socio-cultural approach enjoying a renaissance in the Internet era.  Other influences for me were Lave & Wenger’s Community of Practice, Constructivism, the work of CSALT at Lancaster (eg this JISC-funded project) and research into community and other informal learning approaches. In 1998, reading Digital Diploma Mills by David Noble was an object lesson in a critical approach to educational technology, alerting me to its possible use in casualisation and labour exploitation in HE.  Currently Hack Education by Audrey Watters is my go to critical space.” (Frances)

The personal *is* political. Stories are powerful things and these stories are important; they provide insight into a bigger political picture.

“..a story is an archive, packed with history: just as an empty field in winter can reveal, to the eyes of an ancient archaeologist, what once grew there, how long ago the forest was cleared to make way for pasture, and where the rocks that were picked out of the land eventually fetched up…” (Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale)

To be a learning technologist is a hard thing to pin down exactly, as recent discussions on the ALT mailing list show. What we can be certain about is that we are a community of diverse practitioners; a community of teachers, learners, experts and scholars, often combinations of these identities in one skin.

Knowing that we possess such expertise, I very much look forward to the deeper analysis of these and the other stories that are told to see what shared themes, concerns and experiences emerge.

And because I can’t resist a bit of mischief and mayhem, I also now wonder what an edtech version of the Guerilla Girls might look like?


(Scheherazade, Arthur Rackham [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

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