Navigating difficult waters in a digital era: technology, uncertainty and the objects of informal lifelong learning

Goodyear, Peter (2021) Navigating difficult waters in a digital era: technology, uncertainty and the objects of informal lifelong learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52, 1594-1611.


This paper uses two complementary examples from an autoethnographic study of learning and sailing to explore some connections between informal lifelong learning activities, their objects (purposes) and the hybrid (digital and material) technologies on which they depend. The examples focus on an aspect of the craft of sailing and on understanding the relations between sailing, place and local history. The paper argues that close attention to activities in which people engage can help discover some less visible purposes of learning and can broaden our understandings of situated skills. The paper also argues that being able to find and configure environments suitable for learning are important capabilities for successful lifelong learners. The paper has two additional implications for thinking about research and development in educational technology. First, a technology becomes educational by virtue of its relation to emerging activity, rather than because of any intrinsic physical properties. Second, educational technologies are often assembled in complex meshworks. Understanding how they function involves analysing dynamic relations and interdependencies: listing the affordances of individual components is not enough.

Notes & Quotes

This paper is currently on open access and appears in a special issue of BJET concerned with lifelong learning in a digital era. I chose to focus on informal lifelong learning, in part to create an opportunity to write about some of the things I’d been discovering in the “Learning with M~” project (a long-term autoethnographic study of learning and learning to sail).

“Objects” in the title alludes to the purposes of learning – which are not always self-evident and sometimes have to be discovered.

From the Introduction:

“This article is one piece of an autoethnographic study of learning about learning and learning to sail. My aim is to use two contrasting parts of this larger, as yet unpublished study to explore some broader questions that arise in the relations between informal lifelong learning and educational technology. Autoethnography is not widely used in educational technology research – see Campbell (2015) and Sintonen (2020) as exceptions – though its use is growing in educational research and in the social sciences more generally. It is a powerful method for documenting and sharing insights into long-term experiences; I have been learning to sail for over 50 years and writing about learning and technology for 40 of them. In that time, my understanding of what learning and knowing entail, and what technology is and can do, have changed substantially.The next section of the paper lays out some background: ideas on informal lifelong learning and digital technologies, activity-centred analysis and design, discovering the objects of lifelong learning and research relevant to learning the craft of sailing and becoming a capable sailor. After that, I provide a brief introduction to autoethnography, including some potential strengths and weaknesses.

The main part of the paper is a ‘results and discussion’ section, in which I try to share some of the ways I currently understand what is involved in learning to sail. I use two contrasting examples. The first comes closer to most people’s preconceptions of what learning to sail involves. It focuses on measurements of speed and orientation to the wind. The second is much broader. What happens when one tries to come to terms with sailing a boat in waters that, until quite recently, were populated by indigenous saltwater people who were brutally dispossessed? How calmly can one sail on the edges of an ocean that is rising and where that rising threatens to drown the island homes of the Pacific’s pioneering seafarers?  There are no easy answers, but this is no excuse for ignoring the questions.

In the concluding section of the paper, I try to sum up what I now see as important for understanding and investigating relations between educational technologies and lifelong learning in these turbulent times. Like Steve Mentz (2015, xxvi), I think tales from the sea can be a useful source of “equipment for thinking in a world of ecological catastrophe”. (p1596)

On complex meshworks; productive and epistemic objects.

“A problem arises from the fact that the paddlewheel of the log spends much of its life in warm salty water, teeming with marine life. In [Figure 1] you can just see three of the black plastic “cups” of the paddlewheel, peeking out through accretions of algae and tiny shellfish. I can remove the paddle wheel to clean it, but within a month or so, a rich ecosystem of tiny crustaceans and their friends and admirers will have taken up home on the blades, which slow and then cease to turn. Regardless of the boat’s actual speed through the water, the digital [boat speed] display … will show a speed of zero. The networked instrument system no longer knows what speed the boat is doing through the water, so it can no longer calculate the true wind from the apparent wind. The wind display … no longer affords reliable guidance on whether to turn the boat closer to the wind, or to ease away from the wind. The assemblage or meshwork of sea, wind, hull, wheel, rudder, sails, ropes, anemometer, wind vane, analogue and digital displays, microprocessors and their connecting cables continues to act, but the crusty squatters living on the paddlewheel mean that truth and appearance can no longer be properly distinguished. 

There are workarounds, one of which is ready to hand for people who have learned to sail without instruments. One can use the boat and its sails as an epistemic device. One stops, for a moment, using the boat as a productive device – whose purpose is to move us through the water as quickly as possible, to get to our destination – and converts it into an epistemic device – whose purpose is to answer the question: where is the wind? One edges the boat up into the wind, closer to the direction from which the wind appears to blow, and watches closely for the luff of the sail to start shaking. At the point where it begins to shake (to “luff”), one eases off a little, letting the bow of the boat drop a few degrees further off the wind. Knowing the boat well, one also senses a subtle shift in speed through the water. Like other sailors, over a lifetime, I have learned to carry out this epistemic activity to the point where it can be quite automatic and embodied, meshed with proprioception, with an alternating rhythm that balances speed and knowledge.

In other words, some activities of sailing have both productive and epistemic objects: one learns to sail a boat quickly and to tweak the environment to check whether one could be sailing even more quickly. In use, the boat becomes an educational technology.” (p1603)

Figure 1: The logwheel: as bought from the chandlers and after immersion in subtropical water for some months

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