Brexit, education, the election, and technology

There are a lot of threads coming together in the blogosphere that are helpful as we look for connections between what we do as teachers and what we’ve elected to the White House. I confess this has occupied my mind since the election, even though I was not surprised by the result.

Brexiteers marching in York 5 days before the vote
Brexiteers marching in York
5 days before the vote

Why wasn’t I suprised? Because I was in England during the Brexit vote. I was at the University of Durham talking to students who were afraid of losing their fellowships and their continental relationships. I had dinner with historians who were nervous about the vote, but reassured by the continual press coverage saying Brexit couldn’t win. When they asked me about Donald Trump (this was in June, remember) they wanted the same assurance he couldn’t win. When I said he certainly could, for the same reasons I was seeing Brexit marchers in the streets of York, I depressed a lot of people (even a Scotsman, which I thought was impossible).

At the B&B where I was staying, the middle-class owner said her heart said Brexit, but her knowledge that young people were the future made her vote RemaIN. The woman in the kitchen wanted out. The night before the vote, the London Times confidently announced a RemaIN victory, with lots of cool graphs showing which demographic would vote which way. Then Sunderland results came in, and everyone discounted it because it was Sunderland (depressed, northern). Then the rest of the results came in.

The cab driver, the morning after the vote, told me he was “over the moon” with happiness – he was convinced millions would return from the EU to bail out the NHS. I knew that wasn’t true. It had also become very clear to me that, as the B&B owner had said, the RemaINers were voting with their heads, and the Brexiteers were voting with their hearts, here in a country I had long considered a bastion of rationalism. America is not a bastion of rationalism. We are the nation of independent pioneer types, where freedom is new and still to a great extent untried. We assume, we take for granted — only 50% of us vote.

I’m sure those historians at the University are wondering what they did wrong, in the classroom and with their students. Of course their students, like ours, the ones who voted, didn’t vote for this. But I’ve been teaching for 26 years, not just the past 10 or so. And to a certain extent I’ve bought into the democratic ideals of the Twitter revolution, even as I’ve acknowledged echo chambers and the potential of the new mass media to be less mass, and more media, and to connect crazy people and give repressive ideologies a bullhorn.

So it’s fascinating to read the work of Audrey Watters this week, and to follow her trails. One particularly scary article, for the way it’s written as well as its subject, is Willie Osterwell’s What Was the Nerd?, which notes that white outcast coders and basement nerds may be at the heart of the new rise of fascism (it was certainly refreshing to see someone use this word other than me). Helen Beachem responded to Martin Weller, whom I followed on Twitter throughout the Brexit election. Weller posted brilliantly in September on the “unenlightenment” in open education. His work noted an issue I’ve been following for awhile: the deliberate turn away from rationalism and factual information, something I saw way back in 2008 as¬†Glorifying the Doofus.

What Helen Beachem¬†writes is that educational technology needs to be re-evaluated for its role in what’s happened. She points out that those who are learning successfully online were already successful in education, but that the promise was to do more, to develop everyone as independent learners, to work for a kind of establishment educational plan to counter the new market in e-learning. Taking students outside our institutions, we must be careful:

Suffice to say that when we help students into those unregulated spaces where their learning is unfettered by institutional management systems, assessment deadlines and fair use rules, we are not sending them into the country of the free. We are sending them to the data warehouses of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Weiner.

She also notes that the Brexiteers used social media as advertising, with no one taking responsibility for the emotional response that led to the spread of irrational ideas. She refers to those who live online as “adrenalised and hooked”. The online space itself needs to be interrogated, the culture where we all click and send and message and retweet and like posts — all this has “the illusion of elective power but none of the responsibilities of citizenship.”

Michael Feldstein considers that there are issues of literacy. He notes the political polls that were wrong, and that learning analytics has the same weakness. Data is narrative, he says, and we need to be “literate” (by which I think he means liberally educated, experienced, critically thinking) teachers to be able to make that data useful, and to question it as needed. In this view I see the possibility to reclaim teaching as the experienced construction of narrative that is informed by, but is not dictated by, information, because it acknowledges that information itself may contain inherent interpretations.

I am processing all this, trying to determine where I stand as a community college instructor of History, the one telling my students that nothing is unprecedented. While I have been happy to explore and live in online spaces, I have only rarely asked it of my students. While I have raged against the LMS and other “closed silos” for over a decade, 90% of the online courses I offer have remained in a protected space. Aware of my students’ lack of web savvy, I have asked that online resources be mined, and used, I hope critically. But clearly there is much more work to do.

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