Louder Voices and Learning Networks

Posted on June 25, 2011

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There is a stream of contemporary thought (with which I generally agree) which sees knowledge as being largely produced and disseminated by and through networks. That is, networks—social, technical, organizational—are seen as providing the basic framework within which knowledge activities increasingly are taking place and where knowledge workers increasingly are doing their work.

This all seems really quite straightforward and even somehow commendable in that it suggests that knowledge is being disengaged from the older top-down authoritarian structures and institutions which so many have come to distrust or even despise. And of course, these networks are (or at least appear to be) immaterial and placeless—existing or taking their form and substance through invisible wires, the ether, software such as Facebook, or other seemingly virtual products, themselves the outcome of the digital age.

An upcoming conference “Mobilityshifts” is as good as any as an example of this kind of thinking—asserting in a somewhat breathless way that “The future of learning will not be solely determined by digital culture but by the re-organization of power relationships and institutional protocols.” And inviting us, the “global audience” to look forward to a “summit (that) will add an international layer to the existing debate about digital fluencies for a mobile world and learning outside the bounds of traditional institutions of higher education” and present:

  • New pedagogical approaches for learning with mobile platforms;
  • Mobile media for the creation of rich social contexts around learning activities;
  • The future of peer-to-peer learning networks, learning without walls/blended learning, sustainability, methods and social practices;
  • and overall a vision of “The Twenty-first Century University as global learning network”.

But in looking at this array of attractive intellectual baubles I’m left with one nagging concern.  Amidst all this media and networking and mobility what exactly will be the content of this “Twenty-first Century University as global learning network”?  Where will the content come from, that will constitute the “learning” component of this learning network? How exactly will the promise implicit in this statement—“digital learning is increasingly recognized as an important part of development worldwide” be realized in fact, and by whom, and ultimately in whose interests?

I recently published several blog posts, which discussed several studies on the unanticipated impacts of various digital networking initiatives including in one instance a detailed evaluation of an Open Government site/network. A disturbing finding was in some at least of these initiatives, rather than enabling or distributing opportunities for broader or more democratic participation they were in fact, providing additional opportunities for those in the community already influential because of their education, wealth, age and so on to access another network through which to make their influence felt.

The issue with networks of course is that they are presumably open to all. So one must ask—say in the case of the 21st University as Global Learning Networks—will these networks function as the university equivalent of the TheyWorkForYou.com network where it was quite clear I think, that the already influential were using their enhanced capability for information access and digital networking to in fact, extend their reach and make their “louder voices” even louder.

Content certainly won’t come from the 70% of the world’s population who don’t have access to the Internet, the main instrumentality of the emerging global learning network

And they won’t come from the roughly 50% of the US (and much large proportion of the world’s) population that lacks the functional literacy skills to access and use a simple data intensive (e-government) website. They are even less likely to come from the 90% of the African population who can’t afford Internet access even if the rates they were expected to pay were at world levels rather than at artificially high and exploitative levels.

Let’s assume for the moment that the folks taking part in these 21st century university networks are as likely as not to be the kind of people who were invited or found the means to participate in the aforementioned conference. These folks attending clearly have the knowledge, the means, the interest in  participating in the conference I’m pointing to and based on a quick review of their resumes on the website a worthy bunch they are indeed (several them being personal friends or acquaintances).

Even here, I might normally be applauding these initiatives or even taking part myself.  But this brings me to my second blogpost—somewhat tendentiously entitled “The Dead Hand of (Western) Academe”.

The theme of this blogpost was based on multiple discussions I recently had in several Less Developed/Developing Countries with local university faculty recently returned from Ph.D. programs in Developed “Western” countries. These individuals were finding that the skills and knowledge frameworks that they had acquired during their sojourns abroad were in fact unusable and inappropriate to their current circumstances unless they chose to ignore where they were and do their research and provide their instruction in more or less complete ignorance of what they saw and knew of their immediate surroundings.

These individuals had both personal commitments and in many cases admonitions from their governments to make a contribution to local development (in this instance the local use of ICTs particularly in support of rural development) but in no cases had they had the opportunity to gain any useful knowledge in these areas through the IT, Information Studies, Engineering, Sociology, or Economics Ph.D. programs that they had undertaken mostly successfully while abroad.

Of course, the availability of the aforementioned “21st century university global learning networks” would be of considerable value to these folks by allowing them to maintain their connections with their Developed Country institutions and colleagues (that is presumably the objective of these networks after all). But while resolving their immediate personal dilemmas, if anything these would exacerbate their social dilemmas by reinforcing and providing a continuing immediate local presence for the irrelevant knowledge and training that they had just been exposed to overseas and giving them the opportunity to ignore the immediate and living reality of their ever- and often harshly present local circumstances.

Since I published that latter blogpost a month or so ago I’ve had a variety of private emails (and comments on the blog itself) sharing further experiences of the kind I was recounting and extending the discussion to include those closer to home who were looking for but not finding the opportunity to gain some instruction (and of course academic accreditation) from their studies being unfashionably interested in working in Developed Countries with indigenous, marginalized or excluded populations.

Now of course, I’m talking about and with folks who are working in areas close to my own interests in Community Informatics and the circumstances may be different in other fields—but I’m wondering how different the circumstances will be for other areas of academe and particularly in areas that have any relevance to actually doing useful things in the real and “developing” world as suggested in the conference brochure I pointed to earlier.

So my question is, in the context of this emerging “Twenty-first Century University as global learning network(s)”—whose will be the “louder” voices providing the content and context in these networks; what content will they be providing; how relevant will it be to the needs of the excluded and the marginalized; and overall what measures might be in place to ensure that the softer and weaker voices—those representing the urban and rural poor, indigenous people in both Developed but particularly in Developing Countries; the landless and the migrants—are in fact heard and responded to and even given value, legitimacy and resonance within these networks.

As things stand I see little recognition that there is even a potential problem here let alone attention being given to measures that might balance the volume as between those with influence and those without, those with resources and those with few, those who can speak with clarity and amplification and those whose voices are muffled and distorted through poverty and lack of knowledge and lack of the basic attributes of clean water, food, electricity and Internet connectivity.

As “learning networks” grow and expand and become a dominant mode for knowledge development, dissemination and sharing perhaps some thought should be given to the risks involved in giving a further platform to those with “louder voices” and measures put in place to ensure a balance between they and those whose voices traditionally and perhaps even more in this new digital reality have difficulty in being heard.

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