Platforms have become integral to young people’s social and educational lives despite bringing new risks. We explore how a theory of pedagogy can shed new and useful light on interactions on platforms focusing on digital activity in terms of a teaching and learning relationship. We propose the concept of “platform pedagogies” to advance a research agenda to protect the algorithmic rights of children. This focuses on engagement on platforms, the pre-existing digital literacy and knowledge about how platforms datafy them, how digital platforms reconfigure school and work, and the theories that underpin these platforms. The article concludes by considering what it means to live and learn in a platform society.
We propose the concept of “platform pedagogies” to protect algorithmic rights and encourage investigation in:
how the structure of digital platforms “teach” or train forms of engagement and participation;
the literacies individuals draw on as they learn to use digital platforms;
what young users know about the ways digital platforms datafy them;
how digital platforms reconfigure the relations between the school and home and the nature of teachers’ work;
the theory of learning that underpins “educational” platforms.
In recent years, the concept of a platform has gained traction as a way of explaining new kinds of economic, social and civic structure. Originally used to describe a specific interface or website, the “platform” has come to stand for the ways that digital services and online participation operate through an integrated array of back-end services and analytics as well as a series of user-facing affordances and interactions across device-agnostic screens. The platform thus brings together how an individual at a micro level might, for example, make a purchase, communicate with others, post an opinion, utilise a service and so on, with the socio-technical infrastructure which allows the state and commercial entities that run such platforms to harvest, surveil and monetise the aggregated value of such data-driven interactions.
Much platform scholarship focuses on the emergence of transnational platforms mainly based in the US (Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook et cetera), national system, such as China’s social credit system (Liang et al, 2018) or indeed the ways that platforms are now seeking to monopolise hitherto discrete markets (like Pearsons in Education or Steam/Valve in gaming). This article sets out a research agenda to investigate the pedagogic dimension of these platforms. It thus draws on theoretical traditions that use pedagogy as a way of explaining the relationships between individual and society. In a context where platforms mediate everyday social and interpersonal interactions, our goal is to explore what it means to conceive of the power of platforms as a teaching (or training) and learning relationship; and thereby how such conceptualisations might advance the study of platforms in general.
Platforms, we suggest, create and maintain a relationship of trust and control with their users who in some ways can be thought of as their “citizens”. Platforms working with families, schools or in higher education use the authority and trust that exists between students and these institutions, even if the platformization of education (van Dijck et al., 2018) may contain other kinds of risks. This has significance for the algorithmic rights of children, as they often have little choice about participating on these platforms. Our concern is how children’s rights and privacy can be protected, while ensuring they do not miss out on opportunities that are key to their social and educational futures.
In this short article we argue that it is productive to characterise activities in and across all platforms (not just educational ones) in terms of pedagogic relationships. By extension this means exploring how platforms enforce authority, monitor behaviour, train or teach obedience and reward success through automated technologies (Andrejevic, 2019). This would encourage exploration of the mechanisms by which digital interactions such as participating on social media, online shopping, browsing and fulfilling civic duties:
can be understood in terms of teaching and learning relationships;
impose forms of pedagogic authority (punishments and reward);
support forms of compliance or resistance;
require continuous training (updating);
expose people to forms of dataveillance beyond the teacher’s gaze.
As they construct relationships modelled on those acquired through experiences of schooling, digital platforms can evoke discomfort, loss, validation and constraint.
What then would a research agenda of platform pedagogies look like? We begin by providing a critical framework for platform pedagogies and then consider more practical aspects - i.e. what it means to live and learn in a platform society. We identify three main areas of research. First, the pedagogicization of platforms, including how platforms reconfigure interpersonal relationships and classroom management. Secondly, challenging the utility of digital literacies, (including first to support individuals to make sense of and navigate platforms) and secondly, how as a practice it can help us understand datafication, including new forms of governance, surveillance, privacy and platform capitalism. Thirdly, the platformization of pedagogy, including how platforms reconfigure the relationships between parents/families and teachers/schools. This is only a brief manifesto; for ongoing and future projects see: www.platformpedagogies.com.
In the digital context, the term platform has come to mean a programmable, proprietary online site that can be accessed across many different devices (from desktops to mobile phones) and which builds relationships, interactions and data about those interactions within its system (Gillespie, 2010; Plantin et al., 2018). Recent scholarship suggests that these platforms drive contemporary forms of capitalism (Srnicek, 2016; Zuboff, 2019). These approaches conceptualise the platform–user relationship significantly in terms of structural determinism focusing on the asymmetric or unequal relationship between the platform and the individual.
As a theory of power, pedagogy (the structural relationship surrounding teaching and learning) can explain how people "learn" the behaviours and actions that position them in respect of power structures in society. Bernstein (1990) showed that it is the processes of pedagocization (how human activity becomes framed as authorized school knowledge) with its control over forms of knowledge and language that validate unequal power relations - especially who is in charge and who is subordinate. Understanding how pedagogic authority with its attention to the ways that knowledge is framed and classified and what Bourdieu called "symbolic violence"(Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990) points not just to the processes by which people become incorporated in the contemporary social order but the huge range of affordances that shape, support and prohibit such modes of subjectification. Finally, the neo-institutionalist concern with world schooling (Baker, 2014) shows how the wider success of pedagocization into hitherto unschooled domains (Sefton-Green & Erstad, 2018) offers a template to make sense of how pedagogic regimes work.
In pedagogic discourse, interactions are frequently linked to forms of measurement, progression or validation by an acknowledged authority (the teacher). While many transactions and platforms – purchasing goods, requests to banks, tax offices and so forth clearly structure users in a supplicant or client relationship, our capacity to participate in such modes of interaction can only take place because of the ways in which users have been schooled through the platform: it teaches us what is right, wrong and how to progress. In the digital context, the platform is the validating authority – the email you get from Amazon and the alerts from Facebook for example – so that the platform can act as an arbiter allowing or denying progress, as a mode of feedback. In general, many platforms require dutiful completion in a proscribed fashion of pre-set answers much in the way that classroom discourse is modelled on the appearance of an open invitation or question, but the reward goes to the answer that the teacher has already deemed correct (Edwards & Mercer, 1987). Here, the way that some of our practices on platforms have become almost unconscious suggest that we have become "trained" just as we have learnt to behave and perform in classroom situations.
Questions for further research:
How does the structure of digital platforms “teach” or train forms of engagement and participation?
Is there an expected learning of “developmental” progression across digital platforms (experience and age)?
Digital literacies, datafication and data literacy
Digital literacies are frequently taken to describe competence or capability online but can also include creative and critical capabilities including the development of civic, artistic practices and skills. There is a further connection between participation on platforms through our digital acts and the ways that platforms create a digital trace of those acts. Digital technologies have contributed to, perhaps even driven, the processes of pedagogicization, thus legitimating the spread of school-knowledge regimes into everyday life. And of course, the actual processes of textualization, the particular literacies at work in marking and framing experience will continue to be a central concern for scholars of digital culture and the platform society (Pangrazio & Sefton-Green, 2019).
Datafication is the transformation of digital interactions into a record that can be collected and commodified (Mayer-Schoenberger & Cukier, 2013), and is becoming an increasingly important way of creating value in modern society. While datafication has increased opportunities for automated processing, monitoring and assessment, it simultaneously increases the risk of identity theft, data profiling and surveillance. This is particularly concerning for children and young people, as these risks can have a profound impact on their safety, well-being as well as their social and educational futures. Analysis of the way that pedagogic power works in practice through platforms is a productive way to examine how "digital acts” (Isin & Ruppert, 2015) frame human agency because it is our digital acts that can be transformed into data susceptible to the extraction, colonisation and commodification processes that comprise surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2019; Couldry & Mejias, 2019).
Scholarship about digital literacies has not, to date, come to terms with the impact of datafication as: first, a process of turning experience into text; and secondly, suggesting the critical reflexivity usually implied by literacy so that a “data literacy” might offer possible educational interventions. A data literacy that could bring datafication “into the light” would bring great potential to education.
Questions for further research:
What forms of literacy do individuals draw on as they learn to use digital platforms?
What critical understandings might individuals bring to their use of digital platforms?
What do users know and can they do anything about the ways digital platforms datafy them?
Platformed formal and informal education throughout the lifecourse supports the business of accredited education (school and college) as well as lifelong learning (for employment, pleasure or self-improvement). The expansion of educational software into the home (both as curriculum support and as "edutainment") coupled with the integration of pupil management software (such as "Class Dojo") are changing home-school relationships (DiGiacomo et al., 2019). Platforms now mediate new kinds of communication between teachers and families - sending pictures of children in class, ongoing reporting of behaviour, recording achievements, as well as information about upcoming programs or measures of disciplinary concern (Williamson, 2017). Digital platforms have become part of the contemporary schooling experience, and include learning management systems, educational apps or administrative and organisational platforms that “manage” students. In all instances there are opportunities for the datafication of children’s lives.
During COVID many schools have had to rely on digital platforms in the home and although these platforms are now in daily use around the world and appear to build on uncontroversial and established forms of communication between teachers and parents, they raise questions about the ways that these kinds of “digital learning” can impose behavioural norms on families and teachers.
Indeed, the quantification of learning and online learning behaviour is often constituted both as a universal constant and simultaneously without any sense of learner history or context. The drive to aggregate learning as measurable outcomes does not acknowledge prior experience or individual experience because such key elements in any theory of learning, cannot be quantified.
Questions for further research:
How have digital platforms reconfigured the relations between the school and home?
How are digital platforms changing teachers’ work?
What theory of learning underpins "educational" platforms? Is this made visible?
The pedagogic dimension of platforms has been so effective that many individuals use them unconsciously, as a part of their everyday life. The education system is no exception. The use of software in school is often justified through cost and efficiency, even though it may reinforce behaviourism and compromise student privacy. This has significant implications for the algorithmic rights and protections of children as they are routinely expected to use platforms that have the potential to datafy and therefore commodify their experiences. Platform pedagogies provides a useful way of theorising and researching these concerns with opportunities to identify and operationalise strategies for resistance.
Julian Sefton-Green is Professor of New Media Education at Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia. He has researched and written widely on many aspects of media education, new technologies, creativity, digital cultures and informal learning. <www.julianseftongreen.net>
Luci Pangrazio is a postdoctoral research fellow at Deakin University studying digital platforms, datafication and children and young people’s digital worlds. Her current project investigates new ways to understand and materialise digital data: https://materialising-data.org
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