Restructuring Learning Spaces with Interactive Technology and Transformative Pedagogy

Restructuring Learning Spaces with Interactive Technology and Transformative Pedagogy

Roland Lucas

CUNY Graduate Center

Qualitative Research

Abstract

This paper explores ideas around the construction of culturally empowering learning spaces that mitigate constraining structures in public education, erected in large part by the motive force of racism. I also discuss how advanced collaborative technologies can be deployed to facilitate the construction of these learning spaces, and accomplish the transformation of said constraining structures. My premise is that public schools have embedded in them thick structures engaged by minority students in such a way that reproduces arrangements of their domination and subordination in society. Bakhtin’s concepts of the dialogical discourse and “ideological becoming” are applied to the delicate process of positive identity formation through collaborative discourses and knowledge construction, that can take place in a culturally empowering learning space. I also borrow heavily from Bourdieu, Sewell and Tobin, their theories and concepts of cultural structures and their transformation. Any project addressing the transformation of educational praxis must be grounded in a socio-cultural theory of action that accounts for the structures of the school environment, the motives of the groups involved, and dynamics of social change.

Relations between Culture, Education and Social Transformation

In assessing school policy and praxis, one must first place the school in the context of the wider socio-cultural field that it is situated in. Learning activity in any school setting are mediated by the macro and meso structures that the schools are situated in. Schools are primary sites for the reproduction of the larger cultural values and motives, which often have much to do with reinforcing a stratified class and racial system of relations. It almost goes without saying that these macro and meso structures will deeply shape the educational practices, experiences, and outcomes that occur.

Early in his book, “The Culture of Education”, Bruner takes this very same relational view …

 

In the culturalist approach to education, the “first premise is that education is not an island, but part of the continent of culture. It asks first what function “education” serves in the culture and what role it plays in the lives of those who operate within it. Its next question might be why education is situated in the culture as it is, and how this placement reflects the distribution of power, status, and other benefits. Bruner, J. (1996).

 

Bourdieu (2000) intimates in his works that schools are sites where the reproduction of the structure of power relationships between classes occurs. This happens through the mechanisms of distribution of cultural capital. Implicating education systems as primary sites where the reproduction of power relations in a stratified society occur, Bourdieu says, “this means that our object becomes the production of the habitus, that system of dispositions which acts as a mediation between structures and practice; more specifically, it becomes necessary to study the laws that determine the tendency of structures to reproduce themselves by producing agents (students) endowed with the system of predispositions which is capable of engendering practices adapted to the structures and thereby contributing to the reproduction of the structures.”

 

One idea embedded within this statement is that action by actors is tied up with an engagement of structures (“engendering practices”), which can lead to a reproduction of existing structures. This suggests to me that there must also be other side to the coin, that agents can engage structures in a way so as not to reproduce them, but rather transform them according to their own goals. It is this prospect that I consider in a project to use technology resources to support a higher ordered educational praxis for African American youth in public schools.

 

My premise is that the macro structures of globalization, racism, and classism severely limit the educational outcomes and potential of minority students in public education, particularly so for African American students. It is commonplace for those who benefit within a society where the distribution of resources is stratified along racial and class categories, to deny the reality that racism and classism still deeply impinge on the learning outcomes and potential of minority students in public education. This denial serves the purpose of maintaining these limiting structures and shielding their macro and meso level transformation. Bell In her book “Teaching to Transgress”, Bell Hooks references the need to transform educational institutions into sites of liberation …

“If we examine the traditional role of the university in the pursuit of truth and the sharing of knowledge and information, (Resources), it is painfully clear that biases that uphold and maintain white supremacy, imperialism, sexism and racism have distorted education so that it is no longer about the practice of freedom. .. The call for a recognition of cultural diversity, a rethinking of ways of knowing, a deconstruction of old epistemologies, and the concomitant demand that there be a transformation in our classrooms, in how we teach and what we teach, has been a necessary revolution – one that seeks to restore life to a corrupt and dying academy. Hooks, B. (1994).

 

Bakhtin’s Dialogical Discourse and Identity Development

Agency involves an actor using available tools, structures or resources to carry out actions to obtain a goal. My unit of analysis from this perspective is not the actor (African American student) in isolation. Too often this kind of focus produces deficit theories, finding the problem of under achievement by African Americans in their own bodies, minds and ethnic culture. It is not the African American student in isolation, even connected to advanced tutorial software applications that I consider. I consider activities of groups of students in collaboration through interactive technologies for the purpose of increasing their agency to offset much of the limiting structures of racism and classism. I consider how through their collective activities they can proactively solve problems that are relevant to their groups. I consider how having access to timely, relevant, and up-to-date knowledge capital and processes afforded by interactive technologies can enhance the learning experiences, outcomes and potential of minority students, if these are deployed in a culturally empowering manner.

Furthermore, collaborations in online learning spaces involving a community of students tend to make the construction of knowledge less centered on the teacher, and less an exercise of reproducing established knowledge and power structures. That is, knowledge production in interactive environments would be less authoritative, monological and passive as Bakhtin (1986, 2004) describes it. They would rather be more in keeping with Bakhtin’s concept of inner persuasive discourse where participants actively scrutinize, challenge, change, reject and argue over, existing knowledge to suit their needs and evolving understandings. Multiple “utterances” or dialogues are then considered, synthesized or otherwise reshaped as needed. New products that students appropriate and generate can be acted upon to support their agency and identity formation. Existing knowledge and relational structures will be reproduced only if they support the motives of the collective. If not, these structures will be targeted for transformation, thus providing for agency and liberating education.

Students will no longer fall into serving the intentions of dominant groups, nor channel the words, ideologies, goals, and problems of dominant groups. Students become critical thinkers, not just in their ability to analyze data and problems, but to do so in relation to their uplift and that of the community. Without this critical facility, they would simply implicate themselves in sustaining the reproduction of their own subordination in society through a mis-educational system. They would “recite by heart” other people’s voices or structural rules. They would, in the Bakhtin sense, parrot Authoritative discourses, rather than retell their stories in their own words. Learning to privilege one’s own critical voice is what Bakhtin (1981), refers to as “ideologically becoming”. This is education proper and is sorely lacking in public schools where African American students predominate. A culturally empowering learning space would encourage this kind of critical thinking and development of “voice” or ideological self through the process of sharing with and building upon ideas of others with liberating motives in a collaborative space.

Turner (2007) expresses a concept of social change through emotionally charged act emanating from the micro level of the human encounter, and cascading through meso and macro structures … “emotional arousal at the level of iterated encounters spreads through networks of meso structures, changing key corporate and categoric units or perhaps creating new meso-level structures, that change macro level structures. … For most encounters however, the culture of mesostructures is reinforced and reproduced which in turn, sustains culture at the macro level of social organization.” It is my hope to model transformative education through the construction of culturally empowering learning spaces. These locally constructed learning spaces can potentially have a cascading and enduring transformative impact on how education is practiced on maro and even global levels, in this country and beyond its boarders.

Attributes of a Culturally Empowering Classroom

Below are listed essential attributes of a culturally empowering classroom. By culturally empowering, I mean what I’ve already discussed about the development of “voice”, the ideological self, and the facility to use resources to accomplish individual and group goals. If these are lacking in some critical degree in the classroom environment where African American students predominate, then old epistemologies and relations of dominance will persist.

1)    Teachers are not only highly qualified in a given content area, but know how to use the technology to enhance the curriculum.

2)    Ideally there are consortiums of collaboration with other people who are involved with the same learning topics, or who are otherwise stakeholders in the learning process. The classroom is not “walled in”, but is extended in its reach through micro, meso and macro contexts. The collaborative technologies facilitate this synchronous and asynchronous cross-pollination.

3)     The teacher is aware of structures at play that will tend to limit the educational outcomes of students, such as racism, globalization manifested locally, and the push for national standards.

4)    Focus is given to curriculum design that mediates the tension between the push for standardized testing, and the deep need for African American students to develop skills that address problems specific to their local community developmental needs.

5)    Technology tools, particularly those that foster online collaboration, will not only be deployed to elevate the efficiency and effectiveness of problem solving, but will be directed to solving problems that are relevant to the African American student and his/her community. Thus there will be a real-world (from the perspective of the African American student) focus to the construction of the curriculum and activities that ground the course principles.

6)    Not only are technology resources made available for appropriation by students, but also the ideologies that support the positive identity formation of students as agents capable of achieving goals relevant their community. There is recognition that identity is central to the education process. The identity formation the individual African American student is tied inextricably to the motives of the wider community to achieve equality in American society of all levels. The process of enhancing education of the African American student does not begin and end in the mind of the student, but is in a dialectical relationship to the problem of community uplift.

7)    The instructor is capable of guiding this mediated action of the student with this aim always in mind.

8)    There will always be a wrestling with competing ideologies at every in this educational process. There will be the authoritative ideologies that have been established by the limiting motives of racism and globalization. These ideologies will be present in the bodies of administrators, teachers, peers, and adopted by students themselves. In these culturally empowering learning spaces there will be countering liberating ideologies that come from students, teachers, and other stakeholders. These ideologies will compete for predominance in the minds of teachers and students at any given moment. The environment will have the resources, physical, virtual, and mental available to the student, to fashion solutions to individual and collective problems, whose solution(s) will empower the individual and the collective.

Incubating in such culturally empowering environments, developing the mastery over the resources available to them, becoming grounded in liberation ideologies that can disarm constraining ideologies, students will establish positive identities as agents for self and collective uplift. Students will gain the facility to examine problems and seeing them in relation to wider structures that tend to reinforce the problem of their subordination and domination in society at large. With the development of the “ideological self”, a positive affective identity formation, students will gain the agency necessary to counter and transform limiting ideologies and structures (internal and external. As students are afforded opportunities to appropriate the resources in a culturally empowering learning environment, they will simultaneously develop identity constructs that will persist even in the face of more deeply constraining structures established on the meso and macro levels. There is even a chance that their enhanced agency will position them to participate in efforts to transform these structures.

Research Questions and Authenticity Checks

My aim is to create and study culturally empowering learning spaces where students, can leverage interactive technologies to enhance learning on the behalf of students, particularly African American students, their communities, and society at large. I generally judge the merit and benefit of this study based on how well I can synthesize answers to the essential questions posed in this study for myself for one. Then the data, analyses and insights produced through the study must position participants and stakeholders to answer these questions for themselves. My overarching rational for these questions is that student achievement must be assessed in relation to their developing identity, critical sense, knowledge construction towards self-relevant problems, and developing agency to achieve individual and community goals. A synthesis of ideas from the various cultural theories mentioned will hopefully afford a deep understanding of the processes of meaning making, and growing agency of participants to appropriate resources (interactive technologies) that will advance their individual and group goals. The below is a restatement of the essential questions that I hope to answer through this study, along with their corresponding authenticity and validity checks.

1) How, if at all, do these student’s discourses and authored products express the development of their ideological self, privileging their own “voices”; meaning their own ideas of what learning activities will benefit themselves and their community. This question is meant to ascertain if students feel free to counter ideologies and structures that impinge on their agency in education. Data that will answer these questions are: synchronous and asynchronous dialogue; student journals; individual and group interviews, authored products, as in essays.  So the first authenticity check for this study is that students will experience an expansion of their own “voice” to express what knowledges and activities are beneficial for themselves. They will be less likely to accept and follow uncritically, ideas and practices that do not serve their own defined criterion for what benefits their self-defined goals. If most students on the other hand consistently express the sentiment that they feel imposed upon by using Moodle and that using it encumbers their ability to effectively perform the tasks necessary address the learning objectives of the course, then this would indicate a need to reevaluate the effectiveness of the project.

2) How, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express development of their affective identities as competent actors in their semiotic domain? This question builds on the first and tracks the students’ agency to proactively appropriate resources as needed to accomplish their individual goals. Data that will answer these questions are: authored products as in concept models, discourses, topic selections, all produced over time and demonstrating the application of concepts learned towards problems relevant to the participants. The second authenticity check then for this study is, students will increasingly identify their constructed knowledges and activities as having benefit to not only themselves, but also to their communities. Local stakeholders in the school and community will likewise identify the collective praxis of participants as establishing an educational paradigm that actually supports educational objectives aligned to the enduring best interests of students.  If on the other hand most students and other stakeholders, over the span of the course, consistently express that they don’t see their body of work through Moodle as having relevancy to their community, but rather express that this work actually reduces the relevancy of what they produce to the needs of their community, then that is an indication that the benefit of this project must be reevaluated.

3) How, if at all, do these students’ discourses and authored products express that they identify their problem solving activities and goals as advancing the motives of their group and larger community? This question examines if students associate their individual agency with the goals of their wider group, family, and community. Data that will answer these questions are authored products that result from their activity in projects; extended school activities such as community service co-op courses, mentorship programs, all manner or social activism.  A third authenticity check then for this study is that students constructed knowledges and activities actually serve to transform existing educational practice on not only local levels, such as classroom and school, but also on, meso levels such as district and region.  The established praxis captured by this study would further serve as a model for transformative education on macro levels, as in urban education for minorities across districts, states and throughout the entire country.  If this transformation does not occur after implementation across departments in the school for at least three years, despite being fully resourced materially and with teachers with supportive ideological perspectives, then the project must be reevaluated as to its benefit to students.

Other validity checks

1)    The students may express positive sentiments towards using Moodle because they think this will get them a higher grade in the course. To avoid this students must be allowed to submit their responses anonymously to the instructor of the course.

2)    There are problems/validity threats using focus groups – that certain students will dominate discussion/sway opinion/set a certain tone for conversation. I would respond to this by mixing up the groups that are interviewed.  Sometimes there may be a group of only females or males.  Other times there may be only students who are not as vocal.  In addition I would cross reference student interview narratives with submitted written narratives.  If it asppears that some students don’t have a chance to fully express their views because of the group dynamic, I would invite some of those less vocal students to private interviews.

3)    Student responses may reflect their positive valuation of the instructor who is highly qualified, and this may give a false positive valuation of the Interactive technology environment itself. My response to this validity threat is that having a highly qualified teacher, who is knowledgeable of the interactive technology and the content, are both requirements for the project.

4)    Transformative results on the meso levels of school, district, region etc. are not visible after two years.  My response to this validity threat is that it generally takes two or more years for organizational structures on the meso levels to become synchronized to new paradigms, and to work in ways that maximally leverage the new practices. This is assuming that there is agreement across these organizational structures that the goals of the project will be uniformly adopted and pursued.  The project could not be assesses as a failure unless it is adequately resourced across the meso levels of the educational system, and simultaneously implemented, which would express its universal acceptance as a common organizational goal.

Focus Interview Questions of Participants

The below are specific focus questions that I anticipate will elicit responses from participants that will reveal if the objectives of a pilot of the project have been achieved and if the essential research questions answered.  It is anticipated that the pilot project will make use of the Moodle course content management system as the central collaborative technology medium in conjunction with their regular class, such as Algebra.

Timing of Interview Questions Rational Essential Questions: Focus Interview Questions
Questions given at the very start of the course These questions are to get a comparative baseline on student experience level in, and attitudes towards working in an interactive technology environment (i.e. Moodle) How experienced are students in using collaborative technologies as an aid to enhancing their educational process?

 

How important do students see this mode of learning as a means of reaching educational goals of the course?

Have you used the Moodle tool in the past to help you accomplish the learning objectives of a course?

 

Describe how using interactive technologies may fill important educational needs for you, if at all.

Questions given at the very start of the course The goal of the project is to increase student agency, and identity as doers of math using interactive technology resources.  A baseline of identity and agency is needed to compare to at the end of the project to support claims that the project was instrumental in achieving the goal. Do students express the strong development of their ideological self, privileging their own “voices”, prior to the use of collaborative technology tool? How has doing math been for you in elementary school?

 

How has doing math been for you in high school?

 

Describe your involvement, if any, in community activities? What does this involvement mean to you.  If you are not involved in your community, what would it mean to you to become involved in this activity?

Questions to ask students each quarter and after promotion from course

The goal of the project is to increase student agency, and identity as doers of math using interactive technology resources.

 

These questions are meant to discover if students are actively engaged in the development of their identity as doers of math.

How do these student’s discourses and authored products, express development their of ideological self, privileging their own “voices” See below list of questions to ask each quarter and after students completed the course.

 

Questions to ask students each quarter and after promotion from course

Student achievement must be assessed in relation to their developing identity, critical sense, knowledge construction towards self-relevant problems, and developing agency to achieve individual and community goals.

 

These questions are to see if student identities and agency as doers of math through collaborative technologies, are taking hold even if they were in a low state prior to the project.

How do these student discourses and authored products express development of their affective identities as competent actors in their semiotic domain? See below list of questions to ask each quarter and after students completed the course.

 

 

Questions to ask students each quarter and after promotion from course

Opportunities to use Activity Theory in understanding the process of meaning making, and developing agency to appropriate resources (interactive technologies) that will advance individual and group goals.

 

These questions are to see if student identities and agency as doers of math through collaborative technologies are developing past their personal goals to include collective community motives.

How do these students’ discourses and authored products express that they identify their problem solving activities and goals as advancing the motives of their group and larger community? See below list of questions to ask each quarter and after students completed the course.

 

Questions to ask each after each quarter and after students completed the course

  1. Describe how you have used Moodle to help you reach your educational objectives for the course?
  2. How do you think using the Moodle has helped to improve your overall understanding of the course subject?

 

  1. Describe how using Moodle can fill important educational needs for you beyond what could be done without using Moodle.

 

  1. In what ways, if any, have you used Moodle with others to accomplish complete work required for the course?

 

  1. Describe who makes up your community.

 

  1. Describe your involvement, if any, in community activities? What does this involvement mean to you.  If you are not involved in your community, what would it mean to you to become involved in this activity?

 

  1. Describe how you see the work that you have done through the Moodle as being related to the needs of your community?

 

  1. Please provide any additional feedback you may have regarding your experience of working through Moodle with your class.

 

 

Educational Transformation, From Meso to Maco Structures

What becomes essential in the deployment of interactive technologies is not the technology itself, but the meaning making, liberating ideologies, and problem solving that are all directly relevant to the participants acting to their own benefit and that of the wider collective from which they come. New forms of computer models coupled with increasing ease and power of modifying and sharing these models without regard for distance or time, makes possible a broader, more powerful repertoire of pedagogical strategies that can be pressed into service to accomplish common goals of the collective.

Culturally empowering learning spaces that utilize advanced interactive technologies, coupled with liberating ideologies embedded in the curriculum, have the potential of producing educational experiences for African American students in public schools that are transformative of existing constraining structures in public schools, affording agency for both individuals and collectives. These spaces are not isolated enclaves that locate the problems facing African American students in the bodies of the students or in their ethnic practices. Rather, there is a recognition that agency of students is interlinked with how students and stakeholders access and manage available resources to construct meaning and knowledge that can be applied to their collective problems and motives. These learning spaces can serve as models for a public education generally, for not only minority students, but for all students. So these learning spaces in particular localities can have a transformative effect on meso and macro level structures of education and society as a whole. Sewell, in his Logics of history, conceives of meaningful events as “sequences of occurrences capable of causing transformations in existing structures. … Most events are neutralized and reabsorbed into preexisting structures in one way or another – they may be forcibly repressed, pointedly ignored, or explained away as exceptions. … An occurrence only becomes a historical event when it touches off a chain of occurrence that durably transforms previous structures and practices.”

It is my hope that such a model project of creating culturally empowering learning spaces, and the accumulated knowledge capital that it produces, will touch off cascading series of meaningful events that will durably transform educational practices. My vision is that this will afford minority groups an equal education in its most egalitarian sense, thereby creating a more just society.

References

Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination: Four essays by M. M. Bakhtin (C. Emerson, & M. Holquist, Trans.). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. M. (1986). Speech genres and other late essays (V. W. McGee, Trans. Vol. 9). Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bourdieu, P. (2000). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. Arum & R. Beattie (Eds.), The structure of schooling: Readings in the sociology of education (pp. 56-68). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Bruner, J. (1996). The culture of education. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Hooks, B. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. Education as the practice of freedom (p29). New York and London: Routledge.

Sewell, H. W. (2005). The logics of history, social theory and social transformation (p227). Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Turner K. (2007). Human emotions. A sociological theory (p73). New York and London: Routledge.

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