Perspectives on Digital Leadership Development From Technology Education
By Kirstin Phelps and Martin Wolske
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Kirstin Phelps is a doctoral candidate in Information Sciences at the iSchool at the University of Illinois. Her research interests explore the intersection of leadership, sociotechnical systems, and technology education; specifically, in exploring collective leadership roles within community digital literacy initiatives. Previously, she spent over a decade as a leadership educator and practitioner at the Illinois Leadership Center where she taught leadership courses as well as designed curriculum for, and facilitated, student leadership programs. Her degrees include a B.S. in Agricultural Communications/Advertising and an M.S. in Agricultural Education.
Martin Wolske is a Senior Research Scientist and Lecturer at the iSchool at Illinois, as well as the Interim Director for the Center for Digital Inclusion. His research and teaching focus on the physical networking of people in families, constituencies, and communities, amplified through effective selection, co-creation, and use of social + technical information systems, especially using creative digital literacies, design thinking, and rapid prototyping. He has also served in a range of boundary spanning roles facilitating community collaborations, shepherding engagement projects, developing innovative technical resources, and advocating system change.
How might we, as educators, integrate technology more thoughtfully into our pedagogy and practice around leadership development in ways that support and empower not just our students, but the groups and organizations they serve? Considerations and examples from the field of technology education, which utilizes a critical sociotechnical (CIS) framework, are shared to help expand our understanding of technology. By focusing on valuing learners’ lived experiences around technology, we can learn how to better support an incorporation of technology that is person-centered, reflective, and responsive to the needs of individuals and groups.
You are walking into the first session of a technology workshop. The instructor greets you with a piece of paper and a pencil and directs you to follow the prompt: Draw a picture of an innovator innovating.You are walking into the first session of a technology workshop. The instructor greets you with a piece of paper and a pencil and directs you to follow the prompt:
Draw a picture of an innovator innovating.
- What would you draw?
- Is it an abstract concept? A person? A group of individuals?
- What is happening in your picture?
- If there are people, what are they doing?
- Where are they doing it?
The instructor comes to the center of the room and greets everyone formally, asking for individuals to go around and introduce themselves. The instructor continues: “In your introduction, however, in addition to your name please also share an example of a time you used something outside of its intended purpose to solve a problem.” What would you say?
Other participants provide a few examples: “repurposing binder clips to serve as an organizer for device wires,” “using inexpensive heat-resistant, food safe tile blocks as pizza stones in a grill,” to “using old soda bottles, filled with water and turned upside down in a potted plant, as a slow drip watering system.”
The instructor thanks everyone for sharing, then asks you to hold up your picture. Looking around the room you notice a lot of drawings of single individuals, often wearing what appear to be lab coats, working individually in front of a workbench or computer. The instructor echoes this observation and adds: “Why is this our idea of an ‘innovator’ and why don’t we acknowledge our own ability to innovate? Not moments ago, each of you introduced yourself and shared a personal innovation you created through the creative repurposing of everyday technology. Why, then, don’t you see yourself as an innovator?”
Why is this? Why is it that when we think about concepts around innovation and technology we rarely see ourselves as an essential, engaged, and agentic part of the process? Why do we consider technology as something used, versus seeing technology as shaped by individual needs and social context?
The above activity is often used as an introduction to digital literacy workshops and professional education courses at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois. Learners immediately begin to consider their own agency and creativity around technology while also being asked to question the view of technology as the thing that solves problems. While many workshops and courses involve gaining skills using a specific technology, the overarching goal is often to help “develop individuals’ capacity to play leadership roles in bringing about their valued social changes” (Digital Literacy for ALL Learners, n.d.). To do this, it is essential that participants challenge the dominant technological deterministic view of technology – which positions technology as the driver to social change – and begin to see technology as an innovation-in-use that is modified through dynamic social interactions and defined by social context (Bruce et al., 2009; Whitworth, 2009).
“We must rapidly begin to shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” — Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., (1967) “Beyond Vietnam.”
What do we mean by seeing technology as innovation-in-use? Get out and consider your smartphone. What apps do you have installed? Which ones have you uninstalled? What are you currently using your phone for? As a note-taking device? An e-reader? A fitness tracker? A personal archive? A gaming device? All or none of the above? If you were to look at your friends’ phones, it would be very unlikely that any one of them has a phone exactly like yours, with the exact same apps and used in the exact same way. Instead, your phone is uniquely situated to you and your needs, based upon your social context and the requirements of your social interactions. A phone is not just a device, used by you and all others in the same way.
Assuming a passive view of technology not only minimizes the individuality of the user, but it also obscures an individual’s agency in how, why, and to what purpose they choose to integrate technology into their lives. Rather than reinforcing a thing-oriented view of technology — which imbues technology with the agency, importance, and power — educators are calling for a person-oriented approach that focuses first on the needs of individuals and groups, and second on how technology can support those needs.
In response to this call, we approach technology education from a critical sociotechnical (CIS) framework (Wolske, 2016) which “embeds learning about technology within the larger community development goals of students, helping them shape design choices by integrating their impulses, past experiences, and community knowledge. Students do not just learn how the parts of a computer or network fit together, they learn how selecting one technology over another is to also choose certain embedded social and political qualities, and how such choices may subsequently impact others in their community negatively or positively” (Wolske & Haniya, 2015, p. 2).
Among other things, a CIS framework recognizes a power-mediated mutual shaping of society and technology. People’s everyday experiences serve as an essential gateway in understanding systems of oppression and the ways technology, if left unchallenged, can reinforce these systems. In parallel to leadership education, CIS emphasizes sensitivity to power structures, awareness of in-group and out-group dynamics, and the development of capacities to help groups and communities integrate technology in ways that support social transformation.
In addition to the aforementioned activities, lessons on building electrical circuits or dismantling and rebuilding computers are often introduced with small group discussion on critical readings exploring technology through the lenses of social justice, structural inequality, and identity (Chundur, 2017; Cooke, 2016; Eubanks, 2011). The importance of incorporating individuals’ lived experiences in the course is also visibly reinforced through a re-titling of social roles. At the start of the semester, ‘instructor’ and ‘student’ designations in the online course management system are changed to ‘instructor/student’ and ‘student/instructor.’ This simple modification acknowledges the social expectations of formal classroom roles while also signaling everyone’s informal role in the collective learning process.
As with leadership education, technology education focuses on how to build human capacity. Leadership education stresses engaged pedagogy to promote relational, principled leadership, concerned with issues of identity, privilege, and participation (Guthrie & Jenkins, 2018). Similarly, technology education instructors increasingly rely upon critical, feminist viewpoints to combat technological utopian applications that fail to respond to users’ needs (Lecher, 2018) or worse, reinforce social, cultural, and political disparities (Simonite, 2017; Watters, 2012). It is essential that practitioners in both fields learn to leverage the wisdom of the other, particularly as technology becomes ever more integrated into the professional and personal lives of individuals, groups, and communities engaged in leadership.
As leadership educators, we can support this work by introducing critical viewpoints around technology as we look to incorporate it more in our teaching and practice. Exploring and acknowledging the different uses, expectations, and assumptions others have about the same technologies can help ensure technologies empower, rather than reinforce, the status quo. Specific suggestions include considering the activities and exercises above, as well as:
- Encouraging discourse and exploration of different understandings and uses of technology among your students (as illustrated through the exercises above).
- Recognizing technological utopian thinking that promotes unitary ideals of technological progress, assumptions of digital natives, and rhetoric that advances the view of technology as the solution to societal challenges.
- Learning more about the historical movements and current motivations within technology education. Some introductory readings include: Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community by Langdon Winner (1997), as well as popular press books like Geek Heresy by Kentaro Toyama (2015), Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks (2017), and Participatory Culture in a Networked Era by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd (2016).
Bruce, B.C., Rubin, A.D., & An, J. (2009). Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems. In B. Whitworth & A. de Moor (Eds.),Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems (pp. 685-698). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
Bruce, B.C., Rubin, A.D., & An, J. (2009). Situated Evaluation of Socio-Technical Systems. In B. Whitworth & A. de Moor (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Socio-Technical Design and Social Networking Systems (pp. 685-698). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference.
Chundur, S. (2017). Digital Equity Through a Social Justice Lens: A Theoretical Framework. In P. Resta & S. Smith (Eds.), Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference (pp. 1385-1393). Austin, TX, United States: Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education (AACE).
Cooke, N. A. (2016). Counter-Storytelling in the LIS curriculum. In U. Gorham, N. Green Taylor, & P.T. Jaeger (Eds.), Perspectives on Libraries as Institutions of Human Rights and Social Justice (pp. 331-348). Emerald Group Publishing Limited.
Digital Literacy for ALL Learners. (n.d.) Fundamentals. Retrieved from http://publish.illinois.edu/digital-literacy4all/fundamentals-2/
Eubanks, V. (2011). Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Eubanks, V. (2017). Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police and Punish the Poor. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Guthrie, K. L. & Jenkins, D. J. (2018). The Role of Leadership Educators: Transforming Learning. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Jenkins, H., Ito, M., & boyd, d. (2016). Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
King. M.L. (1967, April 4). Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence. Retrieved from http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkatimetobreaksilence.htm
Lecher, C. (2018, March 21). What Happens When an Algorithm Cuts Your Health Care. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/3/21/17144260/healthcare-medicaid-algorithm-arkansas-cerebral-palsy
Simonite, T. (2017, August 21). Machines Taught by Photos Learn a Sexist View of Women. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/machines-taught-by-photos-learn-a-sexist-view-of-women/
Toyama, K. (2015). Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
Watters. A. (2012, April 9). The Failure of One Laptop per Child. Retrieved from http://hackeducation.com/2012/04/09/the-failure-of-olpc
Whitworth, B. (2009). A Brief Introduction to Sociotechnical Systems. In Khosrow-Pour, M. (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Information Science and Technology, Second Edition (pp. 394-400). Hershey, PA: Information Science Reference. doi:10.4018/978-1-60566-026-4.ch066.
Winner, L. (1997). Cyberlibertarian Myths and the Prospects for Community. ACM Sigcas Computers and Society, 27(3), 14-19.
Wolske, M. & Haniya, S. (2015, February). Demystifing Technology for ALL Learners. ISTC report (TR055). Retrieved from https://www.ideals.illinois.edu/handle/2142/73301
Wolske, M. (2016, Summer). A Radical Reconsideration of Digital Literacy. Information for Social Change, 36, 41 – 62. Retrieved from http://libr.org/isc/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ISC36.pdf