ICT as Political Action

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Chapter 1 – Background to the research: What is myconcern?

The research underlying this thesis follows an action research approach suggested by Whitehead (1989, 1993) as follows:

  • I experience a concern where some of my educational values are being denied in practice.
  • I imagine a solution to that concern.
  • I act in the direction of the proposed solution.
  • I evaluate the outcome of the solution.
  • I modify my practice, plans and ideas in the light of the evaluation.

The structure of the thesis follows a similar pattern. This chapter sets out the backgrounds to my concerns about the dissonance between my values and my practice. The main themes are as follows

  1. My history and culture make me while I make my history and culture
  2. Conceptual frameworks of my study
  3. The framework of political action
  4. The framework of communicative action
  5. Control and Power
  6. Generative transformation and the ‘New Science’
  7. Forms of the thesis
  8. A living theory of learning

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In my practice as a teacher and administrator I find the people I work with, students, teachers and administrators, are frequently marginalised and silenced and not treated as if they have a significant contribution to make. I believe these practices are grounded in forms of institutional logic within schools that plug learners into ‘bolt down seats and lock–step curricula’ (Cook-Sather 2002: 3). Teachers are similarly controlled by being regarded as ‘skilled engineer’ who guide students through curricula whose form and content are determined elsewhere. Curriculum itself is conceptualised as being held by gatekeepers who transfer discrete packages of knowledge by didactic means (Kleinsasser et al. 1994). The work of administrators tends to be conceptualised in similar mechanistic ways, being regarded as implementing functional events, requiring simple collation and reporting. These conceptualisations are actualised in the instances of frustration that I have referred to previously in terms of students being removed from class and administrators expressing frustration about how they are viewed. Both sets of behaviours are regarded as institutionally unacceptable. This situation denies my values of inclusion and justice. As a teacher and consultant of ICT I have therefore attempted to improve and theorise my practice by engaging with students, teachers and administrators in asking the question: ‘Can I reconceptualise ICT as political action?’ In other words can ICT be used in a way to enable people to exercise self-determination for self-development?

My history and culture make me while I make my history and culture

Two years after leaving school I joined a local community group called the Young Christian Workers (YCW). This movement set out to enable young workers, who were often disadvantaged by their lack of education, to become leaders. It supported us in doing this by using the ‘enquiry method’ or the ‘See-Judge-Act’ method (Fievez and Meert 1974). The method enabled us as young workers to meet in a group to engage dialogically with each other as we examined our daily situations at home, at work and socially. We were encouraged to look for mismatches between our experience of life and what we believed in as Christians, to reflect on these situations, to arrive at actions to be taken and after the action was taken to re-evaluate, reflect again and move on to new actions (O’Neill 1996). The methodology provided us with the means of acting in solidarity to improve our lives as a means of enabling each of us, collaboratively, to become aware of our own situation and the situations of our fellow workers. The method provided us with an approach to examine, analyse and confront the often unjust realities of our lives. It provided us with a means of effecting change in our lives. The YCW introduced me to the ideas of Paulo Freire (1972) and his emancipatory approach to enabling workers to learn from their own lives, to educate themselves by raising their consciousness of their lives and taking action to improve their lives. Although it did not enter my consciousness at the time my experiences within the YCW held out the prospect of challenging the systems that I would subsequently work within and find ways of practice that would be life-affirming for those involved.

Conceptual frameworks of my study

Social practices, including educational practices are informed by different sets of values. Dewey (1997) claims that the purpose of traditional education is passing on the learning of the past to a new generation. Foucault (1977) might argue that it is also about control. De Geus and Senge’s (1997) approach is based on valuing people and building communities of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998). In each case practice is based on its underlying values or logics. The relationship between a person’s sense of being, what the person knows and how the person carries out their practice is important.

My experience of contradiction and uncertainty within my work leads me to provisional answers formed within a web of connection (Bateson 1979). Dialectical approaches accept that life is full of contradictions. However the dialectical theorists have generally spoken about dialectical theory in a propositional way (Whitehead and McNiff 2006: 32). In generating my idea of ICT as political action I am putting my theory into the literature and attempting to transform propositional theory into living theory. By this I mean that my living theory of ICT as political action is based within my practice.

I have recognised that I have used traditional didactic modes of practice and I have been authoritarian and controlling in my work places. In examining my practice and engaging with the literature I began to conceive of the idea that my students might know something of their own and my own practice. This became the first step in developing ways of practising that are more democratic and participatory for those involved.

The framework of political action

In Arendt’s view human activity can be divided into three types. She calls these labour, work and action and she represents these as a hierarchy. Labour is the activity that is not undertaken for its own sake but in order to provide the necessities of life (Arendt 1958: 83). Labour can be seen as those everyday activities that we undertake to get by: those that we do not necessarily choose to do but which we have to do. Mundane tasks like maintaining the attendance rolls or organising the classroom furniture could be seen as labour. From the perspective of the ICT teacher or the ICT administrator running the virus scanner or ensuring the network or email works could be seen as labour. This is effort that leaves nothing behind and the ‘result of this effort is almost as quickly consumed as the effort is spent’ (Arendt 1958: 87). Arendt’s second form of activity is work. If we proceed on the basis of her distinction, the ‘work of our hands’ can be seen as the production of durable artifacts (ibid: 136). People who undertake ‘work’ are often craftspeople and artists who make objects which are durable in the world. A key contrast between labour and work is that labour does not produce lasting goods; but work produces the ‘sheer unending variety of things’ which constitutes human artifice (ibid: 136). In common with many others I have acknowledged the superiority of work over labour and the importance of the ‘work of the hands’ when I encourage students to bring home the clock that they made for the mini-company or the rain detector constructed in Technology class. Arendt’s third type of activity offers an interpretation that could support a transformational view of ICT. She proposes a type of activity which she calls ‘action’ and she associates speech with action (Arendt 1958: 175-243). In Arendt’s view action is a public category, a worldly practice that is experienced in our intercourse with others, and so is a practice that ‘both presupposes and can be actualized only in a human polity’. Action is primarily about the disclosure of the agent in speech and action (Arendt 1958: 175).

The framework of communicative action

While the conventional view is that learning takes place within specific locations and contexts I take the view that learning is not bound by context or location. My learning does not begin and end in the classroom or the lecture hall; my life is the living embodiment of my learning. My thinking is influenced by Habermas’s (1975) idea that learning is part of the human condition: humans cannot not learn in processes of social evolution. This is also my vision for my students and colleagues. Learning is not something that is ‘done to’ them or that they ‘do to’ others; learning is a process that we participate in together. While there is a view that learning is a characteristic of the individual learner, my experience of myself and my students is that the learning that I value is enhanced, transformed and developed by cultural interaction among people.

Arendt’s linking of speech and action has similarities with Habermas’s idea of communicative action. Habermas breaks Marx’s concept of ‘sensuous human activity’ into two essential types of human action: ‘work’ or ‘purposive rational action’ and ‘communicative action’ or ‘social interaction’ (McCarthy 1981: 22). This differs significantly from Arendt’s tripartite division in some respects but Habermas develops rules around speech and action that act as a basis for autonomy and new forms of democracy. For Habermas, ‘work’ is the purposeful, rational use of tools for the satisfaction of human needs; ‘communicative action’ is interaction through which the knowing subject comes to know himself or herself through the eyes of others. The distinction between work and communicative action is essential since it is commonplace to be liberated from material want and still be enslaved in the ideological prison of institutional language. This can be the case in our increasingly prosperous global societies where products provide a good way of life and allow us to be seduced into ‘one-dimensional thought and behaviour’ which works against critical examination (Marcuse 1964).

Control and Power

I have described several activities which changed my practice within school significantly. Enabling students and colleagues to engage dialogically with each other through the medium of ICT is a substantial change from my original inward looking classroom based didactic practice. However, as colleagues and I attempted to change our practice in school we constantly encountered obstacles from authorities. It seems that attempts to promote life-affirming practices inevitably leads to oppressive responses from the proponents of orthodoxy. The desire to sustain itself can lead to organisational strategies of control. Within my practice I found that simple matters like access to a photocopier became very important.

One particular attempt to modify my classroom practice involved photocopying worksheets for use in my class. But access to photocopying was strictly controlled. I was allowed to make 1500 photocopies per year. It seemed to me that school authorities had effective ways of controlling what I do without ever having to challenge me directly about what I was doing. In the event I photocopied them outside of school and proceeded with my plans. With coercive practices of this nature in place I decided that I needed greater understanding of issues of power and control. In order to advance my understanding of the reality that authoritarian forms tend to dominate in institutions and in schools in particular, I needed to engage with ideas around control and power.


Generative transformation and the ‘New Science'

Within my practice my experience of traditional models of teaching and administration is that they are controlling, limiting and closed. In attempting to theorise my work I seek models that are emancipatory, encouraging and open-ended to provide inspiration. McNiff draws on work by Bateson, Bohm, Wheatley and other writers in an area commonly referred to as the New Science in her development of the idea of generative transformation (McNiff 2000; 2002). She describes her awe at the capacity of living systems, resting on a finite number of components, to produce infinite numbers of novel phenomena (McNiff 2002: 56). She uses the example of infinite numbers of faces being generated from a small number of components: noses, eyes, mouths. To illustrate the infinite capacity for possibility she cites the development of an acorn into an oak tree. She uses these biological models as metaphors for personal development – ‘We all have the potential to be more than we are’ (ibid: 56).

The potential that all people have for self-recreation and self-generation can be extended to the area of research. Research has this same capacity for regeneration. Working with these ideas McNiff has developed her personal theory of the nature of action research as a spontaneous, self-recreating system of enquiry. Within this model she is happy to work with systematic processes as described by other action researchers but she has difficulty if these processes are seen as linear or strictly sequential.

Forms of the thesis

In setting out to write this thesis I am confronted with a concern around linearity. Normal practice around writing a thesis would suggest that I should do this in a highly organised linear fashion. However, my learning which I will describe in this thesis, suggests that many matters are understood better as webs of connection where one can jump in at any node and proceed by learning what is relevant to you at that node rather than proceeding linearly from the start, to the middle and on to the end.

The multimedia version of this thesis is presented as a publicly available web site. The design of the web site draws heavily on the ideas contained within the thesis. Central to these ideas is the ‘web of enablement’. The multimedia thesis forms its own web of enablement by using the web metaphor to enable others, students, colleagues and interested others, to engage with my research.

Within the thesis the video clips and computer multimedia artifacts provide the possibility of opening the window on learning undertaken and understanding gained by people that cannot readily be represented in the propositional form of words and numbers. This is not a rejection of the form of words and numbers, it is a recognition that words and numbers sometimes elucidate and sometimes obscure. In some cases the use of multimedia artifacts enable the viewer ‘to be enveloped’ after only a few seconds. The multimedia approach used within the research and the multimedia approach to producing the thesis is recognition of the variety of ways through which our experience is coded. Eisner (1997: 7) reminds us that the selection of a form of representation affects what we see.

A living theory of learning

Having identified myself as a living contradiction I set about undertaking a personal action enquiry. This follows the form set out by Whitehead (1989; 1993) which seems like a highly structured systematic process of observe, describe, plan, act, reflect evaluate, modify. I subscribe to the general idea but I find, in practice, it is a less coherent messier process. McNiff (1988: 43; 2002: 57) addressed the capacity of existing models of planning, acting, observing, reflecting, re-planning to adequate express the steps required in carrying out an action research enquiry. She suggested that the model needed to have the capacity to show multiple problems at the one time. She provided a three dimensional ‘spiral of spirals’ which suggest secondary concerns being addressed without loosing sight of the central concern (McNiff 1988: 45).
To assist the reader let me describe a portion of one of these spirals:

  • I experience a concern where some of my students are not successful in the five subjects usually regarded as a minimal pass in the Leaving Certificate.
  • I hear that there is a programme that these students could follow that could be more suited to their learning styles.
  • I join with colleagues in evaluating the new programme.
  • I work with colleagues to devise an implementation plan.
  • I support colleagues in securing the agreement of school authorities in introducing the programme.
  • I undertake to teach information technology on the new programme.
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