The Materiality of Skype in Educational Practice

From devices such as tablets, e-readers and electronic whiteboards to web-based technologies such as game-based learning software, course management systems, and MOOCs, education has become increasingly digitized. At least 7 million US college students are currently taking an online course and three fourths of high school students report regularly using a smartphone or tablet in the classroom. Meanwhile the global ed-tech and smart classroom market is expected to grow from $43.27 billion in 2015 to $93.76 billion in 2020. This technology-pervasive landscape calls for a reflective inquiry into the role new educational “things” (in the form of technologies) play in forming teaching and learning practices, and how they further shape different ways of knowing and being in classroom settings.

Yet, the educational research community lacks a consistent methodology for the study of education that does not begin with humans their goals, and their concerns. Most of the research in educational technology asks how we can use technology to make learning more affordable, accessible, efficient, or interesting, or how we can use technology to promote teamwork and collaborative learning. These are excellent questions and they are indeed important. But they also limit how we understand, use and evaluate technology in the classroom (physical or virtual). When we focus on efficiency, on motivation and so on, the only part made available for technology to play in the  is that of a transparent representative of human interactions, i.e., a tool that serves social, psychological or pedagogical aims. Contained by human intention, be it educator or learner, tools remain a simple extension of the work that people do. The problem, however, with conceptualizing educational “things” – including technologies –  as tools, is that they deflect analysis because they remain simple, circumscribable objects. As mere equipment, the “thing” is analytically subsumed by human intention or design, and the complex ways in which it interacts with humans in the constitution of social events is overlooked.

Against this backdrop, the present paper argues for an alternative conceptualization of technology in education, one that doesn’t treat technology as a mere instrument for human purposes, but rather as an active participant that co-constructs meaning, knowledge and practice in the classroom. In particular, the paper uses Skype as case study to illustrate how the materiality of technology enables certain pedagogical practices and forms of knowledge creation and exchange, and constrains others. Central to this analysis are Drucker’s (2013) notion of ‘performative materiality’, which calls attention to the enacted and event-based character of online activity; Blanchette’s (2011) notion of ‘distributed materiality’, which provides a language to describe how this activity is shaped by the physical constraints of the computing infrastructure (i.e., bandwidth, storage capacity, computational resources) and Sørensen’s (2009) notion of ‘relational materiality’, which offers a deeper understanding of the networked relations between humans and technology, that is, “the way in which humans are with materials, contrary to how humans make sense of materials” (p.138).

Applying these three distinct yet complimentary concepts of materiality to the study of teaching and learning with Skype, the paper illustrates how materiality as a theoretical tool can offer a broadened understanding of technology and its relation to education, and help us move beyond the universalized, decontextualized visions of technology that have dominated research on learning in education, psychology, sociology and cognitive science. By bringing together works in education (Sørensen) and information studies (Blanchette, Drucker), moreover, the paper offers an example of how the two disciplines can engage in dialogues as well as mutual criticism on the subject of educational technology and online learning.

 

Blanchette, J.-F., 2011. A material history of bits. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 62, No. 6, pp. 1042-1057.

Boys, J. (2011). Where is the theory?  In A. Boddington and J. Boys, (Eds.), Re-Shaping Learning: A Critical Reader (pp. 9-68). Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Drucker, J. (2013). Performative Materiality and Theoretical Approaches to Interface. Digital Humanities Quarterly. 7(1). Retrieved from: http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/1/000143/000143.html

Sørensen, E., 2009. The materiality of learning: Technology and knowledge in educational practice. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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