The year 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the original publication of Jean Lave’s and Etienne Wenger’s seminal book Situated Learning. Back then, Lave and Wenger described learning as ephemeral processes that are accomplished within relatively stable social relationships structured by communities of practice, such as guilds. People learned by observation and imitation, guided by instruction. Digital media have since transformed the parameters of communal practice and participation. In many cases, learning in/as social practice has been re-situated to settings that are infrastructurally stabilized, yet locally and socially distributed; establishing new communities of practice that are themselves characterized by ephemerality and fluidity as fragmented, graduated, and networked publics. Taking this transformation as a starting point, this year’s annual conference of the collaborative research center “Media of Cooperation” will reexamine the relations between learning and digital media from various angles. For one, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced many educational institutions and other communities of practice to completely shift their teaching (and accordingly their students’ learning practices) to digital formats, often in an improvised manner, and it is likely, for better or worse, that this will have consequences for the learning of future generations of students. Furthermore, qualitative social research itself and the learning co-operation involved are undergoing transformation. Much fieldwork is now being done remotely, mediated by various devices, platforms, and infrastrctures. At the same time, research partners have been demanding the decolonization of research and the establishment of new, more equitable, forms of co-operation. The past decade has already seen learning re-situated in another way: With the renewed interest in machine learning in the field of artificial intelligence, new agents of learning have emerged that challenge conventional notions of learning, and also transform the conditions of communality, producing communities of practice that include non-human as well as human actors. New technologies of cooperation, instruction and learning also impact the terms of cooperation across social and cultural realms, challenging or reinforcing asymmetries of power.
From learning subjects and organizations to machine learning systems in artificial intelligence, learning remains a cooperative practice, albeit on very different terms to those originally identified by Lave and Wenger. Emergent digital forms and modes of learning have yet to be adequately explored. For example, the dynamics of conversational turn-taking between teacher(s) and learner(s) are now increasingly structured and orchestrated by digital devices and processes. Data captured by and embedded in apps and learning management systems enable new ways of monitoring learning progress for self-evaluation and to promote (apparent) accountability to external parties. Platforms afford new communities of practice, some short-lived and unstable, others enduring and institutionalized, which call for a redefinition of previous notions of communities, localities and situated practices. Communal practices thus no longer signify the existence of firmly established communities, rather, communality is continuously produced and reworked through cooperative media practices. Increasingly, participation is becoming embedded within chains of digital operations, data processing algorithms and technical environments that lie beyond the grasp of individual human actors. In machine learning systems, the whole notion of learning subjects is replaced by an ensemble of data, algorithms and practices of modelling and evaluation that act together to successively train so-called ‘machine learning models’. Such models have been shown liable to perpetuate the social hierarchies, inequalities and discrimination that structure their creators’ lifeworlds instead of generating transformation through learning. It is therefore important to scrutinize how hierarchies of knowledge and modes of political power are inscribed into techniques and technologies of learning and cooperation. It seems that they are becoming increasingly difficult to trace, let alone undo.
Our collaborative research center is built upon an understanding of media as cooperatively accomplished conditions of cooperation. With this conference, we call for critical reflection on how today’s digital media are re-situating the conditions that shape learning as cooperative practice. The virtual conference is organized around a series of thematically-oriented panels that will take place over several days. To stimulate a concentrated, focused discussion, blog posts and/or working papers by the panel participants will be made available in advance of the conference.
About CRC 1187
The Collaborative Research Center (CRC) 1187 “Media of Cooperation” at the University of Siegen is an interdisciplinary research association consisting of 14 projects and more than 60 researchers from the fields of media studies, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, German language and literature studies, computer sciences, and medicine, as well as history, education, jurisprudence, and engineering. In a second phase, the CRC is receiving funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG) for the period 2020-2023.
At the center of the research is the exploration of digitally networked media, which have turned out to be cooperative tools, platforms, and infrastructures on a broad front. Following this development, for years there have been public debates on “digital participation”, the career of the “social media”, the normative and technological, legal and political foundations of a “digital culture”, and the intersection of digital production, distribution, and reception. The CRC “Media of Cooperation” takes up these developments and takes a scientific perspective that mediates between history and the present and centers on cooperative practices that arise in the media and from which media arise, in order to counter the pressure to be “up to date” that results from constant outmoding.
Concept and organization of the annual conference 2021:
Konstantin Aal, Hendrik Bender, Marcus Burkhardt, Tanja Ertl, Susanne Förster, Philippa Hare, Sam Hind, Timo Kaerlein, Max Kanderske, Karina Kirsten, Claudia Müller, Markus Rohde, Fernando van der Vlist, Anne Weibert, Jutta Wiesemann, Martin Zillinger