Notes for April Meeting

Digital play and technical code: what new knowledge formations are possible? – Susan Edwards – 2021 – longer notes here

This article concerns how Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) research promotes ‘play’ historically and with digital technologies. Edwards suggests the ‘digital’ aspect of digital play is currently poorly researched. The article uses Feenberg’s (2009) concept of the ‘technical code’. Technical codes arise from valued knowledge informing our practice of technologies, inherently excluding other (less valued) knowledges. This situates technology within a human context and suggests people understand technologies through the settings they (the people) find themselves in. The concern with technical codes is that it can lead to ‘sedimentation’ of technical understanding, through privileging one form of knowledge. This article seeks to rectify this through offering four perspectives/technical codes on digital play: technological determinism, substantivism, technological feminism and critical constructivism.

Play has a long history in ECEC, stemming from sociocultural understandings of cultural participation (Rogers, 2015). Play remains influential in the digital age. Edwards describes this as a ‘historical reliance on play’ in ECEC, with technology being integrated within ‘existing play-based approaches’. Educators recognise that children grow up in a digital society. This has two outcomes: educators consider digital play necessary or avoid it altogether (‘freeing’ children from a technological yoke). This ultimately still focuses on play, with technology merely being a material artefact. This is not inherently bad, framing technologies through the technical code of play makes them easier to integrate into education, for example. However, alternative perspectives/technical codes can be positive for preventing a sedimenting of knowledge.

Four alternative technical codes are given here:

  • Technological determinism: seeks to explain technologies as socially causative. Technology is seen as a tool used by people to derive a particular outcome. This can be positive (facilitating communication) or negative (reducing physical activity). These positive or negative viewpoints alter how technologies are deployed in the classroom.
  • Substantivism: describes how technologies shape social practices so much so that the technologies become invisible. This views technologies almost as autonomous or beyond human control. Technologies are viewed as prioritising efficiency within systems. Thus, technologies limit what is available to children through only the most efficient (in terms of cost and time) being provided. Technologies subtly structure why we do things by structuring how we do things.
  • Technological feminism: considers gendered or sexed relations with technologies, particularly how women are othered due to the perception of technologies as masculine. The othering of women ensures masculine domination of technological fields. Technology therefore reifies existing power relations within society through design decisions. Children’s participation in digital play gets shaped by these understandings, limiting their future possibilities. 
  • Critical constructivism: the philosophical viewpoint from which the notion of technical code is derived. This considers how human values mediate the design and use of technologies by people in any given context. Technologies are initially designed with values and these values influence any future iterations of the technologies (and of technology’s use).

The Platformisation of Primary Education in The Netherlands – Kerssens & van Dijck – 2021 – longer notes here 

This article asks: how does platformisation work as a vehicle for the integration of public online education into a private global digital infrastructure?; And how can education technologies be governed at various levels to benefit the public good? The former is answered through examining platform ecosystems and digital infrastructures, using The Netherlands as an example. Two types of technological integration are laid out: interoperability (openness between platforms and data flows); and intraoperability (vertically integrated platforms). The second question is answered through comparing interoperability and interoperability, ultimately arguing for the former. 

Platformisation is defined as ‘the penetration of infrastructures, economic processes, and governmental frameworks of platforms in different economic sectors and spheres of life’ (Poell, Nieborg and Van Dijck 2019, 5–6). Privatisation happened in schools before digital technology but works along with digital technology. Privatisation and platformization can happen in an interoperable manner though, if data flows are disparate and the ecosystem is open then power relations can be made symmetrical. In an intraoperable system, one actor controls the ecosystem, creating a monopolistic power structure. 

In The Netherlands, the rise of digital learning platforms (DLP) and learning management and support systems (LMS) in schools created a lot of incompatibility between datasets. Digital learning environments (DLEs) were set up to act as single sign-in areas to provide interoperability between platforms. This did not solve all problems, however, with three main issues remaining: the distribution and access to DLPs; open and mutual data sharing; and privacy protection. Three solutions were implemented in the interest of interoperability. Through collective bargaining from schools, Basispoort was set up to provide a standardised access to DLPS, through a single sign-on system that actually worked for schools. However, international providers (Google, Microsoft, Apple) have not agreed to it. To facilitate data flows, Edu-K designed an open-data standard for the automatic exchange of learning data and test scores between DLPS and schools. This is to allow teachers to track student progress over time, despite any changes in systems. The Dutch government also set a technical standard (ECK-iD) for data protection through a unique and encrypted identification mechanism for students using digital learning materials (ECK-iD 2020).

International tech companies have used Dutch DLE providers who agreed to Basispoort and ECK-iD. These DLE providers collaborate with the big tech companies due to the convenience they offer in terms of software, hardware, and infrastructure (such as cloud storage, and user authentication). Despite agreeing to the principles of interoperability above, these DLE suppliers facilitate intraoperability in the name of convenience. Through working with both the government and big tech companies, national DLE-providers take a crucial intermediary position between two potentially conflicting types of governance: one at the level of a public sector, the other one at the level of global tech corporations’. 

Essentially, ‘Basispoort started as an ambitious project to maintain a pluriform palette of modular learning resources and support services (DLPs) to guarantee a school’s freedom to choose from, and the power to combine, different platforms and functionalities’ but risks now offering a backdoor for big tech companies. The article suggests a recognition of this by governments and scholars, in order to push back in the direction of interoperability (away from big tech intraoperability)

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