Theme 12: CSCL as Ideology
The charge has been made that for some the belief in collaborative learning at the heart of CSCL and the claim that it is occurring is not a consequence of analysis but an ideology of sorts. This raises the question of whether our research seeks to answer questions of *if* collaborative learning is occurring (and if so if it is better than some other alternative) or if we only ask *how* collaborative learning can best be supported, presuming already that it is a desirable goal. More and more voices have begun to raise these questions and point out that people who are co-present while learning together are not necessarily collaborating and groups of learners do not always comprise a community. Is there a need for CSCL researchers to become more critical of the foundational premise of collaboration and when it is an appropriate learning strategy? Some are that such criticality is necessary to more clearly define the reach and limitations of our field, while others claim that is outside of scope and distracts from the central concern of understanding collaborative processes when then do occur.
The accusation that CSCL is ideology implies a distinction between ideology and real science. This distinction, while plausible in an everyday use of language sort of way is not as straightforward as some people seem to think it is. Taking a broadly pragmatic stance – and most CSCL researchers take a broadly pragmatic stance - scientific knowledge could be said relate to human interests (Habermas, 1968). This is true of natural sciences as well as educational sciences but the interest in natural sciences – broadly the prediction and control of nature – is often less subject to dispute than the interest in educational sciences which always involves a political vision of the good life.
Ideology means universalising a particular point of view. Literacy education, for example, is presented in many studies as if it was an unproblematic good. But in oral cultures literacy education can mean outsiders coming in and stealing their children away from them. Literacy changes brains making an oral world-view less comprehensible (Dehaene, 2009). Education – and therefore the study of learning - is always bound up with visions of the good life that are subject to debate.
This does not mean that there is no difference between our ordinary language use of the terms ideology and science (fact and value or ‘is’ and ‘ought’). Taking literacy as a goal could reasonably be described as ideological since it universalises one point of view, that of a literate society, over others, e.g various non-literate groups. But the way in which we study the causal processes involved in learning literacy and the factors that might prevent or hinder becoming literate can be more or less ‘scientific’ or ‘ideological’ (where ‘ideology’ here translates as self-interested and self-deceiving science or, simply, bad science). By ‘scientific’ we are referring to the process of inquiry. What makes it scientific is not a neutral fixed definable good method but social and cultural virtues and practices like integrity, transparency, systematicity, peer review, supporting multiple perspectives, responding to challenges with further reasoning and inquiry etc. (Wegerif et al 2013).
Science, described as a social practice which values an ideal of the truth, could be described as an ideology. If we accept this we have to note that it is a special kind of ideology that enables us to question and develop other ideologies through systematic reflection and discussion between alternatives based on evidence, ( usually this is empirical evidence but sometimes also, analytic arguments as in mathematics and philosophy). Science, in the German sense of ‘wissenschaft’, can be expanded to investigations about the educational value of collaborative learning or other goals to the extent that the investigation exemplifies scientific virtues of openness, multiplicity, transparency, systematicity etc. Philosophical discussion about educational aims can and does progress even if this progress is slower and less obvious than progress in natural science areas.
The CSCL community is self-consciously founded on a commitment to science as a means of shared inquiry and a commitment to the value of collaborative learning as an educational goal and focus of research. Both commitments could reasonably be described as rooted in ideology. But they are different kinds of ideology, one relating to process of inquiry and the other to the content or goal of education. The best way to resolve the tensions between these two commitments would be to subject the concept of ‘collaborative learning’ to systematic inquiry of a broadly scientific kind.
Any area of scientific study has presuppositions that can and should be subjected to reflective investigation as part of that area of science. So the area of CSCL should systematically investigate the nature and value of CSCL in theory as well as in practice. My conclusion to this challenge is that theory needs to be part of the ‘tool-kit’ of the CSCL educational researcher and theoretical exploration of the nature of CSCL should be a prominent part of every conference as well as a strand in the CSCL journal.
Habermas, J (1968) Knowledge and Human Interests
Dehaene, S (2009) Reading in the Brain
Wegerif et al (2013) Science Education for Diversity