Learning in an age/time of affluenza? #change11

My first reflection on Erik Duval’s blog posting “Learning in a time of abundance” focused on situating the claim of ‘a time of abundance’ against the background of the state of permanent non-abundance and scarcity that large numbers of people (the majority?) experience.

In my first response the main focus was therefore to point to the lack of impact that the abundance of information and knowledge sharing has on the major crises humanity faces.

Let me now turn to another aspect of ‘learning in a time/age of abundance’.

If we accept that many students and educators have access to more information, resources, expertise  and tools for analyses than ever before in the history of humankind, why does it not make a dent in the injustices and equalities the majority of humankind faces? Is it because our notion of ‘learning in a time/age of abundance’ is actually based on curricula and pedagogies of/for the privileged and that we cannot and do not want to question and interrupt the normative discourses of our time?

During George Siemens’ recent visit to the University of South Africa, he defined literacy as (I hope I remember and quote him correctly…) “The ability to engage with and participate in the dominant discourses of the current age”. If you cannot participate in and engage with the dominant and normative discourses of the current age you are illiterate.

I would like to take the definition further by proposing that literacy in the 21st century should be defined as follows: “A person is literate when s/he can take part in, critique, deconstruct, interrupt and shape the dominant discourses and narratives in his or her local and in global contexts”.

If all the abundance we currently have does not result in us questioning, deconstructing, critically engaging with the dominant discourses and meta-narratives of the time – then all the abundance actually means very little except to perpetuate the current injustices, systems of thinking, world-views, epistemologies and ontologies of those who have access, those who own, and most probably those who are in power.

Much of the discourse about ‘learning an age/time of abundance’ actually resembles ‘learning in an age of affluenza’  – the more we have, the more unhappy we are, and the more we want more – resulting in a never-ending cycle which reminds me of the Greek myth of the Danaids – who killed husbands on their wedding nights and who were sentenced to carry water in hole-filled jars for eternity.

Is learning in a time/age of abundance carrying water in hole-filled jars, never quenching our thirst?

So while Dave Cormier and George Siemens (and many others) have written extensively on how the digital and connected age has changed the roles of educators, learners, curricula, and pedagogy – my contribution is rather to ask the somewhat uncomfortable question: What difference does this abundance make in the big questions humanity face?And when will the abundance make a difference?

Or is every tweet and blog and connection just increasing the number of holes in our water jars leaving us, and those around us, with an ever increasing thirst for more?

In order for us to counter ‘learning in a time/age of abundance’ as affluenza, we need to rethink the purpose of knowing more and having more connections than every before…

Or do I miss something?


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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6 Responses to Learning in an age/time of affluenza? #change11

  1. I have similar suspicions. In fact, I’m starting to think the abundance of information is more of a distraction than a help. I appreciate your definition of literacy (I’ll be blogging a response today perhaps), and am concerned that we teach students to not merely participate in online culture, but to question it, understanding its weaknesses, and do something productive to work against the dominant discourse.

    • Andrew – this is an interesting point you raise. From what I understand of learning, is that disequilibrium and discomfort plays a crucial role in learning. I am thinking here of the work of William Doll and Pizzolato – the latter talking of a ‘crossroad’ experience. While students experience a number of crossroads that have an impact on their learning, what fascinates me is how to use the curriculum as crossroad. Therefore I try to deliberately create crossroad experiences in the curricula I develop. The careful balance is to know how much disequilibrium to cause…

      Which brings me to the point – when is the experience of ‘abundance’ an effective crossroad experience and when does it overwhelm and paralyse? While I have no question regarding the fact that the abundance impacts on teaching and learning, I am not convinced that more is better. Like you point out, often less is more…

      Thanks for the response.

  2. Giulia says:

    I really enjoyed your post and critique.

    I would argue that while injustices are rampant and for many in this world, things are desperate and inequitable, you must acknowledge that more than ever, many people are living longer, healthier lives.

    The simplest of things have the biggest difference through ubiquity of information. Like hygiene (wash your hands), water consumption (don’t drink where the animals defecate), nutrition (avoid scurvy- consume vitamin C), food storage (don’t let mice hang out in your grains) etc ad nauseum. These things seem to be standard for us now, but they weren’t always.

    While I agree there is still much to be done to address the inequity globally, the first step is awareness. Without the abundance of information about the state of the world, how would we even know.

    So, I guess I’m saying it’s as good as it’s ever been (definitely not worse) and it’s our role (duty?) as those who know, those who have, those with a disproportionate amount of privilege and power to do something meaningful to bring essential bits of abundant information to share this privilege and power.

    • Giulia, you got me :-). Yes, information and advances in science has changed many of our practices – as in the examples you shared. And while you are right that “more than ever, many people are living longer, healthier lives” – I suspect in the light of rampant population growth the many who “are living longer, healthier lives” most probably disappear in the pool of the permanently disenfranchised and permanently poor.

      A balanced diet with so many veggies and fruits per day is still a glossy rumour for the majority of the earth’s population – and it does not seem as if we are making a dent in the vast injustices, to the contrary.

      There are a number of interesting articles and research pointing to the fact that ‘awareness’ does not go far enough. See the following article on the impotence of ‘awareness’ as strategy:

      Stamm, KR, Clark, F & Eblacas, PR. 2000. Mass communication and public understanding of environmental problems: the case of global warming. Public Understanding of Science, 9:219–237.

      Then there is also the work of Rowe (2002) on how we should move away from producing “armchair pontificators” to change agents. [Rowe, D. 2002. Environmental literacy and sustainability as core requirements: success stories and models. Retrieved from http://ncseonline.org/efs/DebraRowe.pdf.]

      Also see Svanström, M, Lozano-García, FJ & Rowe, D. 2008. Learning outcomes for sustainable development in higher education. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education 9(3):339–351.

      In closing: I agree that awareness is a start, but awareness does not go far enough. Me thinks.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  3. Giulia says:

    Thanks for those resources. I just saw your tweet about liquid networks (Steven Johnson). I really loved that chapter and think our little change11 mooc can benefit a lot from this perspective. In particular, I think about the incubators using parts commonly found in developing countries. This is the kind of thinking we should apply for learning too. But how. Perhaps the adjacent possible will emerge?

    • Giulia – thanks (again) for the response). I was also fascinated about the incubator ‘story’ in Johnson’s book.

      What I found even more fascinating (and scary) is Johnson’s reference to the two hunches with regard to the imminent attacks of 9/11. Bureaucracy and reporting lines and structures prevent these hunches to meet. How many such examples are there?

      I must confess that I am becoming quite despondent when looking at how organisational restructuring and institutional politics ‘kills’ hunches or prevent them to meet. But we will not and should not stop believing in the power of ‘maybe’ –

      ‘Maybe’ comes with no guarantees, only a chance. But ‘maybe’ has always been the best odds the world has offered to those who set out to alter its course – to find a new land across the sea, to end slavery, to enable women to vote, to walk on the moon, to bring down the Berlin Wall.

      ‘Maybe’ is not a cautious word. It is a defiant claim of possibility in the face of a status quo we are unwilling to accept… (Young in the Foreword to Westley, Zimmerman & Patton 2006).

      [Westley, F., Zimmerman, B. & Patton, M.Q. 2006. Getting to maybe: how the world is changed. Canada: Random House]

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