The Liminoid Quality of Instructional Technology

At the sug­ges­tion of my col­league, Ed Webb, I’ve just read bavatuesday’s post, “What is an instruc­tion­al tech­nol­o­gist?”  It is bril­liant.  It gets to the heart of the mat­ter about what is wrong with how instruc­tion­al (and aca­d­e­m­ic) tech­nol­o­gy is often framed by admin­is­tra­tions who insist on mod­el­ling it on the ERP par­a­digm of cen­tral IT.  I would only add that the prob­lem is not cen­tral IT per se, or its mind­set, or its insti­tu­tion­al imper­a­tives.  The desire to mod­el aca­d­e­m­ic tech­nol­o­gy after ERP — essen­tial­ly the Black­board mod­el, in which the enter­prise appli­ca­tion becomes the focus — makes a great deal of sense com­ing from a world in which busi­ness process­es are well-under­stood, the risks are high, the costs are very high, and the rewards are rel­a­tive­ly low.  In that world, sys­tem fail­ure can be cat­a­stroph­ic, where­as suc­cess is often mea­sured in terms of absence — as with email, suc­cess is silence.  When things work, no one thinks about it.

In the world of aca­d­e­m­ic tech­nol­o­gy, the risks and rewards asso­ci­at­ed with dis­rup­tion are often what we are look­ing for.  Instruc­tion­al tech­nol­o­gists don’t just deliv­er pre­pared solu­tions to the class­room con­text, they exper­i­ment every time they help a pro­fes­sor devel­op a course with new media.  It is tempt­ing to think of this con­stant exper­i­men­ta­tion as the result of the rapid­ly chang­ing nature of tech­nol­o­gy, or as the result of the rel­a­tive youth of instruc­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy (com­pared with enter­prise IT, which goes back to the 1950s).    How­ev­er, I think that the dif­fer­ence is, as bavat­ues­day sug­gests, struc­tur­al. Edu­ca­tion is not a busi­ness process.  Teach­ing and learn­ing are dif­fer­ent than work­ing and exe­cut­ing a busi­ness process because the for­mer is an inher­ent­ly lim­i­nal process.

I am remind­ed of a series of post-struc­tural­ist oppo­si­tions from my anthro­po­log­i­cal back­ground — Vic­tor Turner’s con­cept of lim­i­nal­i­ty vs. struc­ture, Lucy Suchman’s con­trast between plan­ning and sit­u­at­ed action, Mar­shall Sahlin’s idea of the “struc­ture of the con­junc­ture” between struc­ture and event, Bourdieu’s con­cept of improviza­tion and the messy, qua­si-struc­tur­al dialec­tic between objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and embod­i­ment.

As aca­d­e­m­ic tech­nol­o­gists, we occu­py the lim­i­noid space between for­mal struc­tures — encod­ed in org charts, assess­ment rubrics, enter­prise soft­ware design (see Lessig’s prin­ci­ple that code = law), etc. — and the “event” of learn­ing, which is always part­ly green (William Car­los Williams) and which is why those who teach are attract­ed to the class­room.  That is why we favor open source soft­ware.  Not becuase it is free — we know it isn’t — but because it is flex­i­ble, agile, and adap­tive to the sit­u­a­tion of teach­ing and learn­ing, which not only changes over time, but from pro­fes­sor to pro­fes­sor.  It may be messier than pro­pri­etary solu­tions, but then, we herd cats, not dogs.

To bor­row anoth­er anthro­po­log­i­cal trope, per­haps instruc­tion­al tech­nol­o­gy is to enter­prise com­put­ing as celer­i­tas is to grav­i­tas:

Cel­er­tas refers to the youth­ful, active, dis­or­der­ly, cre­ative vio­lence of con­quer­ing princes; grav­i­tas to the ven­er­a­ble, staid, judi­cious, priest­ly, peace­ful, and pro­duc­tive dis­po­si­tions of an estab­lished peo­ple.

Mar­shall Sahlins, “The Stranger-King,” in Islands of His­to­ry.

Ref­er­ence to con­quer­ing princes may sound a bit extreme.  But that’s not too far from the con­cept of a change agent, which is what we are.  And maybe it’s not too bad of a mod­el for the kind of lead­er­ship we seek to have.

4 thoughts on “The Liminoid Quality of Instructional Technology

  1. Jim Groom


    How beau­ti­ful­ly said, and the exam­ples you bring up make me want to do some seri­ous read­ing in anthro­po­log­i­cal the­o­ry. I’m par­tic­u­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ed by Bourdieu’s “con­cept of improviza­tion and the messy, qua­si-struc­tur­al dialec­tic between objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and embod­i­ment.” The idea of embod­i­ment is so key to these online learn­ing spaces, and the way this frames that dialec­tic makes some ele­ments of the dis­cus­sion so much clear­er to me. Name­ly, it is often with the loose­ly struc­tured appli­ca­tions and approach­es that pro­fes­sors and stu­dents feel like they inhab­it these spaces, that they are some­how rep­re­sen­ta­tive of their teach­ing and learn­ing process, rather than an exter­nal­ized objec­ti­fi­ca­tion their work. They embody their work, and it becomes some­thing they return to and take pos­ses­sion of. It isn’t a microwav­able expe­ri­ence that objec­ti­fies their rela­tion­ship to think­ing about these works, it is an open space where­in oth­ers can join and com­pli­cate their think­ing. When you are con­cep­tu­al­iz­ing and design­ing your own space to teach and learn,it seems it is nec­es­sar­i­ly messy.

    I won­der if you have some ideas about how folks con­trol­ling the aes­thet­ic and design of these spaces impacts their rela­tion­ship to them. or even hav­ing the option to map their own domain. The whole idea of embody­ing these spaces in some real way, and fos­ter­ing this rela­tion­ship seems to be the crux of the dif­fer­ence between the approach­es, and I think you are right on that it is not nec­es­sar­i­ly about cen­tral IT, but about the mis­placed busi­ness log­ic graft­ed on universities–learning isn;t effe­cient.

  2. ontoligent

    Yes, I think you are right – the crux between the two approach­es seems to be where the locus of aes­thet­ic con­trol resides. In the Cen­tral IT mod­el, infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture and lay­out are con­trolled by well-mean­ing admin­is­tra­tors, in the name of secu­ri­ty, effi­cien­cy, con­trol, and, some­times, brand­ing. But fac­ul­ty want to con­trol their own spaces – to embody them, as you say – in order to take own­er­ship of them for max­i­mum ped­a­gog­ic effect. In the Cen­tral IT mod­el, course­ware is all about man­ag­ing what is per­ceived to be an objec­tive and fun­gi­ble infor­ma­tion­al “stuff” (files, syl­labi, dis­cus­sion lists, etc.), and aes­thet­ics and design are rel­e­gat­ed to a sec­ondary, indeed super­flu­ous, sta­tus. But in fact con­trol of those dimen­sions seems to be close­ly tied to the effec­tive­ness of course­ware as an agent and arti­fact in the actu­al process of teach­ing, and fac­ul­ty instinc­tive­ly know this. Or, they know it when giv­en the chance, as the UMW exper­i­ment so com­pelling­ly shows.

    You asked if I may “have some ideas about how folks con­trol­ling the aes­thet­ic and design of these spaces impacts their rela­tion­ship to them, or even hav­ing the option to map their own domain.” You point to the key here – at issue is not only the impact of own­er­ship on their rela­tion­ship to course­ware, but the recog­ni­tion of this rela­tion­ship in the first place. The cen­tral­ized course­ware mod­el rei­fies, into the notion of abstract infor­ma­tion that is being “man­aged,” the sit­u­at­ed and always impro­vised rela­tion­ship between fac­ul­ty, stu­dents, and course­ware in the teach­ing sit­u­a­tion.

    I think this ques­tion rais­es a line of research that some­one (we?) ought to pur­sue. I would love, for exam­ple, to deploy Nan­cy Foster’s ethnog­ra­phy of “work-prac­tice” approach to the sit­u­at­ed use of learn­ing man­age­ment sys­tems, to explore the effects of embod­i­ment. Oth­er the­o­ret­i­cal cur­rents are applic­a­ble here, such as Lucy Suchman’s work on “affil­ia­tive objects.”

  3. Jim Groom

    I do love the way you frame this ques­tion, and explor­ing the aes­thet­ic space of teach­ing and learn­ing is some­thing I am fas­ci­nat­ed by, so count me in—I guess we’ll have to talk more about this offline for I find it fas­ci­nat­ing and impor­tant.

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