Teaching Agency in a Technology-Infused World

The Agency Agency

Agency is a word I find I use a lot in different settings and yet, I struggle to frame the concept of empowerment for my young students in the classroom. As we near the end of E-Learning 3.0, Stephen has us thinking of the concept of “agency” in terms of learning in a distributed information environment.

Stephen writes:

We are the content – the content is us. This includes all aspects of us. How do we ensure that what we project to the world is what we want to project, both as teachers and learners? As content and media become more sophisticated and more autonomous, how do we bind these to our personal cultural and ethical frameworks we want to preserve and protect?

Wikipedia defines Agency as:

Agency is the capacity of an actor to act in a given environment.

We’re living in times where technology is nearly everywhere, for good and for ill, and for many us, even a simple understanding of what’s “under the hood” is elusive. Either we don’t care enough to look or we don’t have the skills to know even how to begin to look. We just go along and go along until it all blows up (see Facebook) and then wonder why we weren’t more attuned to the intentions of the technologies we are using.

At what moment did we sell off our data and privacy for ease of operation? When did we forget we even had any agency to begin with? This shift seems to be aligned with the often-unspoken language of “expertise” and of us allowing those with knowledge of technology to lead the way, and for us to follow blindly, for fear that those of us not as technologically-astute might break things. Even though, breaking things is how you learn.

Go on and break things.

I was reminded, as I pondered the notion of Agency, of this video of quotes I put together for a hackjam professional development session years ago, using ideas from Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed to explore this concept.

Looking deeper is important in terms of “agency” because seeing the cracks in the seams, the intention of design, the motors that make the world work gives you information, and with that information, you can make more informed choices about your actions. This is part of your agency.

Which is my I try to show how technology works to my young students — to make visible the corporate goals of profit by advertising, to introduce workarounds to problems, to question the motives of those developing the products we use. This sometimes feels like an odd fit inside a sixth grade English Language Arts classroom, but I expand the notions of “literacy” at every chance I get.

This is about reading the world, in order to write the world.

I saw the following bulleted list on the matter of learner agency in a digital world, and I thought it connected to these ideas. This comes from Jackie Gersten’s post from years ago entitled Learner Agency, Technology, and Emotional Intelligence. I wonder if the positive vibe here still holds true.

Technology also has the potential to directly enhance emotional intelligence.  Chia-Jung Lee (2011) described some ways:

  • Digital tools can connect people’s feeling to enhance emotional learning. Digital tools can support students’ emotional connection to a content or other people. This helps students learn better.
  • Technology can satisfy personal learning pace and style to support emotional learning.  The flexibility of digital tools enables students to learn based on the way that they feel most comfortable [which is directly related to agency.]
  • Digital tools can provide private spaces for students to explore difficult issues.
  • Empathy can be enhanced through emotional learning by means of technology. For example, students may develop empathy by viewing videos of personal stories of others in need; others who are experiencing some form of distress or problems.  http://teachteachtech.coe.uga.edu/index.php/2011/05/13/technology-integration-and-emotional-learning/

And then, my friend Geoff, added a thought across EL30 networks, taken from his years of supporting young writers with the Young Writers Project in Vermont. His insights about agency are worth sharing.

Geoff writes:

… we must be intentional to reach out to, bring in, support those who need it most, those without agency, opportunity and voice. I feel an affinity to this spirit with what Young Writers Project has done at youngwritersproject.org … the teens mostly those who feel isolated, unliked, outside.

Peace (thinking),

PS — Stephen had a conversation about Agency with Silvia Baldiri, and Jutta Treviranus, which I have not yet watched but am looking forward to.

  1. I struggle with this word so much that I have all but given up on it. I am glad you are still struggling with it. I ask myself this question every time I see or hear the word ‘agency’: who has the power, the real power, to do what. The political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined political power as ‘who gets what, when and how’. Maybe we can apply that simple definition to agency.

    Anti-spamiferosity: loco loft Over the door in neon copperplate script were the words “Loco Loft”. And in front of me were real, honest to god swinging saloon doors. The faint sound of a wildly out of tune upright piano. Tobacco. Sawdust. When I pushed through the door and walked into an utterly empty room. Except for presence of a large seguaro cactus wearing a pair of revolvers and sunglasses. He was going to shoot me.

    • It’s in the grappling where I think we ponder it a bit more … even if it is never quite clear … Thanks
      PS — another neat story coming from nowheresville

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