Captain Cook takes formal possession of New South Wales 1770

Will Digital Colonialism kill pedagogic innovation?

A couple of weeks ago I was quoted in the Times Higher decrying Virtual Learning Environments. There is a wider context to this. For one thing I referred to most “Learning Technologies” and didn’t intend to single out the VLE.

VLE’s were essential to confronting the serious challenges facing the online educator in 1997., They were, in part, created to address the challenge of kluging together various online tools. An html webpage, a discussion board, a file uploader, login and identification. Methods of communicating, content creation, and participation online is much less of a barrier in 2015. The initial need for these content and collaboration tools within a VLE is now easily fulfilled with a plethora of tools, mostly freely available, and so the vast majority of the ‘improvements’ to VLEs have been administrative – managing learning and processes.

Furthermore, the development of VLEs was based mostly on constructivist models of learning, where in this case, technology was being used as a tool to leverage both the learning process and the space in which it was occurring.

As we begin to understand the emerging behaviours and spaces associated with being online we must also review different pedagogies. As scholarly approaches emerge around social media and pedagogic models develop, for example connectivism and rhizomatic learning. These participatory approaches build connections between learners using these social technologies that not only increase value during the course, they persist after the course is done. We must ask ourselves if these ‘do your course and be done with it’ VLEs (and to a lesser extent e-portfolios) are inhibiting the innovation of pedagogic practice? Or indeed inhibiting education itself?

Many of these learning technologies were developed at a time when Marc Prensky was promoting the idea of digital natives and digital immigrants (sic).For many years this idea was considered dogma by some. In order to teach an adult online, you needed to remediate for their inability to fully immerse themselves in the technology. The deployment of VLEs and ePortfolios are the natural extension to fixing, or managing, that ‘problem’ based on the Prensky’s premise.

We are also seeing new behaviours develop in online spaces, students assimilate practices quickly and sometimes discard them just as quickly. Rather than trying to exist in harmony with these emerging behaviours and new spaces we have a tendency to want students to either not use the spaces, or come to our space, using tools such as VLEs and ePortfolios as a way to command, commandeer and control. This digital colonialism, trying to align these emergent cultures with our own pre-existing preferences at best, or at worst forcing an ideology driven by a technology tool, may create barriers to learning for students, but also reduce staff skills in the way they adapt and innovate their own practice.

Captain Cook takes formal possession of New South Wales 1770

Rather than aligning or at least existing in harmony in these spaces, through tools like VLEs and ePortfolios we seek to change behaviours, to align these new behaviours to our own pre-existing preferences. This “digital colonialism”, appropriating the spaces and exploiting them, seeking to change behaviours and trying to bring existing cultures into line with the predominant ideology of a technology tool may create barriers to learning or possibly reduce the ability of users to adapt and innovate with emerging technologies in the future.

With thanks to Dave Cormier and Donna Lanclos for advice.


  1. I found this interesting particularly as it centres upon control and learning behaviour. The tension as I see it lies between the dominant corporate approach to institutional procurement and provisioning which aim to fix a preferred supplier relationship vs the real behaviour of digitally savvy students who often find our choices rather passé and restricitve. As teachers we need to focus our efforts on the way learning happens. It is not restricted to institutional spaces (although they may be useful points of contact). Human learning is a complex, adaptive system and is best described these days I find by the term heutagogy – self-directed learning. Organic metaphors such as rhizomatic learning more effectively describe the way we learn, navigating both formal and informal spaces, interacting with each other and growing “in the wild”. This image may help to illustrate the change required.

      1. Thanks Lawrie for the referral to my blog.

        Teresa, I think you make a pertinent point that it is entirely about “control and learning behaviour”.

        If we see education as a journey then the control(ler) and the learning behaviour should be in constant flux. In an ideal (Sir Ken Robinson style) world we would have an education system that is fully integrated from birth to death. Unfortunately we have a “handover” system where learners are handed over to schools/colleges/universities with little integration between them other than providing exit qualification from one for entry into another. In each case that “place” will have it’s own systems of control which influences learning behaviour. If we had a fully integrated system of education then over the lifetime of a learner we could use the appropriate systems to support them along the journey, shifting the control from the centre to the individual.

        Over the period of a 3 year degree all we can try and do is emulate that kind of approach. Shouldn’t we be expecting the “control” of our learning systems to shift from the institution to the individual? I believe that the VLE has an important part to play in supporting learning inside our universities, but that we should also support students to take more control over their choice of technology. Not everyone arrives at university being “WordPress” ready and so for them the VLE is a safe-haven, a place to go that they know will be there and that works (well most of the time). But we also want them to experience what it’s like to own their own domain/data and how to go about achieving that. Universities are in a unique position to give all of our students that experience if we place enough value on it.

  2. Great post Lawrie! – but I’m wondering how this argument applies to other central means of digital control and normalisation?

      1. Thanks David for asking such an important question. One which I will need to reflect upon in my more philosophical WordPress blog. In my own professional life, moving into different online spaces which better suit different communicative or reflective purposes helped me to develop my voice as a researcher in language education and technology. I got to this point because I had access in the first instance to spaces controlled by others and then realised that I needed to shape my own spaces. As Simon implies there is an arrogance in assuming that individuals will only learn, grow and contribute in the spaces made available institutionally, this is the arrogance of colonialism, the same command and control mentality enforced through bureaucratic systems that resulted in chaos and societal unrest seen in post- colonial cultures. If institutions were to work more effectively with the learning culture of individuals, providing scaffolded access to online spaces and explicit support of the skills needed to master them and find thier own, we are more likely to empower and enable individuals to apply the digital understanding required to research and educate through the appropriate digital spaces. This organic growth could be fostered through professional development in Communities of Practice which are contextualised and give space for experiential application of shades of open educational practice. Time to be gardeners rather than park wardens!

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