|OLOR Series:||ROLE Reviews|
|Original Publication Date:||15 July 2018|
This review was originally published in Research in Online Literacy, vol. 1, no. 2 (2018).
The classic definition of a disruptive technology is a technology that brings “a very different value proposition” to a marketplace. Disruptive technologies may underperform traditional technologies at first, but eventually they push industry leaders out of the marketplace (Christensen, 1997, p. xv). Although recent scholars have worked to improve upon and refine Christensen’s definition, the key concept remains the same: disruptive technologies displace existing technologies. The potential for digital technologies to challenge current learning technologies is at the heart of e-Learning Ecologies: Principles for New Learning and Assessment. This collection, edited by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis, argues that digital technologies could disrupt the configurations of space, the relationships between teacher and student (as well as among students themselves), text-based forms of knowledge and ways of knowing, and the ways of assessing learning that, taken together, constitute the systems of modern education that arose in the nineteenth century and persist to this day. The authors of this collection, however, do not take it as a given that digital technologies will inevitably disrupt modern education. Instead, they argue that technology is “pedagogically neutral” (p. 1), and as such, will require new forms of pedagogy to disrupt old-fashioned educational systems. This collection invites a productive debate about how technology and pedagogy interact with each. Beginning from the assumption that technology is neutral and that only pedagogy can perform the disruption, however, begs the question as to what role technology serves at all.
Many rhetoricians and philosophers of technology argue that technology is in fact not neutral. Individual technologies are built to support and reflect specific human values. Hammers are good at pounding nails, but not so good at cutting boards. Smartphones provide instant access to other phones and to the Internet, but they do not support extended, distraction-free reading (e.g., Baron, 2016). Similarly, some e-learning technologies support collective writing and revision, while others enable convenient access to course materials. Philosophers of technology, such as Andrew Feenberg (2002), would ask us to take a critical view of technology, and look for the embedded values in each technology. Thus, viewing technology as “pedagogically neutral” seems to hinder a critical assessment of that technology for educational purposes.
E-learning Ecologies is strongest in those chapters that deal with aspects of digital tools that are qualitatively different than their analog counterparts: those tools that involve greater levels of interaction—with oneself, with other learners, with teachers, and with the technology itself. For example, in the two strongest chapters of the book (Chapter 6, which deals with collaborative intelligence and the social dimensions of e-learning and Chapter 7, which looks at metacognition in digital spaces), Jane Blanken-Webb provides a thorough theoretical foundation of both social learning and metacognition in non-digital learning environments. She then explores ways in which digital spaces afford teachers the chance to offer more social learning and metacognitive opportunities to students. But Blanken-Webb goes beyond simply observing that many-to-many digital networks make it possible for social learning to involve more people at greater speeds than the social learning spaces of the print era. She also cautions that “concerns about the quality of dialogue take on a new significance in a digital age in which virtually anyone—and everyone—has the ability to engage” (p. 145). In taking both of these perspectives, Blanken-Webb’s contributions to the collection ask the reader to critically consider affordances and constraints and how they could impact social knowledge and metacognition.
Some of the book’s contributions are more challenging, seeming to operate under the assumption that education will benefit if all its traditional systems (i.e., configurations of space, human relationships, text-based epistemologies, and methods of assessments were disrupted). For example, Chapter 4, which deals with “multi-modal meaning,” seems aimed at disrupting traditional textual forms of knowledge. Indeed, this chapter does offer a provocative challenge to teachers to consider how multi-modal compositions could encourage student learning; however, the chapter starts from the assumption that textual forms of knowledge should take a back seat to multi-modal forms of knowledge. But just because multi-modality offers the opportunity to deemphasize print culture does not mean that we necessarily should take it. Similarly, those chapters dealing with e-learning technologies’ potential to disrupt traditional configurations of space and other aspects of epistemology seem to neglect the pedagogical richness available in the classroom and in existing ways of knowing.
Ultimately, e-Learning Ecologies promises an interesting exploration of the relationships between technology and pedagogy, but it delivers only partially on that promise. The book could be of interest to faculty and instructors that are looking for help in making the shift for the first time to online teaching, but without a stronger theoretical foundation, its usefulness in other contexts may be limited.
Joshua Welsh is an assistant professor in the English Department at Central Washington University. His research involves rhetoric and technology, with special interests in online technical writing pedagogy, intellectual property, open-source software, and mobile computing. He holds an MS (2009) and a PhD (2013) from the University of Minnesota.