edtech,  metaphor

The Ed Tech suitcase

Some of you may remember the hoo-ha we had around Ed Tech as discipline a while ago (re-reading this, the comments are incredibly rich). The general feeling was that a discipline was ill-suited to ed tech for three reasons: a discipline ends up excluding some and prioritising other voices; ed tech is multi-disciplinary by nature; the way it operates is more networked and fluid.

However, not being a discipline leaves it with some weakness, namely the kind of historical amnesia we see so often, and a vulnerability to commercial ed tech setting the narrative.

So while it seemed that a a discipline wasn’t appropriate I wondered if there were better ways of framing ed tech that might highlight its strengths and overcome its weaknesses. One I’ve been toying with is the suitcase metaphor, so allow me to test it out on you.

an open suitcase with camera, laptop and sunglasses next to it
Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash

Consider packing a suitcase for a trip. It contains many different items – clothes, toiletries, books, electrical items, maybe food and drink or gifts. Some of these items bear a relationship to others, for example underwear, and others are seemingly unrelated, for example a hair dryer. Each brings their own function, which has a separate existence and relates to other items outside of the case, but within the case, they form a new category, that of “items I need for my trip.” In this sense the suitcase resembles the ed tech field, or at least a gathering of ed tech individuals, for example at a conference.

If you attend a chemistry conference and have lunch with strangers, it is highly likely they will nearly all have chemistry degrees and PhDs. This is not the case at an ed tech conference, where the lunch table might contain people with expertise in computer science, philosophy, psychology, art, history and engineering. This is a strength of the field. The chemistry conference suitcase then contains just socks (but of different types), but the ed tech suitcase contains many different items. In this perspective then the aim is not to make the items of the suitcase the same, but to find means by which they meet the overall aim of usefulness for your trip, and are not random items that won’t be needed. This suggests a different way of approaching ed tech beyond making it a discipline.

Techniques for making the suitcase items mutually useful to the overall aim then might include running primers for people new to ed tech, explicitly bringing multi-disciplinary perspectives to bear on tech issues, having agreed problems to address, crowd-sourcing principles, and so on. The approach is to reach some form of consensus but that consensus is itself fluid and changeable, varying over time and location, just as the suitcase contents will vary depending on specific trips. This perspective of ed tech allows it to remain more fluid and malleable than a discipline.

Old suitcases arranged together, some bearing stickers
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

A second framing of the suitcase metaphor is to view it as not the container for the field, but the individual ed tech practitioners case. They will bring items in that case which will be unique to them, and the case itself becomes customised over time. Just as people add stickers to their cases, it becomes a record of the journey itself. There is a German metaphor for a case, a Reisebegleiter, which translates as travelling companion, but also carries connotations of something that comes with you through life. This creates an interplay between the temporary and longevity of travel. I enjoyed Maren Deepwell’s recent post which explores this interplay by referring to a Travelling Monument Kit, stating it explores “the relationship between travelling and permanence (she kindly gave me the German metaphor above too). Travelling is all about leaving things behind, discovering new ones and changing perspectives… it’s about change. Monuments are normally fixed in place and time, permanent markers of things to be remembered.” The Travelling Monument Kit is a suitcase that contains permanent objects, or monuments of travel. This “explores how we can create lasting meaning amidst change… It’s about creating something solid and strong, a connection, to bring things into perspective.”

For the individual ed tech practitioner the suitcase becomes something akin to the travelling monument kit across their career. The monuments will include original disciplinary knowledge, and as they progress to unknown areas in ed tech, they seek to make these connections, and gather more monuments. These might be technology, conceptual frameworks, methodologies, or connections with other individuals, events, projects. This perspective emphasises two aspects that ed tech should seek to preserve and cherish. The first is that it recognises previous experience as valid in this context, the second is that it is unique and unpredictable. Everyone’s kit will be different, and it is by developing that kit that they bring understanding to an area that is often new to them, but is also changing itself. Again, such a perspective might suggest ways of thinking and facilitating this in ed tech. We can provide the equivalent of travel guides to help navigate in these travels without prescribing the actual journey, and portfolio accreditation such as ALT’s CMALT process which operates around a portfolio allowing recognition of different experiences.

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