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First off, great article! I’m making it required reading for our new TA orientation in the fall. I love how you subtly make teachers responsible for their relationships to and with technologies.

One thought though: throughout the piece technology seems to mean “things with buttons.” Thought more radically (in the original sense) technology is not “a tool to increase self-reflexivity” but the definition of tools and ultimately the foundation of self-reflexivity. The exteriorization which allows for reflexivity is technologization. Maybe a minor distinction, but I think a worthwhile and practical one. When we think of technology only as whiz-bang we forget the technologies we have already integrated: the pen, clothing, shelter, language, and our hands. When we see new technologies on the same continuum as taken-for-granted technologies we expand the material for bricolage exponentially: the whiteboard has yet to become the revolutionary tool it may someday become when I understand how to use my hand and facebook together with it in pedagogically innovative ways.

Well, I’ve ranted enough for one day. Thanks for the article. Much to think on.

Best,

jH
SFSU Alum

PS. This comment module makes proofreading difficult. I apologize for any typos.

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Mashing Up the Institution: Teacher as Bricoleur

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[Published in Radical Teacher Number 90]

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Larry Hanley

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San Francisco State University

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profhanley@gmail.com

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In his 1837 broadside against the institution of higher learning, Emerson noted: The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius. This is good, say they, — let us hold by this. They pin me down. They look backward and not forward.  There is an ambivalence about institutions that Emersons manifesto consciously refuses.  Institutions can pin us down; they can also endow us with agency.  Institutions nurture community and hierarchy.  They supply conditions for the production, preservation, and communication of knowledge; wittingly or unwittingly, they can also supply spaces for creativity and transformation.  Institutions are terrains of control and contest.

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In times of crisis, institutions however can feel a lot more institutional in the Emersonian sense.   Bigger classes, less pay, fewer resources, the daily scramble for a dry-board marker that still has some ink in it these are some of the ways that institutions and their limits become more visible, obdurate, and constricting to us.  Material and rhetorical calls for belt-tightening are not conducive to our idealizations of academic life; austerity persuades us to practicality and expediency, not to Emersons rousing vision of Man Thinking.

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Most fundamentally, my argument about technology and higher education is about the limits and possibilities of institutions, especially the role that technology plays in the institutional life of teachers.  More particularly, its an argument about the ways that technology can either reinforce the centralizing, standardizing and rationalizing tendencies of institutions or open up new spaces and practices of creativity, knowledge, and communication. In order to sustain and even enrich our professional identities and work, we need to think about technology differently.  Our current institutionalization of technology, the Course Management System, limits and circumscribes our understandings of teaching and learning.  Luddism is however not an option.  In fact, the newer media and practices collectively, often hazily referred to as Web 2.0, offer us the means to become more self-reflexive practitioners.  But, to achieve this, well have to abandon our institutional identities as users and clients to embrace more inventive, experimental, self-conscious identities.  Well have to become bricoleurs.

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The problem with the CMS

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Course Management Systems are big business.  Blackboard, Inc., the leading CMS seller, earned 377 million dollars in 2009 (Blackboard), a 21% increase over 2008, despite the recession.  Blackboard sold 7,693 licenses last year, and an average license contract was worth $58,000.  On the other hand, Moodle, another popular CMS, is freely licensed and open-sourced.  Moodle however is not free to use installation, implementation, maintenance, integration and servicing require labor and machines.  In addition, there are associated costs with both platforms: training, help desks, faculty development, etc.  Because the CMS is a big, campus- (even system-) wide application these operations are centralized, usually in an academic technology department.  The centralized budgeting and centralized knowledge required by the CMS underwrite, in turn, centralized control, and this control is vested in technicians and managers rather than users and clients.  These are the relations inscribed in the metaphor of delivery (and its attendant pseudo-science: deliverology): experts and managers supply a complex, tightly regulated environment to distributed users who are sometimes granted the prerogatives of exit but rarely, and in very mediated ways, the right of voice.

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The main attraction of the CMS is its efficiency of scale, and, as Erna Kotkamp argues, the most important function served by the CMS is an administrative one (65).  This administrative function organizes the roles within the CMS into a hierarchy: administrators, technicians, designers, instructors, and students.  Power, control, and access diminish as one moves down the hierarchy.  The traditionally central relationship within education between teachers and learners is now spread out over a wider set of participants and can in some instances, be further differentiated and rationalized, e.g. administrators control enrollment, designers create courses, instructors evaluate students.  There is a subtle, sometimes not so subtle, deskilling involved here as expertise and skills are parceled out and transferred away from the shopfloor or classroom.  Likewise, teaching and learning become more subject to control systems, as teaching effectiveness and learning performance are quantitatively tracked via logins, clicks, and downloads.

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Equally important, reflecting the demands of standardization, the CMS interface offers a very particular and circumscribed representation of teaching and learning, of faculty and students.  Despite efforts to customize the CMS and increase its interactivity, numerous studies demonstrate that most faculty use Blackboard or iLearn for publishing files, asynchronous communication like threaded discussion boards or forums, and online grade books.  Through its design and affordances (buttons, menus, etc.), the CMS reproduces a very traditional pedagogy: instructors manage time and labor more efficiently via calendars, updates, dropboxes, etc.; content experts, e.g. instructors, deliver materials to the content disadvantaged, e.g. students; students contribute their own interpretations and understandings in pre-formatted textual contributions (masquerading as something more thanks to metaphors like discussion and forum).  In this representation of teaching and learning, teachers broadcast content and manage tasks, students are reduced to passive recipients, and learning takes place in a mysterious black box constructed in the space between content delivery and consumption.

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The over-riding design principle of the CMS interface is to imitate, not to disrupt, particular representations of teaching and learning, and at a more structural level, to reinforce particular representations of institutional order and authority.  There is something counter-intuitive but familiar about this approach to technology: new technologies, often heralded and sold as revolutionary, are deployed to do the same old things.

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Enter the bricoleur

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There are other possibilities.  While the CMS is built on asynchronous, top-down, and one-to-many models of communication (and power), the internet is rebuilding itself around different models of communication, meaning, and authority.  Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr: these avatars of Web 2.0 put the unlimited production and circulation of text  written and visual at the center of the net.  This new architecture of participation exploits several key principles: openness membership in communities and access to tools is inclusive and egalitarian; ad hoc meritocracy value and status are earned rather than designated; granularity objects or totalities are built out of miscellany always re-visable and re-iterated; the commons cultural production is communally governed (Bruns 23-30).

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The central genre of Web 2.0s mutant semiotics (Levy 170) is the mash-up the re-appropriation and recombination of digital materials, the local recycling of applications, texts, images, memes into new creations.  Thus, the preferred subjectivity encouraged and constructed by Web 2.0 is the bricoleur the tinkerer or fiddler of symbolic material first introduced by Claude Levi-Strauss but since also elaborated within philosophy, computer science, and most productively, cultural studies.  At the level of code and text, Web 2.0 opens up networked communication to the practice of bricolage, described by Michel de Certeau as the innumerable and infitesimal transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy [made by subjects] in order to adapt it to their own interests and their own rules (deCerteau xiv).

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What happens when we think of ourselves, faculty within institutions of higher education and teachers within in public school systems, as bricoleurs rather than the users and clients inscribed within the CMS?

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In one answer to this question, we all become “edupunks.” According to a new generation of educational technologists, like Jim Groom, Brian Lamb, and D’Arcy Norman, teachers can exploit the mash-up tools and practices of Web 2.0 to directly challenge the “cold and all-consuming role that capital plays in the shaping of technology as a means of control” (Groom).   For edupunks, the commercialized  CMS imprisons teachers within an iron cage of copyright, privatization, and commodification; open-source software and a d.i.y. (“do it yourself”) ethic empower teachers to hack together projects, platforms, networks driven by learning rather than profit.   So, for instance, faculty and technologists at City University of New York have recently used WordPress, an open-source blog engine, to create the CUNY Academic Commons, a virtual platform for scholarly exchange and teacher collaboration shaped by the interests and engagement of faculty.  And, Proyecto Facebook, at the University of Buenos Aires, is exploring how the informal networks of contemporary social media cultivate new, learner-centered forms of participation, education, and knowledge.

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The libertarian impulses behind edupunk are important, but ambivalent.  Neo-liberalism, for instance, also celebrates the autonomy, freedom, and creativity of individuals, and in one recent manifesto for edupunk, Anya Kamenetz’s DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, the power of the mash-up is explicitly linked to “better, faster, cheaper” (122) education, education that dissolves the university and school into the free market of knowledge.  The meaning of technology is not intrinsic.  Teaching and learning, as Groom notes, “are not done by technology, but rather people thinking and working together” (Groom).  More radical versions of edupunk reject the “shopping mall”  or “Amazon.com” model of schooling; they are more communitarian because they understand learning and teaching not as unfettered acts of individual choice, but as social experiences.

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How, then, can we leverage the new technological possibilities of bricolage to change institutions like schools and universities that both enable and disable authentic learning?

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First, bricolage depends, as Paul Willis calls it, on a grounded aesthetics the bricoleur responds to local needs with materials at hand.  While the CMS depends on a standardized representation of teaching and learning, the bricoleur gathers, arranges, and modifies technologies to meet his or her circumstances course and unit goals, student needs and aptitudes, disciplinary issues and concepts.  Instead of generic discussion forums, the bricoleur-faculty creates a wiki page of collaboratively-solved problem sets designed to address the intersection between his or her disciplinary knowledge in physics and the needs of his or her students.  Another physics faculty member might draw lab demonstrations from MITs Opencourseware site and mash them up with student and teacher annotations via webware like Digo.  Neither waits for the academic technology department to add course modules to a CMS or for a course designer to write a piece of Flash code.

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Second, the bricoleur-faculty draws on and engages students in the expanding new literacies fostered by Web 2.0s new openness.  Whether via blogs or more explicit mulitmedia tools like Flickr and Glogster, the bricoleur-faculty asks students to make meaning through new conjunctions of sound, image, and text.  In the process, the bricoleur-faculty explicitly develops both students and his or her multi-literacies   navigating new semiotic landscapes that require new skills and new creativities.  Think for a minute about what kind of literacy the CMS interface fosters, and about how well that representation of computer-mediated literacy meets the challenges of an iPod, Twitter, Facebook, and now iPad-filled world.

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The bricoleur-faculty requires new kinds of support and new forms of faculty development.  The one-shot workshop designed to inoculate faculty with the limited,  non-transferable technical skills required to manipulate the CMS how do I add the syllabus? how do I create a new discussion forum? no longer suffices to understand the grounded aesthetics of the mash-up.  Brief initiations guided by technology staff envoys from the academic technology department   give way to communities of practice (Wenger) where questions  of teaching and learning are integral to thinking about technology.  Since every bricoleurs practice is local and different, collaborative engagement among departmental, disciplinary, and affiliated colleagues becomes the means through which practitioners discover and develop the relationship between learning and technology.  The bricoleur-faculty demands less investment in academic technology departments and more investment in faculty and community building.

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Finally, the bricoleur-faculty, who works to articulate technology, learning, and knowledge, acquires a different way of thinking about technology.  Rather than thinking of technology as a way to make teaching more efficient and to make academic labor more invisible, the bricoleur-faculty sees technology as a tool to increase self-reflexivity, to think explicitly about the relation between teaching and learning.  In the CMS model, academic technology makes things more efficient by routinizing and simplifying teaching.  The bricoleur-faculty, who constantly practices the art of the mash-up, must also constantly ask him or herself why?  why am I using YouTube to publicize poetry as performance? how does the Library of Congresss American Memory project sustain an inquiry-driven project on Huck Finn and 19th century racism? how do I evaluate student glogs on the Harlem Renaissance and what does evaluation mean in a world of multi-mediated textuality? what does student blogging do to develop formal, academic literacy and how does academic literacy work relate to alternative literacies ?  The art of the mash-up asks us to defamiliarize our teaching, to open it up to new questions and reflections, to disrupt our usual ways of communicating, sharing, and evaluating knowledge.

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Some projects will succeed and some will fail.  The pressures to stick with the CMS are real and material, to step outside the institutionally sanctioned uses of technology means stepping outside of institutionally sanctioned roles and making new demands for resources and support.  Institutions will of course resist.  Yet, in struggling for new forms and practices of “professionalism,” teacher-bricoleurs will also be struggling for a new kind of workplace.  As one participant in the “Argentinazo,” the 2001 popular uprising in Argentina, noted of the many factory, hospital, and school take-overs that defined the rebellion: “It’s partly a reclaiming of the old social spaces that had been lost . . . . Many ways of being social had been lost. . . . We regained our community” (Sitrin 28,29).  At the very least, the by-product of failure or success is always a gain in self-reflexivity about what we do and how we do it.   Whatever new and mutant objects and practices emerge from the mash-up bricolage makes our academic labor visible and, consequently, more able to be shared and valued.

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Works Cited

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Blackboard.  “Blackboard, Inc. Q4 2009 Earnings Call Transcript.” Blackboard.com . 3 February 2010.

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Bruns, Axel. Blogs, Wikipedia, Second Life and Beyond.  NY: Peter Lang, 2008.

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De Certeau, Michel.  The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: U. Cal Press, 2002.

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Groom, Jim.  “The Glass Bees.” Bavatuesdays.com 25 May 2008. Web

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Kamenetz, Anya.  DIY U: Edupunks, Entrepreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. NY: Chelsea Green, 2010.

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Kotkamp, Erna.  “Digital Objects in New Learning Environments: The Case of WebCT.”  Digital Material: Tracing new media in everyday life and technology. Ed. Marianne van den Booment, Sybille Lammes, Ann-Sophie Lehmann.  Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009.

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Levy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace. NY: Basic Books, 1999.

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Sitrin, Martha.  Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina.  (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006.)

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Wenger, Etienne.  Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge U. P., 1999.

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Willis, Paul.  Common Culture: Symbolic Work at Play in the Everyday Cultures of the Young. London: Open University Press, 1990.

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