The Fun We Could Have: Reimagining the Future of Higher Education through Critical Media Studies

Author: Ingrid Forsler, Södertörn University
July 2018

In the well-known 1951 science fiction essay The Fun They Had, Isaac Asimov describes a future of computerized and personalized distance education, where children are being schooled at home by teacher robots. In this educational dystopia anno 2157, two siblings are dreaming about a past where schools were places for social interaction and collective learning: ‘All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things, so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.’

Today, nearly 70 years after the short story was first published, the imagined future of education looks very similar. Adaptive learning technologies promising to ‘map the knowledge and skills of each learner, adapting learning materials in real time and creating an experience that is pleasantly and uniquely challenging for every individual learner’ ( resembles Asimov’s vision of the mechanical teacher ‘adjusted to fit the mind of each boy and girl it teaches’ and the growing hype around Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) priorities the possibility to study from different places and in different paces over coming together in the same physical room and learning together.

Of course, digital technologies can be developed and used differently and for different purposes, and despite us living in an increasingly media saturated society, there is nothing saying that education in the future has to be less engaging, interpersonal or ‘fun’. This essay suggests that media and communication researchers and educators, with a critical and reflective understanding of the role of media in society, have an important role to play in the negotiations of how higher education should be organized in the future as well as what kind of future that education should facilitate.

Sociotechnical imaginaries and the digitalization of education

We increasingly understand and engage with the world through digital media technologies. Indeed, most of our social institutions and domains would be unthinkable without digital technologies and data, a state diagnosed by Nick Couldry and Andreas Hepp (2016) as ‘deep mediatization’. This is true also for educational institutions, where the organization of everything from preschools to universities are dependent on and shaped around media and their infrastructures. The digitalization of education also includes processes of datafication, where much effort is being put into making learning visible as data in order to monitor and compare individual students as well as schools or national education systems (Selwyn 2014). Although ranking processes in and around education are not a new phenomenon, Ben Williamson (2017: 85) distinguishes between older, large scale compilations over time, and the current version of datafication in education where data is being collected in real time about individual learners and used for feedback or adaptivity. In this new mode of datafication, the goal is to make learning more efficient rather than to compare the quality of different schools or school systems. In other words, the datafication of education is fueled by the paradigm that Gert Biesta calls ‘learnification’, namely the focus on effective and individual learning, rather than on the purpose of education (Biesta 2010; Thoutenhoofd 2017). Schools should of course provide knowledges that children and young adults can use in their life today, but must also to some extent predict what kind of competences they will need in the future and, not least, help them develop the knowledges, approaches and norms needed to create or reproduce a certain kind of society. According to Biesta, contemporary education lacks the latter – an articulated idea about the very purpose of education.

The digitalization discourse, on the contrary, is very oriented towards the future. The final report from the Swedish national digitalization board translates ‘The transformative power of digitalization – future approaches’i (2015) and contains 164 mentions of the term `future’. The digitalization of the public sector, like all major infrastructural investments, draws on some kind of imaginary about the future society. Roads and bridges are built to facilitate heavier traffic, thus supporting a future of more communing, trade and cargo transport. In the same way, schools and universities are equipped with digital infrastructures to create subjects with skills and competences enabling a certain future. To discuss the future imaginaries underpinning the digitalization and datafication of education, I use the concept ‘sociotechnical imaginaries’, defined by Sheila Jasanoff (2015:4) as `collectively held, institutionally stabilized and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order, attainable through, and supportive of, advances in science and technology’. Drawing on previous research in political and social theory that shows imagination as a collective practice (c.f. Anderson 1983; Tyler 2004) in combination with the prefix ‘sociotechnical’, the concept is useful to conceptualize the shared understandings about the good society underpinning investment in science and technology, as well as how certain visions and norms are reinforced my material technology.

Sociotechnical imaginaries are expressed in policy, media industry discourse, in the affordances of technological systems but also in utopian and dystopian stories exploring possible futures based on technological or scientific advances, such as the short story quoted in the preface of this text. Although not intended as blueprints for actual technical innovation, science fiction often successfully capture contemporary hopes and fears of future technological development. In other words, they express sociotechnical imaginaries that might be materialized through technology. So, how is the future of education imagined within policy, educational technology discourse and fiction? Are we as educators and researchers at terms with this vision of the future? If not – how can it be reimagined?

The digital university

While the double objective of education – to both anticipate and shape the future – might not be fully articulated in educational policy, it is very prominent in policy documents on digitalization. One the one hand, the future is pictured in these texts as already determined, a more or less amplified version of the present with ever increasing datafication and a precarious labour market with high demands on flexibility. On the other hand, this future is dependent on higher education to provide students with certain competences or skills. Both perspectives can be linked to a ‘modern social imaginary’ (Taylor 2004) of linear development and economic growth to witch societies, and education, must adjust in order not to be ‘left behind’ on the competitive global market. The idea of unstoppable, one-directional development is visible in policy through terms such as the need to `affirm development’, ‘look forward’ and ‘identify areas where the progress risks stagnation’(Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications 2017: 37, 3, 31). With paid work as the main driving force in the anticipated as well as desired future, the main objective for higher education becomes professional training. Digitalization plays into this process in at least three ways:

First, by modifying the course content in higher professional education, and adding training in different digital competences, requested by employers. Secondly, by changing the organization of education to match the needs of a precarious labour market by enabling distance studies and shorter courses for professional development. Third, by making higher education over all more efficient, faster and cheaper. The first two perspectives are well summoned in this quote from the Swedish digitalization strategy:

In a fast changing, knowledge based society, the dialogue between educational system and the labour market is of utmost importance. Higher education must to a larger extent match employers needs for digital competence. /…/ Digital education, making learning independent of time and space, can to a higher extent be used for professional development. Flexible, online education gives greater possibilities to study independent of residence and enables training and further education for those already working. (Ministry of Industry, Employment and Communications 2017:14)

The fact that Swedish higher education is expanding, at the same time as employers in some industries have difficulties to find the competence they need is, according to the same logics, the effect of ‘an inefficient match’ leading to ‘decreased productivity’ or even constitute ‘an obstacle for growth’ (SOU 2015:253). In order to ensure economic growth, the goal of higher education then becomes to produce employable subject in as short time as possible, thus stripping education of everything that cannot be immediately applied in future professional life, including courses read out of pure interest and passion.

This efficiency paradigm also underpins the development, design and implementation of educational technology and infrastructures. The objectives for collecting and making use of data in education includes personalizing instruction to fit the strengths and weaknesses with each student, comparing classroom methods, teacher’s performance, administrative decisions and student achievement to find the most ‘efficient’ combination and to use all these insights to constantly improve and make innovations within the educational system (Williamson 2017:10). This in turn, build on a sociotechnical imaginary where large datasets are understood as more objective and trustworthy than other kinds of sources, and data-driven technologies as being able to see and solve hitherto unsettled problems with education. As David Beer (2017:9) put it: ‘The notion of the ‘algorithm’ is now taking on its own force, as a kind of evocative shorthand for the power and potential of calculative systems that can think more quickly, more comprehensively and more accurately than humans.’

Educators and students operating within this rationality are to some extent deprived the power to define how higher education should be organized by being positioned as users. As Eric Gordon and Stephen Walter (2016) has shown, the strive for ‘user friendliness’ in the design civic digital systems prioritize a certain kind of user, a `rational and self-interested consumer who demands efficient services towards prescribed ends’ and who ‘enters the system in good faith to accomplish prescribed tasks’ (Gordon & Walter 2016: 242-243). The same is of course true for systems used within education. If effective learning is the goal of education, the good user of a learning system is she who uses it as prescribed, willingly producing new data. The good digital system is in turn a system that makes use of this data to make itself invisible, allowing the good user to think less about the infrastructures supporting education. Accordingly, in the Swedish strategy for digitalization in education, technical systems are described as a matter for developers and technical support, not for teachers and students: ‘Supportive functions must be made available to secure undisrupted connection and functioning digital tools and other equipment in order for teaching to go on without technology related disturbance’ (Ministry of Education 2017: 11).

The sociotechnical imaginary embedded in educational technology systems is thus that of a future separation between developers and users, where the latter generates data that makes the systems even more ‘user-friendly’ and personalized. But this imaginary does not take into account `the interplay between the use of digital technology and people’s emotions, feelings and affect’ or how ‘digital technologies in higher education settings profoundly shapes the emotions, moods and feelings of students and staff’ (Castañeda & Selwyn 2018:4). By disregarding the medium trough witch education takes place, the hype around data driven-technologies in education, such as learning analytics and adaptive technologies, also reveals a limited definition of knowledge. For an algorithm to map a knowledge gap it must first define what counts as knowledge and how knowledge can be expressed. A one-sided focus on learning does not only exclude any kind of tacit, affective or embodied/experiential knowledge but also prioritize answers over questions and eliminates the possibilities for new knowledge to appear.

Media studies – a critical voice in the digital university?

The siblings in Asimov’s short story learn about past schools through a medium they had never before encountered, a printed book they found in the attic. The book, although telling stories about the fun schooling yesterday’s students enjoyed, does not in itself lead to other kinds of learning than that of the children’s unpleasant mechanical teacher, but is also a medium that prioritize individual and somewhat immersed studies. Nevertheless, the school system pictured in the book and that experienced by the siblings fundamentally differ. The past students in the story did their reading alone, but they read the same texts and met in the same room to discuss, whereas the ‘telebooks’ provided by the mechanical teacher anno 2157 was read, processed and examined individually through what we today would call data-driven and adaptive technologies. And where the latter was motivated with the fact that children learn differently and that a machine does a better job than a human teacher because they can hold bigger amounts of information, we might suppose that the ability to reflect upon texts and discuss them with others are prioritized knowledges in the (somewhat romanticized) vision of past schools in Asimov’s text. In other words – media technologies and their infrastructures are developed but also implemented differently depending on shared understanding of what knowledge is, what education is or should be and what kind of future it is supposed to facilitate. As critical media researchers, we can help expose these sociotechnical imaginaries, as they are expressed in educational policy, education technology discourse and material technology, and challenge them through writing and educational practice.

I will assume that most researchers and educators within social sciences or humanities have a well-articulated idea about the aim of higher education. I will also assume that it differs, at least to some extent, from the vision described here of a future education conditioned by the needs of employers, efficiency maximized and highly individualized. Instead competences such as critical thinking, `Bildung’ and the ability to imagine another worlds might be put forward. This is taking Biesta’s call to discuss the purpose of education seriously, which many researchers and educators seems to have done. What media and communication researchers can add to this discussion is not more of the same, but a nuanced understanding of media systems and the relations that take part around them, that goes beyond simplified positions either celebrating digital technology as wonders of objectivity, participation or connectedness, or dismissing them as standardizing or impersonal tools. It is possible to reimagine technologies and what they can be used for. Instead of prioritizing efficiency and pre-defined learning, we can develop ways of organizing education with digital technologies that enables what Gordon and Walter (2016) call ‘meaningful inefficiencies’ – play, experimentation, unexpended or even oppositional uses. A good example of this is the recent debate around different ways to organize MOOCs. Whereas some educators prefer large scale xMOOCs with video lectures, automated assessment and computerized feedback, others promote so called cMOOCs with an emphasis on discussion, participant-generated content and peer feedback. Without going into details, the important thing about this discussion is that it recognizes that different pedagogical models can make different use of the same technology, and that educators have to take responsibility for these processes rather than leaving it in the hands of developers with limited understanding of different disciplines, their traditions as needs. If we want education to be something more than efficient vocational training we need to think carefully about how to make best use of available digital technologies and how they can be developed into useful elements in a higher education that asks new questions instead of examining established facts, and that offers a space for critical questions about our culture and society, today and in the future.


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i Originally in Swedish. All translations from Swedish policy documents by the author.

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