Education Observatory

Research in Education at the University of Wolverhampton

Decolonising Learning Technology


by Professor John Traxler

Recently I contributed to the panel at ALT-C discussing the Association’s new ethics framework and at some point, according to a flutter on Twitter, “@johntraxler suggested we need to decolonise education technology.” A great idea whose time may have come! Certainly, it would feed into moves to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and moves to ‘decolonise research’ but what might it actually mean?

A newspaper article entitled ‘Lecturers are key to ending colonial epistemicide’ (University World News, 2021) says “The simplest definition of decolonisation of the African university is the process of undoing all legacies of colonialism.” Understandably, given the African readership, the article does not focus on the legacies of colonialism within English universities. Keele University (2021) students offer more, saying, “Decolonization […] involves a paradigm shift from a culture of exclusion and denial to the making of space for other political philosophies and knowledge systems. It’s a culture shift to think more widely about why common knowledge is what it is, and in so doing adjusting cultural perceptions and power relations in real and significant ways”. This sounds both highly political and fairly abstract but events at universities in Cape Town and Oxford, tagged as #RhodesMustFall, make it clear that feelings run high, as does the wider #BLM movement. A forthcoming event on decolonising learning technology being held online by the Education Observatory and ALT on 24 November 2021 will help us in developing an understanding the implications of ‘decolonisation’ for those who use learning technology.

My original remark, subsequently pursued by John Couperthwaite of ALT, was merely the spontaneous assumption that there was a question that needed to be asked, but not one to which I necessarily had the answer. I did however realise that the topic had been on my mind for quite a few years in different forms. I wrote a paper four years ago (Traxler 2017) that implicitly tackled one aspect of it, namely the technology.

Digital technology was instrumental in increasing the disadvantage of peoples, communities and cultures that are different and distant from the norms, values, habits, styles, languages and cultures of the global and national mainstreams, specifically those of the dominant global Anglophone digital corporations. Digital technology in education was re-arming colonialism or perhaps arming neo-colonialism.

This happened in a multitude of ways.

Take simple messaging. My Arab colleagues choose to text in English rather than their mother tongue because the ASCII base for English texts is cheaper than the Unicode base for Arabic. My Chinese colleagues had until recently to use the simplified Latin font for Chinese (pinyin) rather than Chinese characters because the latter needed the introduction of the graphic interfaces and character prediction of smartphones. In both cases, the users were skewed away from their native preferences and towards American English.

Similar examples abound in speech recognition, such as Dragon, Alexa or Siri, where most languages, except English and other global ‘power languages’, and most dialects, except the standard, are not supported. Haptic interfaces favour European gestures and do not favour cultures with a different gestural vocabulary.  Autocorrect is often another form of bias as is predictive text, skewing users towards a particular standard American lexicon: it will for example often capitalise james but not john.  It is likely that automatic language translation, such as Google Translate, has a similar impact on languages and dialects.

Icons and graphic interfaces are usually derived from a European or American cultural context and most applications and operating systems are American in origin and culture, with those for most African languages only gradually gaining popularity through Linux distributions. Perhaps the textual dominance of American English is being replaced by graphical dominance of American images and icons. The massive popularity of emoticons and emojis in mobile phones – and soon in robotics – assumes there is some common global consensus about their meaning, the ‘thumbs-up’ for example, but studies (Meier, Goto & Wörmann, 2014) suggest this cannot be assumed and might just be another way in which globalised forms override local ones.

Whilst this seems to represent a comprehensive threat to many fragile and indigenous languages, some of these languages are now finding their way onto digital devices as apps, dictionaries, courses and games. This seems to be the product of tech-savvy diasporas. It does however raise questions about the ‘ownership’ of a language, and of the values and traditions that it transmits, as it shifts from indigenous elders to younger community members.

I realised some subsequent papers (Traxler et al 2019; Traxler 2018) growing out of work in occupied Palestine and dealing with digital literacy were in effect attempts to ‘decolonise digital literacy’. The argument and the evidence were that in Palestine (and presumably many other countries and cultures) notions of digital literacy, whilst talking in general terms about the attitudes, knowledge, skills, access and affordances needed to survive, prosper and flourish in societies become increasingly digital, were in fact importing and accepting practices, implementations and standards that were very specifically European or American in context. These contexts differed dramatically from those under occupation in Palestine.

The Alpine Rendezvous workshop organised by Helen Beetham, currently based in the Education Observatory, and myself nearly ten years earlier explored the ongoing ecological, economic, political crises, and asked whether learning technology was complicit in these crises. We also asked whether the learning technology community saw itself, saw technology, research and education as unconditionally benign, scientifically dispassionate and objective.

Questions at the Rendezvous asked:

  • Have we implicitly assumed that the western/European model of universities is necessarily the sole or best expression of a culture’s or a community’s higher learning and intellectual enquiry?
  • As western/European pedagogy, or rather the corporatised, globalised versions of it, now deploys powerful and universal digital technologies in the interests of profit-driven business models, should we look at empowering more local and culturally appropriate forms of understanding, knowing, learning and enquiring? (Hall 2013)

One paper (Traxler & Lally 2015) portrayed digital technology as a ‘cargo cult’ or ‘trojan horse’ inserting Western (post-colonial) values into other cultures. It quoted a former Permanent Secretary of the Kenyan Ministry of Information and Communication as saying, “Africa’s learning methods through imitation and the oral tradition of knowledge transmission are dying. Modernity is destroying the little that was transmitted”.

This is true of Africa but now the decolonisation movement embraces the same concerns within the English university system as it perpetuates that same cargo cult and Trojan horse. The need to ‘decolonise learning technology’ is part of that global struggle. 

John Traxler is Professor of Digital Learning in the Education Observatory, University of Wolverhampton.

Register for a forthcoming online Decolonising Learning Technology with John at the Education Observatory event here

Image “Mobility” by mripp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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