The application of duct tape

Group working
Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

In writing this blog post, I do recognise that as white middle class male from a Western European background, I know I come from a position of privilege.  I am where I am today because of that privilege. No I wasn’t education at Eton, nor did I go to Oxford, but I recognise my background has given me advantages that others didn’t have. It would also be somewhat arrogant if I was to think that I, in isolation, had any answers to the challenges that others face. However I do feel that I have the opportunity to share the experiences and thoughts of others. I also recognise the need to understand and work together on decolonisation.

I like this definition of decolonising from The University of Essex.

Decolonisation involves identifying colonial systems, structures and relationships, and working to challenge those systems. It is not “integration” or simply the token inclusion of the intellectual achievements of non-white cultures. Rather, it involves a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial to the making of space for other political philosophies and knowledge systems. It is a culture shift to thinking more widely about why common knowledge is what it is, and in so doing adjusting cultural perceptions and power relations.

In that context I really enjoyed the thought provoking opening keynote at Moving Target: Digitalisation 2022 was a keynote from Taskeen Adam, Designing Justice-oriented Digital Education.

Moving Target Digitalisation 2022, Opening 30.11.2022, Museum für Kommunikation (MfK), Berlin – Credit Stefan Zeitz/DAAD

I thought this was an excellent thoughtful insight into the challenges universities face in reflecting where they are and where they need to be in relation to edtech and digital education.

Moving beyond ‘digital divide’ narratives, this presentation interrogates how the digitalisation of education can embed or promote material injustices, cultural-epistemic injustices and (geo)political injustices. After expanding on calls for ‘decolonising EdTech’, 3 key arguments framing justice-oriented Digital Education are highlighted along with 4 guidelines on how we can strive to design and implement more justice-oriented digital education.

As we move into a century where the technological way of being is the only way of being imaginable, we need to consciously reflect on the impact that technology has on our way of thinking and being, and resultantly how this is embedded into our education. Taking a justice-oriented approach to digitalising education means actively and consciously seeking to address material, cultural-epistemic and political/geopolitical injustices that digitalising education processes and platforms can embed or promote.

This presentation has three main sections.

The first section unpacks ‘decolonising EdTech’ which means dismantling the relations of power and conceptions of knowledge that are reproduced through EdTech in its fundamental assumptions; its content; its pedagogical underpinnings; its design; and its implementation. Here questions about ethics, equity, epistemology and power are raised.

The second section outlines 3 key arguments framing the design of justice-oriented Digital Education 1.) There is no one-size-fits-all framework for creating justice-oriented Digital Education. Justice-as-content, justice-as-pedagogy and justice-as-process are 3 approaches to use at different moments 2.) Designers and implementers need to examine their subjectivities and how these shape the epistemological framings of the course from its conceptualisation. 3.) Greater emphasis is needed on situational factors outside the construction of the digital learning experience, i.e. factors beyond content, outcomes, and assessments.

The third section wraps up by giving four practical guidelines on how we can strive to design and implement more justice-oriented digital education.

Of course it isn’t just about the decolonisation of digital education, there is the shift required in university structures and cultures.

This keynote got me thinking about this.

London Metropolitan University’s Centre for Equity and Inclusion has this to say on the decolonisation of higher education. I think this reflects the challenge in that diversity and inclusion isn’t sufficient, there needs to be more  in order to truly decolonize the curriculum and the university as a whole.

Decolonising education, however, is often understood as the process in which we rethink, reframe and reconstruct the curricula and research that preserve the Europe-centred, colonial lens. It should not be mistaken for “diversification”, as diversity can still exist within this western bias. Decolonisation goes further and deeper in challenging the institutional hierarchy and monopoly on knowledge, moving out of a western framework.

One of the challenges that we face is that we need to decolonise our structural approaches to the way in which we run our universities. Listening to the keynote from Taskeen Adam I was reminded of the struggle this can be, overcoming years, if not decades on entrenched thinking.

One area where I think we have challenges is recruitment and the process of recruitment.

We know from research that a diverse team brings wider benefits than a non-diverse team. 

This Twitter thread explains this better than I can.

To quote from the thread.

Diversity increases innovation: diverse groups are known to produce innovative solutions… 

Demographic diversity is a proxy for diverse thinking.

This is all pretty obvious but as the opening tweet says you often hear the line, “Oh, but we cannot compromise excellence for diversity.”

So I have heard organisations say, yes we have a policy of diversity and inclusion when it comes to recruitment, but we recruit on merit.

However despite the fact that recruitment takes into account diversity, the process of recruitment is flawed and biased. 

Very rarely is a team recruited in one go, generally there is an existing team. We generally recruit individually so as a result we lose the opportunity to have diverse teams that could support decolonisation.

As people leave, new people arrive. We often need those new people to replace the leaver, so we look for skills and background that are similar to the ones that the leaver has. We are looking at the problem from an individual perspective rather than a team perspective. Despite knowing that a diverse team is better, despite having a diversity and inclusion policy, the process of recruitment is biased as it focuses on the gap, the individual skills missing, when someone leaves. Rarely if ever is the holistic picture taken into account.

This process of recruitment can actually reinforce the existing structures and culture, despite the best efforts to decolonise.

This isn’t exclusive to decolonisation, and the talk by Taskeen Adam on this subject reminded me of the challenges that women face in the workplace, disabled people and other groups.

It also reminded me of the challenges in shifting and changing existing cultures and ways of working. Back in the 2000s there was an academic team I was working with who had a very negative culture, one where the students were to blame, they were resistant to change and certainly didn’t embrace digital technologies to support their work. It was quite a toxic culture.

Work was undertaken, probably best described as sticking duct tape to try and fix what was a broken team. It didn’t work. The underlying issues and culture were still there. Solutions that were put in place, were like duct tape, worked for a while, but eventually fell off, as it wasn’t fixing the underlying problems.

Over the years the actual team changed completely, as in people left and new staff were recruited. In none of the original staff were working there, it was a new team, it had changed, however the culture did not. Despite all new people, the culture hadn’t changed, the blaming was still there, as was the resistance to change.

In the end working as a leadership team including myself, with a new  line manager, we started from scratch and completely changed the modus operandi or operating model for the team. The ways in which they worked, the way in which they interacted with students and planning on the embedding of appropriate digital technologies. There was consistency of approaches and methodologies. The team and students were provided with a clear vision and strategic objectives.

There was a massive shift in culture and ways of working, which resulted in better outcomes for students, less complaints, less staff sickness, and better morale. We had to have a holistic approach to the way in which the team worked, but as we had a clear vision of what was expected, they had the clarity as well.

When it comes to decolonisation, this is a huge challenge. Even just looking at one area, the shift required in recruitment, is more than just the application of duct tape to fix the problem. Without thinking strategically and holistically about the challenge, the end result will be a much slower journey to decolonisation.

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