Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Glass Room: Cyberfeminism and the “Cyborg Librarian” in Teaching and Learning

After a recent run of winter weather, kindergarten students at the Episcopal Academy used Google Glass to explain <a href='' target='_blank'>what they know about snowflakes</a>. Powers created a blog, 365 Days of Glass, to record how students and educators at the school are using the product.
Margaret Powers’ student describes snow to a penpal student using Google Glass’ video recording capabilities. (CNN)

-Take a picture
-Screen share with the class
-Hangout with Singapore
-Open AR
-Play a game

The frontier of educational technology is a glass room, on view to the world with little privacy, utopian in its possibilities. It is easy to idealize this space: an iPad for every student will bring the world’s information to their tiny fingertips, applications with the ability to research, cite, share and present information are readily available to the educational and school library markets. The title of this post is a play on the term “glassroom”, meaning a Google Glass-enabled classroom. It may be easier to stomach a wireless-enabled school or a classroom full of laptops used for convenient research over a pair of Google Glass on every students’ head. But our schools are moving toward personal microtechnology for students at a rate that surpasses our ability to research long-term benefits or drawbacks on the intellectual, social and emotional ramifications of that decision.

As initiatives in K-12 education to provide students with personal digital devices expand, so do the concerns of cost, effectiveness and stability over time. The trajectory of educational technology appears to be barreling toward smaller, more powerful devices in the hands of every child- a one-to-one initiative. But is this technofuturist idealism, destined for an information monopoly on every student? Or is it an opportunity to envision a classroom that is hyper-enabled, but due to the instructional design and pedagogical strategies of its teachers and librarians?

Put another way, will we throw the stones, or will we ensure the safety of those inside?

Cyborgs in/of the Glass Room

I explore these questions through Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”, applied to the White House ConnectED initiative to provide broadband access to schools across the country, and to pilot 1:1 iPad and Google Glass initiatives making their way into classrooms. If we apply Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” to the new reality of globalized, hyperconnected education in a similar manner as she first applied it to biology and race, we can begin to build a sort of cyborg librarian manifesto, a protective measure against the blind idealism of technophilia charging through schools and libraries across the country. Haraway writes of the technological disintegration of the organic object. “We see translations of racism and colonialism into languages of development and underdevelopment, rates and constraints of modernization.” Modern American K-12 education, built like a capsule to withstand the movement through rapid technological advances, a classist system will prevail, disintegrating the mission of educating the whole child. The White House ConnectED mission, for example, reads:

Preparing America’s students with the skills they need to get good jobs and compete with countries around the world relies increasingly on interactive, personalized learning experiences driven by new technology. Yet fewer than 30% of America’s schools have the broadband they need to teach using today’s technology. Under ConnectED, however, 99% of American students will have access to next-generation broadband by 2017. That connectivity will help transform the classroom experience for all students, regardless of income.

I read the ConnectED mission, through Haraway, as a cyberpolitical effort to turn the general online environment into a classroom. Aside from “next-generation broadband” the initiative also promises teacher training in private sector educational tools, such as products from Apple, AT&T, Adobe, Microsoft, Prezi, and others. For public education to survive, I think it needs the endowment of the private sector, but with the “fresh source of analysis and political activism” that Haraway presents in the living iteration of cyberfeminism. Initiatives that rely on this government-led classroom connectivity range from benign to downright scary, depending on who you ask. Childrens’ hyper-visibility, lack of understanding of digital privacy, and academic integrity are all equal perils of personal mobile-enabled devices. Educational technologists feel confident that students will be able to do more with devices in their hands, starting with the executive political assessment that students are to be connected to broadband internet at all times, and trickling into individual class projects. Haraway’s “informatics of domination” can be read anew to describe the digital objectification of children’s bodies, thoughts and emotions. Private sector monopolies are well-established, especially between Apple and Google alone. I believe there are positive implications to integrating digital technology into curriculum, but it absolutely requires the boundary spanning capabilities of a professional familiar with the political and technological dynamics of information seeking behavior.

Positive Implications

What can devices do for K-12 students in the classroom? Teachers who use iPads or Google Glass in their curriculum (or a combination of the two) can accomplish the following tasks:

  • Virtual field trips: Through image-based GIS applications, students can visit historical sites, other countries, and can chat in real time with experts and friends. Satellite maps or street-view maps can be layered with information provided by their teacher.
  • Tagging everywhere: Citation and information gathering exercises can help students create bibliographies, but can also introduce them to the concept of folksonomies.
  • Sharing: Wireless connectivity and cloud-based applications provide nearly-instant sharing of students’ work, with classmates, their teachers, or the global community.
  • Problem solving and collaboration: Apps work within curriculum to present challenges in new ways, and the shareable interface allows students to work together easily.
  • Teacher training: With Google Glass, in particular, teachers can see their students’ work from the students’ perspective. Other teachers can also view classrooms from a colleague’s perspective.
  • Assistive technologies: For students with disabilities, voice control or assistive features of a device can make activities more accessible.

Students coding a path for their robot on Kodable, an iPad app. Taken by their teacher, Margaret Powers, using Glass. (CNN)

The Cyborg Librarian as Boundary Object

Technology is still more in the hands of teachers than librarians, but using Gina Schlesselman-Tarango’s model of the “cyborg librarian”, who is defined as “a human-machine capable of interacting with patrons and technology alike.” Librarians span the boundary of the political, technological and personal worlds by becoming equally fluent in digital and human interactions. But the author speaks to cyberfeminist information literacy in the context of the academic library, not in the K-12 realm at all.

Using Schlesselman-Tarango’s idea of this “borderlands” inhabitant is still helpful. The cyborg librarian is there to defend the frontier, to provide translation services. The cyborg librarian figure, she argues, is not automatically cyberfeminist. “The cyborg asks that students work together to find new digital information resources of interest and to share these findings with the class. Specifically, the cyborg challenges students to find information that reflects the great variety of voices that can speak to a particular topic.” The direction of the cyborg librarian has the potential to be a radical feminist act, raising critical consciousness in students. Micro-sized mobile technology brings another curious feminist thread to librarianship and education- it questions the empty-vessel role of the student, and serves as the motor for self-directed learning.  It’s a question of whether analog structures of knowledge seeking and instruction are in fact more organic than applied learning through microtechnology, or the omnipresence of online access. It becomes easy, in hindsight, to idealize didactic practice through print material. But materiality and textuality do not comprise the entire educational system. Is the “old way” of teaching and learning any better? Which mode of learning has the ability to destabilize colonial, patriarchal epistemologies. 

“Okay, Glass?”

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