Technologies of Imagination and Learning

Anne Balsamo, in her impressive work Designing Culture: the technological imagination at work, follows Bruno Latour‘s earlier use of the phrase Technologies of Imagination (PDF) by offering her own take on the expression. She sees it as:

…the genre of technologies that serve as the scaffolding and platforms for the education and exercise of the technological imagination….technologies of imagination enable the exercise of creative thinking, across disciplinary domains and sites of expressive practices, through the design of new technocultural learning networks that take place in mixed-reality learning spaces.

When Anne parses the phrase, a couple of her explanations resonate strongly with me. The first:

…technologies of imagination include the social and pedagogical practices that shape patterns of participation in digital networks. As participants engage in repeated activities of network use, they develop new cognitive capacities. When teachers and informal learning designers develop activities that involve the use of online materials and social networking applications, they are also creating technologies of imagination. Pedagogical protocols for the use of online networks are technologies of imagination.

And the second:

…technologies of imagination include the creation of mixed-reality learning spaces such as the virtual spaces that enable peer-to-peer connections. It is clear that these spaces are important places of learning.

Reading this, I immediately pondered how this might relate to one of my own abiding areas of interest, that of learning networks, of network learning, and specifically of the need (as I see it) to move the current reality of open online learning environments far beyond the relatively passive content repositories that they still tend to be (of which Khan Academy is a good example). Few such environments offer much in the way of active functionality to enable users to create structured opportunities for social learning, to set up interactive or participatory sessions, whether one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many or whatever. Even fewer offer any scope for establishing and authenticating persistent groups able to take advantage of the content through lessons, modules or courses, whether in the traditional formal sense or in the sense of self-organising gatherings of learners (as, for instance, in the original MOOC concept).

The language that Anne uses – patterns of participation, repeated activities of network use, pedagogical protocols, mixed-reality learning spaces, virtual spaces that enable peer-to-peer connections – is highly pertinent to my own thinking in this area. Most thinking, and certainly most practice, in this sphere seems to me to be constrained by a ‘content delivery’ model of education, a paradigm that sees curriculum as essentially a body of ‘knowledge’ to be made available or a set of ‘skills’ to be demonstrated, usually structured by discipline or subject, sometimes arranged in sequential ‘courses’, but still little more than repositories of content. Any broader notions of curriculum that might recognise the importance of interaction, of collaboration, of disputation, of pedagogy, or of ideology, are mostly ignored

One common attitude to this is to regard the Web as the platform for learning. However, I take the view that the Web, in and of itself, and for most teachers and learners, is not a sufficient platform for learning (although I have been saying it is for more than a decade now). The Web, and other components of the Internet, can be put to very effective use, I believe, only by a small band of learning technology cognoscenti worldwide. For teachers and learners who are not part of that expert band (and that is the vast majority of them) there are parts of the Web, parts of the Internet as a whole, that need to be drawn together within an organising framework of some kind if it is to be truly useful on any kind of scale.

In the past, the organising framework tended to mean the implementation of a heavy duty portal product, a technology designed originally for deployment in a corporate environment, and which, because of those origins, had to be hammered into some kind of shape in order to fit into an educational environment. These products have tended to be unwieldy, expensive,  unfriendly in user-experience terms, and relatively closed in the sense that it could be difficult to enable new functionality or to pull applications from elsewhere into the authenticated environment. But they worked, and they were all that was available in terms of technological progress at the time.

But the situation has changed considerably in recent years, and I believe we are at a point where that ‘organizing framework’ can now eschew the unwieldiness and closedness of the traditional portal and begin to think of a much more open, much ‘thinner, much more flexible,  certainly much more intuitive platform for learning, one that is so much more akin to using the Web itself, one that can take advantage of today UX developments so visible in the latest generation of laptop, tablet, handheld and phone designs.

I see some exciting work going on in one or two places to design a ‘thin’ and flexible layer of authentication tied to a wholly web-sympathetic UX, creating a lightweight platform that enables users to utilise more or less any application they can grab from the web, establishing groups and communities on the fly, establishing bespoke launchpads of applications for each group or community, and all glued together through some form of federated authentication, in other words, using a single trusted source of authentication to enable one-time access to all the other sites and applications and services brought inside the platform. The best of these currently use, for example, Google or Microsoft 365 authentication to achieve this unified platform. In time, I see these developments move to a core authentication that is not dependent on the big multinational web presences (and not least since the Snowden revelations about the porous nature of any data held by them).

These are developments that will truly enable, I feel, the technologies of imagination that Anne Balsamo refers to when she talks about bringing together ‘mixed-reality learning spaces’ and ‘ virtual spaces that enable peer-to-peer connections’, and when she writes about the ‘social and pedagogical practices that shape patterns of participation in digital networks’.

These are issues I will come back to more than once.