Educational Code/Space

Rob Kitchin, National University of Ireland Maynooth

Over the past fifty years everyday life has become increasingly reliant on software. Modes of work, play, consumption, travel, communication, learning, and governance are being mediated and augmented by software-enabled technologies and systems.  So much so, that it is now almost impossible to live outside of the orbit of software — it is infused into the very fabric of everyday life, often in ways that are backgrounded and routine (even if one is not directly interfacing with software, it is shaping domains to some extent).  Indeed, such has become the dependency on code for systems to function that when it fails the intended outcomes cannot take place.  This is the argument that myself and Martin Dodge (2011, MIT Press) developed at length in our book, Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life — software, to varying degrees, conditions modern life.

We detailed that life and places are increasingly full of coded objects (objects that have software embedded into them or are machine-readable) and coded infrastructures (infrastructures that transfer digital bits and depend on software to manage them) that support coded processes (various kinds of digitally-mediated interactions and transactions) and combine to constitute coded assemblages (dense amalgams of interconnected coded objects,  infrastructures and processes).

We also argued that much work needs to be undertaken to conceptualize software and the work that it does in the world.  We contented that software is not simply lines of code that perform a set of instructions, but rather needs to be understood as a social product that emerges in contingent, relational and contextual ways, the outcome of many minds situated with a diverse social, political and economic relations.  Software is a complex, multifaceted, mutable set of relations created through discursive, economic and material practices.  Moreover, it enables diverse processes to be enacted; it undertakes work in the world, often across networks.

Software thus participates in the world as a potent actant.  It does so because it possesses high technicity; the evolutive power of technologies to make things happen.  Software facilitates transduction to occur; how a domain structures itself as a partial, always incomplete solution to a relational problem.  Such relational problems include undertaking domestic tasks, travelling between locations, conducting work, communicating between people, practicing consumption, managing organisations, teaching pupils, etc., with software creating, enacting and facilitating solutions.

For us, the pervasiveness of software and its technicity and transductive qualities alters the nature of a number of fundamental elements and practices of everyday life.  In particular, we examined how software changed the nature of space and governance.  The production of space, we argued, has becoming increasingly dependent on software to take place.  This produces a spatial formation we termed ‘code/spaces’: spaces dependent on code to function — if the code fails then the space will not be transduced as intended (if the checkout tills crash then the supermarket cannot operate as a shop but rather as a warehouse, since no goods can be processed without the laser scanner).  Software is also changing how societies are monitored and regulated, producing new forms of surveillance and dataveillance, that are automated, autonomous, and automatic in how they operate.

In the paper presented at the Code Acts seminar in Stirling, I introduced these ideas and then sought to perform an initial mapping of them onto the education domain.  The argument I developed was that practices and spaces of education are now thoroughly mediated and augmented by software-enabled technologies; that much education takes place in code/spaces and are shaped by coded practices.  For example:

  • Teaching materials are being created using software programmes
  • Teaching is being co-delivered through digital media, supported by digital ancillary material and social media platforms
  • Forms of assessment are being administered and processed using software packages
  • Classrooms are enhanced with digital projectors and smart interfaces
  • Administration is reliant on spreadsheets and online forms
  • Oversight are calculative practices exercised with key performance indicators
  • Research and fieldwork is increasingly mediated by digital technologies — the internet, cameras, voice recorders, sensors – that produce volumes of digital data that are analyzed using analytics software
  • Publishing is mediated by software – writing, sharing, production, etc.

Software is thus making a difference to the way in which education is conceived and delivered; the educational practices of education (teaching, admin, research); and the management and governance of education.  Yet, little critical and conceptual attention has been paid to thinking through role of code and associated digital forms such as databases and ICT infrastructures in reshaping the educational landscape and the implications and consequences of making software so central to how education is performed, organised, and managed.

In the final section of the paper, I provided a potential conceptual frame for organising a research agenda that would examine the relationship between software and education, and argued that such a programme of work needs to be undertaken.  This programme would be much more than a set of instrumental studies of the effects of code on learning outcomes or performance metrics, but would consider the wider ethos, ethics and ambitions of education. It would consider how education is translated into code, and also how code transduces education.

The Code Acts seminar series is clearly an important step in facilitating such a programme to be enacted.  The papers presented did not conceive of software from either a purely technical or pedagogic perspective, but rather tried to think through more holistically the nature of software and its diverse intersections with education; to consider what does it mean for education to be a coded assemblage of coded objects, infrastructures and processes; for education to take place in code/spaces.  There is much, much more work to be done, however.

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