Mobile Learning I: Sent from someone else’s iPad

I have a new iPad – well, it is not mine, it’s from my department, part of a deal whereby three of us get to play with them in return for trying to find ways of sharing with colleagues what we have learnt about how these devices transform the conditions of student learning. ‘Mobile learning’ is a strong emphasis in distance education at the moment, certainly at the OU.

I already have an iPhone – an important stimulus to starting this blog was getting it, back in August 2010, and wondering what new worlds it opened up – I signed up for twitter, friended people on Facebook, and then decided to start a blog, after conversations with bright young techie things like Scott Rodgers and Kellie Payne. A way of getting inside the medium, that’s my excuse.

And we also have an iPad already in the house – shortly before the birth of Baby 2 in early 2011, the expectant mum decided to buy one, brooking no argument against the idea (I bought a car; like the iPad, justified on the grounds that this was all for the good of the family). So now we have two in the house (iPads).

I have a worry that these new arrivals are leading us to neglect the paper based media that still litters the house – the daily paper, weekly or monthly magazines, the fiction and non-fiction books. But it is not a controlled environment, I keep reminding myself – the reason these might all be unread these days might have something to do with the disruption caused by the other mobile device that did finally arrive at the end of January last year, the one which turns out to be much more interactive and increasingly mobile than an iPad.

Anyway, I’ve had this one, ‘mine’, about 10 days, and I’m trying to take seriously the task of using it to learn about mobile learning (I have also been reminded of just how wonderful the B52s’ Private Idaho is, accidentally, on YouTube). Using it seriously, mainly, immediately makes clear how far this sort of device is primarily a reading medium – you can of course write on them, emails, even blog entries, but there is something for me at least rather constraining about them in that respect (and I know you can get widgets to annotate online documents, but it’s still not the same as writing in your own books, or as naughty).

We lucky three are meant to report to the department on our i-Experiences, sometime, so I thought I might try to record first impression ideas about just what I am learning, on the move, sitting down, with a device you have to plug into the wall every night, and sync occasionally with your PC, and that’s so expensive you can’t leave it on its own ever, about the wonders of not-so-mobile learning. So, this stream might be become a regular feature.

Like much of the hype about blogging being a terribly important new medium of academic communication (hasn’t anyone noticed that blogging is a bit old, a bit 2000s?), I actually find the concept of mobile learning terribly muddled, not least in terms of the amount of thinking that might still be required about what the implications are (and aren’t) of new technologies for designing quality distance education curricula that enhance student learning and don’t just assume that good teaching is now all about sending students off to, well, YouTube to surf for 35-year-old footage of the B52s.

My hunch is that we are living through a moment when what ‘new technologies’ are doing is making much more clearly visible, and making practically possible, the distinction between quite abstract or ‘dispersed’ practices of literacy – reading, writing, watching, listening, chatting, presenting, taking notes, reflecting – and the specific material mediums with which, until very recently these practices have been most closely associated with. Thinking of this iPad as a learning device immediately brings into view the questions of how we learn from reading text (and from reading different genres), how and what we learn from watching TV, film, video in general, or what we learn from listening to other people talking, or, singing. Which are not, of course, new questions, or shouldn’t be, they just might now have been made much more explicit as pedagogical problems rather than assumptions.

And my second first thought about all of this: the ‘mobile’ bit in mobile learning might be misleading to the point of distracting from the more relevant aspect of ‘mobile learning’, which is so obvious but seems to get covered over by the mobility theme: the really dramatic thing about mobile communication is all about the temporalities of communication they open up, and close down,, in terms obviously of allowing real-time collaborative learning, storage and retrieval on the go, that sort of thing, but also more generally, and mundanely, it is to do with how ‘mobile’ devices actually function as mediums for allowing us to fill in all sorts of previously quiet times, off-line times, with very active communicative engagement with our favourite authors, journalists, or friends. Another obvious thought, bought into focus by the new arrival in our home.

Local Culture II: ‘Mum, it wasn’t Drogba’

I’m not sure that I should admit this publicly, but I’ve just been to watch the Olympic Torch go past – right down the bottom of our road, en route from Bristol to Gloucester, which is a route that maps onto a whole trajectory of my life at the moment.

Last time I participated in a form of organised spontaneity on this scale was in 1997, when we accidentally stumbled into the middle of the Queen’s return to Buckingham Palace the day before Diana’s funeral. Today seemed altogether much healthier.

Anyway, the buzz is all about Didier Drogba carrying it through town – where else would he want to make his first important public appearance since Saturday, after all? Hey, Swindon Town could afford him now, they should snap him up while he’s here.  

Listened to a bit of the Torch’s progress live on radio this morning, a fantastic example of how radio can now conjure really parochial public spheres into existence: listening to the Torch go through Wroughton; or to county cricket live from Taunton? Dilemmas, dilemmas.  

Obviously, I have engaged in all of this for cultural studies purposes only.

Geography and ethics: the latest installment, again

Some shameless self-promotion – otherwise known as the respectable reason for academics to blog, apparently. The second of my three annual(ish) reports on ‘geography and ethics’ for Progress in Human Geography has now been published in print – a full year after going live online. So it has page numbers now.

This one is rather grandly titled Placing life in the space of reasons, and tries to say why I think geographers might learn something from reading things life the McDowell/Dreyfus debate. The first was on the theme of Justice unbound, and tried to glean a set of connections between various strands of work which might be said to give a priority to injustice in theorising normatively about justice. In my head, these two pieces are meant to be read alongside the third, which is about recent social theory which addresses ‘normative’ things, and suggests an agenda around ‘geographies of worth’ [although this bit might be a bit brief and allusive]. I’m sure no-one reads these pieces like this – I don’t. But that is sort of how they were conceived in the writing.  This last one isn’t up online yet, although rest assured that I will post when it is!

Neoliberalism: the latest news

Aditya Chakrabortty set off a bit of fuss by complaining recently that non-economist academics (he meant sociologists, poor souls, leave them alone) weren’t doing enough work on ‘the crisis’ – proving, mainly, that all journalists, irrespective of political stripe, have a standard article template which they roll out every so often complaining that academics work on absurd topics, talk only to themselves, and ignore things that really matter (my favourite recent version of this type of piece is a column by Nick Cohen last year, lambasting Judith Butler for being an obscurantist – it took him fully more than a decade to recycle the story about her ‘winning’ a bad writing contest, and then oddly presented this as if it were an ‘objective’ judgement of academic fact. Read the piece, it’s an exemplary case of the broader genre).

Anyway, I’m getting distracted – the Chakrabortty piece/debate made me think, again, of how pervasive the notion of ‘neoliberalism’ has become as the basis of the standard alternative discourse, the exception as it were that appears to prove the wider absence of a critical alternative analysis that he claims to identify.

In so far as this is the case – certainly in academic circles, the vocabulary and wider theoretical understanding shaped by more-or-less Marxist accounts of ‘neoliberalism’ and ‘neoliberalization’ have become widespread – then this seems to me to compound the problem that Chakrabortty discerns – of a lack of thought about the current conjuncture and its alternatives.

A couple of months ago, I posted one or two things about conceptualizations of neoliberalism and governmentality, biopolitics and the like – including a recommendation of a new book by Stephen Collier. Collier has a new piece in the journal Social Anthropology, a contribution to a ‘debate’ set off in the same journal by Loic Wacquant. It’s well worth a look if you are at all interested in finding ways out of the straightjacket of what currently passes as critical orthodoxy in geography, anthropology, urban studies and related fields.

What I like in particular about Collier’s piece is the way in which he identifies a particular tendency in ‘structural’ narratives of neoliberalism to expand the concept to include all sorts of things, once it is found that neoliberalism in a narrow sense (conventionally defined, rightly or wrongly, as a range of state-shrinking and/or market friendly policies) tends to be found alongside other processes and trends – state-sanctioned violence, or securitization, or counterintuitive extension of state provision in certain areas, and so on. He also has a nice critique of the geography variant of this methodological and conceptual trick, which is to affirm that neoliberalism is ‘variegated’, where that means any variation is only ever recognised as movement anchored to a static norm, combined with a convenient line about ‘contradictions’ and a flawed understanding of ‘family resemblances’.

Collier argues instead, briefly, but it’s the argument of his book on post-Soviet biopolitics too, that actually the concept of neoliberalism should be used much more restrictively, and he again appeals here to Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and neoliberalism (or not) that have attracted so much attention. The basic point comes down to a suggestion that neoliberalism might not be all there is going on in the world, nor even the most important, most determinative thing, all the time, everywhere. And, a little more fundamentally, it’s an argument about the extent to which rather than presuming to know what ‘neoliberalism’ refers to, it might be fun to follow Foucault and keep open a sense of puzzlement about just what sort of ‘power’ a quite specific mutation in economic thought was and is an index of.

Collier’s argument about the expansive tendency of neoliberalism-talk, whereby everything becomes a facet of neoliberalism that ever comes into contact with ‘it’, reminded me of a piece, also just published, by Matt Hannah on Foucault’s ‘German Moment’ (Matt sent me a copy of this paper around the time of those previous posts, I didn’t have time to read or respond back then – I’m doing so now, publicly, sort of, and  I’m not sure if this is rude or not). It’s an interesting piece about the context in which Foucault’s mid-1970s work developed, specifically his engagement with German politics around the time of the Red Army Faction, the German Autumn, etc. It provides really useful background to these debates, including some context to Foucault and Deleuze’s ‘falling out’.

Hannah’s larger point is a claim about the significance of Foucault’s account of neoliberalism which emerged from this ‘German moment’, which included a strong emphasis on extra-legal state violence and securitization, compared to the more narrowly ‘economistic’ account of the 1979 lectures. Others have identified the same shift, but interpreted it differently (to cut a long story short, it all turns on how far one is prepared to think that all forms of state power are reducible to ‘fascism’).

My thought is why this shift should be presented, as Hannah does, as a loss – why does the more narrow account of neoliberalism represent a retreat, rather than, say, a specification. Along with Collier (I like his argument, and not only ‘cos he cites me), it seems to me that the later and narrower focus on the ‘laissez-faire-ing’ of subjects as Mark Driscoll has put it, as a quite precise modality of power, is preferable to the expansive account which would insist on adding in some necessary relation between this modality and, say, securitization – to read the shift as a loss is to close down the question that Foucault seemed to open up in the 1979 lectures by narrowing the focus.

Part of the scandal of the ‘late’ Foucault in his ever-changing incarnations has always been and remains the degree to which he ends up saying much less radical things than he is meant to be saying, given the construction of what ‘Foucault’ is meant to be saying as a central figure of the left-academic canon. What if less is more, when it comes to talking about neoliberalism – what if the term really should be used quite narrowly, and what if doing so might help prise open questions long since closed down – questions that can’t be asked by banging on about hybrid variations, or even articulations, for as long as these formulations maintain a happy consensus about what ‘it’ was and is in the first place.

I’m rambling a bit now – read Collier, he’s more articulate than me.

Newish blog: Ecotechnics

I’m a bit behind here, but James Ash has a newish blog, called Ecotechnics, on ‘the relationship between technology, theory and space’ – regular posts on phenomenology, Stiegler, habits, practices, Malabou, Nancy, brains, that sort of thing, those sort of people. Well worth a follow.