Reflecting before #ALTC : Rear view mirror and forward vision

Objects in Mirror are closer than they appear by Aniket Thakur CC BY 2.0

In preparation for our interactive presentation at ALTC 2018 A personal, feminist and critical retrospective of Learning (and) Technology, 1994-2018, Catherine Cronin and I are sharing blog posts of our personal and feminist histories in education and technology that are sometimes coincident with each other and with the history of ALTC. Here is Catherine’s post.

I first became aware of feminism as a movement in the 1960s and began to think more deeply about it in the early 1970s when I read The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer.  This and other reading provoked a lot of thinking about my upbringing as one of four children with three older brothers and a secondary education in an all-girls grammar school where subjects like Maths and Science were less popular but still seen as doable by girls. My first experience of feminist thought came much earlier as I remember reacting to a nursery rhyme that contained the line

“My face is my fortune, sir,” she said.

Well, that made me sit up – I didn’t like the idea of my face being my fortune, as the young me thought I had a lot more to offer. I reflected on this a few years ago, and reflection has been a friend to me in my teaching and learning over many years.

On my Mathematics degree at University of Manchester in the early 1970s, there were approximately 10% women, 90% men and I was struck by the variable quality of lectures and reliance on PhD students for small group teaching. This experience influenced my educational/ learning philosophy in my practice in industry and in education, as teacher and learner.

I was lucky to be graduating and seeking employment after Equal Pay legislation but the mid-70s job market was slow. Finding employment as a COBOL programmer/analyst with the Ministry of Defence in Liverpool where we lived was a relief. Strange to say, I learned a lot in my COBOL programming experiences about learning by doing, and learning where to find rather than memorise detailed information. A 48 hour turnaround for card punching and programme compilation concentrated the mind on precision of syntax and logic. A missing full stop could cost you 2 working days. Computer memory was a real limit and minimising programme size was a matter of necessity and personal pride. My boss was a woman and I suspect that protected me somewhat from the experience of being in a tiny minority of women in a 1970s Computing work culture.

My next job was with Lancashire County Council, where presenteeism and long hours culture in Computing was the order of the day. Tired of working late to complete unrealistic deadlines, I asked to code an urgent programme amendment over a weekend at home. My time sheet entry was reduced to one third of my honest report of work done away from the office. Though I had some great male colleagues, sexism was present too. I realised shortly after I arrived that women wearing trousers was frowned on. I was good at my job but it seemed incompatible with the family life we planned so I took a PG Cert in Education at University of Liverpool.

This period of study and teaching practice gave me the opportunity to explore a range of theories and start to develop an educational philosophy that has evolved through my teaching and learning in different settings and sectors. What I learned from reading and applying ideas from authors like John Holt about how we learn and why some ‘fail’ fostered my interest in Active Learning that I first applied teaching Maths in a mixed sex secondary school and subsequently developed teaching Computing in FE, learning in my own postgraduate study and teaching IT and Information Systems (IS) in HE for 25 years. I also applied a coding technique that I encountered on the PGCE, and was surprised to find that I was more likely to take answers from boys than girls, reflecting on my own actions and school cultures.

As John Holt showed us from the 1960s, and is still relevant today, learning an algorithm is not the same as achieving deep understanding. Being a full-time mother to three children and observing babies and young children learn taught me a lot about the social and cultural aspects of learning.

Alongside my career break, I taught part-time then full-time in FE Colleges in Hertfordshire in the 1980s, even managing a network of BBC computers as part of my job description.  I took the opportunity of a move back North to study MSc IT. Stimulated by my Masters project on Classifier Systems, I began to explore the possibilities and limits of Machine Learning. Though teaching in a Computer Science department, I became convinced of the importance of human and organisational factors, influenced by my experiences as programmer and analyst, resisting technological determinism before I knew the term existed.

My journey in the 1990s brought me to the discipline that suited me, IS, that has evolved from technical systems that automated repetitive tasks, to technologically- realised social systems within and beyond organisations. I found space and colleagues to help me develop ideas and capabilities in Research and Teaching.

Research:

I started doing research before I arrived at Salford but realised that Salford offered more support and opportunities than previous institutions. I registered for a part-time PhD but, not unusually, struggled to combine the study with family life and a full-time job. Reduced workload was only available in return for publlications and projects which became my focus as a strategy to obtain more time. My publications and project participation grew in the 1990s and into the 2000s, starting with internally funded projects and conference papers in the late 90s and journal papers and book chapters in the 2000s. Funded projects, notably VMART EC IST project 2000-2003, MINERVA – Collaboration across borders 2003-2005, ESRC ICT, the digital divide and habitus in the self-management of heart conditions 2005-2007, ESF Know and Network (KAN) 2007.

The strategy proved useful when I abandoned my PhD (after family health issues), leaving me with more tangible outputs than an unfinished thesis.

Teaching

The 1990s was an exciting time in IS teaching as the Internet extended the scope of IS, prompting us to develop curricula that required additional input of ideas from sociology, media studies, philosophy and other fields, as issues of ethics, gender and power appeared in our curriculum. In 1996, I found that I could practice Open (OER) by Accident influencing my teaching and subsequent research in education and learning technology. For many educators, technology was a route into Open Education but for me technology was an opportunity on my path through from active learning prior to Internet technology to new visions of education. Others were also looking back with Vygotsky’s socio-cultural approach enjoying a renaissance in the Internet era.  Other influences for me were Lave & Wenger’s Community of Practice, Constructivism, the work of CSALT at Lancaster (eg this JISC-funded project) and research into community and other informal learning approaches. In 1998, reading Digital Diploma Mills by David Noble was an object lesson in a critical approach to educational technology, alerting me to its possible use in casualisation and labour exploitation in HE.  Currently Hack Education by Audrey Watters is my go to critical space.

ALT and me and you

The Association for Learning Technology was founded in 1993 as a professional association and learned society. Learning technology hadn’t started in the 1990s, as Tony Bates short history shows us, but the arrival of the Internet and World Wide Web as mainstream in Higher Education in the 1990s influenced those of us who could create web pages to be producers as well as consumers. I firat encountered ALT through reading its journal ALT-J in the late 1990s, and I think that the first ALT-C that I attended was in Edinburgh in 2001, thereafter attending in 2003, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009 (where I gave a welcome on crutches after breaking my leg in Iceland :), 2011 where I was part of a fun and critical symposium , 2017 where I looked at resistance. ALT has been a great part of my learning technology story and I hope that I have given back through being co-editor of Research in Learning Technology (bringing an IS perspective), reviewing, authoring, contributing to programme and research committees.

I am so looking forward to the next stage of our work, where Catherine and I can continue to draw out the threads that emerge from our reflections (and those who participate in person and online in our ALT-C session) and trace them through the emergent themes from 25 years of ALT-C. As Catherine said, the personal is political, and history matters. Let’s learn from the history of ALT and make the next 25 years matter.  Can’t wait to hear from you all – sooner or later.

References

Holt, J. (1969). How children fail. Harmondsworth: Penguin.