Decolonising Learning Technology Part 1
John Traxler, Professor of Digital Learning in the Education Observatory, University of Wolverhampton.
Recently I was invited to the panel at ALT-C discussing the Association’s new ethics framework and at some point, according to a flutter on Twitter, “@johntraxler suggested we need to decolonise education technology.”.
A great idea whose time may have come! Certainly, it would feed into moves to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and moves to ‘decolonise research’ but what exactly might it actually mean? And given the moves to decolonise the curriculum, what should technologists do to decolonise learning technology before handing it on to curriculum professionals?
What is Decolonising?
A very recent newspaper article entitled ‘Lecturers are key to ending colonial epistemicide’ (University World News 2021) provides an excellent and accessible overview, saying “The simplest definition of decolonisation of the African university is the process of undoing all legacies of colonialism.” Understandably, given the African readership, the article does not focus on the legacies of colonialism within English universities.
A manifesto from students at Keele University (2021) offers more, saying, “Decolonization 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’s a culture shift to think more widely about why common knowledge is what it is, and in so doing adjusting cultural perceptions and power relations in real and significant ways.”
This sounds both highly political and fairly abstract but events at the universities in Cape Town and Oxford, tagged as #RhodesMustFall, make it clear that feelings run high, as does the wider #BLM movement.
A forthcoming event (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/decolonising-learning-technology-tickets-184185242017) will help us in developing an understanding the implications of ‘decolonisation’ for us as learning technologists and as academics and researchers who use learning technology, a term that incidentally embraces online learning, educational technology, digital learning and a component of blended learning. Decolonising learning technology is about combatting the ways in which learning technology reproduces and represents the ideas and values of the dominant white anglophone majority.
My original remark, subsequently jumped on by John Couperthwaite of ALT and developed into an ALT webinar, was merely the spontaneous assumption that there was an important question that needed to be asked but not one to which I necessarily had the answer. I did however realise that the topic had been on my mind for quite a few years in different forms. I wrote a paper five years ago (Traxler 2017) that implicitly tackled one aspect of it, namely the technology itself.
I asserted that digital technology increased the disadvantage of peoples, communities and cultures that were different and distant from the norms, values, habits, styles, languages and cultures of the global and national mainstreams, specifically those distant and different from the dominant global Anglophone digital corporations. Digital technology in education was re-arming forms of colonialism or perhaps arming forms of neo-colonialism.
This happened in a multitude of ways.
Take simple messaging. My Arab colleagues chose to text in English rather than their mother tongue because the ASCII base for English texts was cheaper than the Unicode base for Arabic; my Chinese colleagues had until recently to use the simplified Latin font for Chinese (pinyin) rather than Chinese characters because the latter needed the introduction of the graphic interfaces and character prediction of smartphones. In both cases, the users were skewed away from their native preferences and towards American English.
Similar examples abound in speech recognition, such as Dragon, Alexa or Siri, where most languages, except English and other global ‘power languages’, and most dialects, except the standard, are still not supported. Furthermore, haptic interfaces favour European gestures and do not favour cultures with a different gestural vocabulary. Autocorrect is often another form of bias as is predictive text, skewing users towards a particular standard American lexicon – it will for example often capitalise james but not john. It is likely that digital language translation, such as Google Translate, has a similar impact on languages and dialects.
Icons and graphic interfaces, for example folders, folders, waste bins, clocks and egg-timers, are usually derived from a European or American cultural context and most applications and operating systems are American in origin and culture, with those for most African languages only gradually gaining popularity through Linux distributions. Perhaps the textual dominance of American English is being replaced by graphical dominance of American images and icons. The massive popularity of emoticons and emojis in mobile phones assumes there is some common global consensus about their meaning, the ‘thumbs up’ for example, but studies (Meier, Goto & Wörmann, 2014) suggest this cannot be assumed and might just be another way in which globalised forms have over-riden local ones.
This blog was published Jonh Traxler of the ALT West-midlands membership group. Part 2 will be published next week.
Learn more at their upcoming event ALTWM Webinar: Decolonising Learning Technology on 24 Nov 2021, 1:00 PM through 2:30 PM. Register here
Adams, R. (2021). Can artificial intelligence be decolonized?. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 46(1-2), 176-197.
Elers, S. (2014). Maori are scum, stupid, lazy: maori according to Google. Te Kaharoa, 7(1).
Hall, R. (2013) On the Secular Crisis and a Qualitative Idea of the University. Available online: http://www.richard-hall.org/tag/history/page/4/ (accessed on 13 October 2021).
Keele (2021) Keele’s Manifesto For Decolonising The Curriculum? Available online at http://www.keele.ac.uk/equalitydiversity/equalityframeworksandactivities/equalityawardsandreports/equalityawards/raceequalitycharter/keeledecolonisingthecurriculumnetwork/
Mail & Guardian (2012) available at https://mg.co.za/article/2012-12-27-zumas-dog-comments-meant-to-decolonise-the-african-mind/ accessed 13 October 2021
Meier, A., Goto, K., & Wörmann, M. (2014, June). Thumbs Up to Gesture Controls? A Cross-Cultural Study on Spontaneous Gestures. In International Conference on Cross-Cultural Design (pp. 211-217). Springer, Cham
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News24 (2013) Available online https://www.news24.com/news24/Technology/News/Mxlish-the-12th-official-SA-language-20130328, accessed 13 October 2021
Traxler, J. & Lally, V. (2015) The Crisis and the Response: After the Dust Had Settled, Interactive Learning Environments 24(5), pp1016-1024
Traxler, J. (2017) Learning with Mobiles in Developing Countries –Technology, Language and Literacy, International Journal of Mobile & Blended Learning, 9(2): pp1-15
Traxler, J. (2018) Learning with Mobiles: the Global South, Research in Comparative and International Education, Vol. 13, Number 1, pp 152 – 175
Traxler, J. (2018), Digital Literacy: A Palestinian Refugee Perspective, Research in Learning Technology, Vol. 26, pp1 – 21 https://journal.alt.ac.uk/index.php/rlt/article/view/1983
Traxler, J., Khlaif, Z., Nevill, A., Affouneh, S., Salha, S., Zuhd, A., & Trayek, F. (2019). Living under occupation: Palestinian teachers’ experiences and their digital responses. Research in Learning Technology, 27. https://doi.org/10.25304/rlt.v27.22
World University News (2021) Lecturers are key to ending colonial epistemicide, World University News, available online at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20211006114502190