Power, Control, and Instruction

Power, Control, and Instruction

I’ve been working on a paper for AoIR‘s Second Life Workshop in October, revisiting the issues and challenges we faced in a text-based virtual world and the solutions we developed to wrestle with them. One of the things that’s been so surprising abotu Second Life is how familiar it felt when I first walked in; no matter how shiny the technology seems to become, it remains fairly similiar to the old text-based worlds in terms of useability and structure. And we seem to still be addressing the exact same issues. But looking at our challenges and solutions (former and current) brings home to me one of the central elements of education: power and control.

Power is one of those perennial issues; you can try to weed it out of your classroom, but its shoots are hardy and wiggle their way into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies. Power is written into the layout of the furniture, the structure of assessment and evaluation, the lecture style of instruction, and deep into the minds of students who have had a lifetime of being drilled in its norms and expectations. Even in a perfectly Marxist, radical classroom, where the instructor wears only jeans and a ratty t-shirt and regularly challenges his own authority, where every other privilege and dominant hierarchy has been unpacked and tossed out the window, the simple student/instructor power structure remains. Teachers have more power than they often seem to recognize. Maybe you get used to it after a while, and it becomes something you only notice in its absence.

There are two perspectives you can take on power and control in education, as far as I can tell; you can vow to dismantle it (which, it seems to me, primarily results in instructors dismantling the elements of power they don’t like/can recognize while retaining the parts that they do like/can’t recognize), or accept it and use it thoughtfully, purposefully, and as ethically as possible. The former seems like the right idea, but more and more I’m starting to wonder if the latter isn’t the more successful approach. More pragmatic and less idealized, I suppose, but if your end goal is create an ideal instructional environment where real learning can actually take place (far be it from me to suggest that a teacher can create learning in students, isn’t that yet another form of power and control that’s just assumed?), then maybe the ends justify the means.

In reviewing our old attempts to create classroom environments in a pure-text universe, it seems we spent a lot of time trying to control the speech and movement of students. (Unethical fascist! Micromanaging control freak! shouts the peanut gallery, yes, I can hear you from here, thanks for your input.) A lot of the overwhelm problems we had with students was based in the complete democracy of the space. The democracy of the space is what we love about it, honestly, but it has its upsides and its downsides. When a person speaks in a virtual world, they are no more or less important than any other person in the room; if the instructor gives a series of instructions, but fifteen students pipe up at the same time with playful exclamations, the instructor’s serious words are no more or less noticable, no more or less likely to be read by the rest of the class. When students come into a classroom, sit down and start chatting with each other, they hush when the instructor makes the typical motions that indicate that he is ready to speak. There is a culture of highlighting and adding weight to the words of some over others in a classroom. No matter how communal the instructor feels his classroom is, there is an element of power in his mere presence. There are no such traditions in virtual worlds. This is a good thing; this is also a painful roadblock.

Confronted with students who can’t make out what’s important and not when entering a virtual world (why, it’s all important, and up to you to determine which parts are important to you, says the peanut gallery, yes yes, I know, bear with me for a moment), we developed some tools to give us a hand. The web interface we were using gave all exits from a given room as links in a web window. Students would click on them, not knowing they were moving in and out of the classroom space, and missing half of the conversation. They didn’t mean to do it, they just didn’t know how to manoevre yet. They would get lost, or get confused, or get exasperated. So we built a very simple little tool.

Before we learn that classrooms are spaces with clear power distinctions and rules we have to follow, getting us in a group to do something together is like herding cats. So when we’re small, and out on a field trip to see the dinosaurs in the museum, they have us all hold on to a piece of rope. It shows us the relationships we have to the other students in a very concrete and physical way, and also makes very clear who’s got power and control over us in this situation. (Can we unpack the concept of “control” for a moment to see it’s upsides as well? The person leading us at the front end of the rope knows where she’s going, she’s serving a useful purpose. When we hold on to the rope, we’re doing it because we were told to, but also because we want to; we’re complicit in this power relationship. We want to go see the dinosaurs. We don’t want to get lost. The control is not in the person herself, but in what they have to offer right here and now.) With the rope, we can be safely brought to one place to experience something together; we can avoid the confusion of learning all the steps to a particular place in order to get there. That piece of rope is a particular bit of scaffolding to get us all literally and figuratively from one place to another. It’s a ramp to get us over the big procedural learning curve it would take to get there on our own.

We wrote virtual rope. (Well, by “we” I mean Catspaw.) We needed to get students over that hurdle so that they could see the point of learning how to do it on their own. We took control in order to help students come to grips with the meaning of a space, and then gave it back.

I’m still conflicted about power and control in an instruction/learning situation. I don’t want to restrict what students can and can’t do; I want them to explore and build their own knowledge. I’m conflicted by the fact that sometimes taking power and control by the horns and using it deliberately to show students where the tools are, how to use them, how to get comfortable with them and then dismantling it afterwards has good effects.

I just finished writing about a space within a virtual world where I hacked the script on a room that allows students to talk. I actually removed their ability to speak. I knew there were ethical issues with it when I did it, and remember how cautiously I trod with it, but strangely it was shockingly successful, and didn’t put people off at all. Can we be forgiven for these deliberate grabs for power in an instructional situation if it results in a more engaged and motivated student? (NO! shouts the peanut gallery. Okay, okay, mea culpa.)

0 thoughts on “Power, Control, and Instruction

  1. The restrictions you may be a part of imposing in order to help develop students may have greater effects than you plan for. Perhaps that can be a comfort; that students will find not only the lesson that has been prepared for them – develop their expected skills, learn to think in the different ways they were challenged to – but also learn to consider wys of changing the mechanism, changing the construct within which they are to operate. I suppose that is what all devoted to teaching and knowledge management hope for: ongoing amplification of insight.

  2. Yeah, I was thinking about that too…using certain control elements as training wheels to mimic the way things are in real life, just to ease students into it before you take them off. My experience thus far is that virtual worlds really stagger people when they first visit them. I go back and forth on the criticisms of folks recreating the real world in places like Second Life; people say doing so is profoundly uncreative and unhelpful, but there’s something reassuring about understanding how to manage in a space because it looks so familiar. At least to start with.

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