CDEDU, Day 3, “Through the Lens of Third Space Theory: Possibilities For Research Methodologies in Educational Technologies”, (#csedu14 #AdelEd)

This talk was presented by Kathy Jordan and Jennifer Elsden-Clifton, both from RMIT University. They discussed educational technologies through another framework that they have borrowed from another area: third space theory. This allows us to describe how teachers and students use complex roles in their activities.



A lot of educational research is focused on the use of technology and can be rather theory light (no arguments from me), leading to technological evangelism that is highly determinist. (I’m assuming that the speakers mean technological determinism, which is the belief that it’s a society’s technology that drives its culture and social structures, after Veblen.) The MOOC argument was discussed again. Today, the speakers were planning to offer an alternative way to think about technology and use of technology. As always, don’t just plunk technology down in the classroom and expect it to achieve your learning and teaching goals. Old is not always bad and new is not always good, in effect. (I often say this and then present the reverse as well. Binary thinking is for circuits.)

The real voyage of discover consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” (Proust, cited in Canfield, Hanson and Zlkman, 2002)

With whose eyes were my eyes crafted?” (Castor, 1991)

Basically, we bring ourselves to the landscape and have to think about why we see what we;re seeing. The new methodology proposed moves away from a simplistic, techno-centric approach and towards Third Space Theory. Third Space Theory is used to explore and understand the spaces in between two or more discourses, conceptualisations or binaries. (Bhabna, 1994). Thirdspace is this a “come together” space (Soja, 1996) to combine the first and second spaces and then enmesh the binaries that characterise these spaces. This also reduces the implicit privileging of one conceptual space over another.

Conceptualisations of the third space include bridges, navigational spaces and transformative spaces.  Interesting, from an editorial perspective, I find the binary notion of MOOC good/MOOC bad, which we often devolve to, is one of the key problems in discussing MOOCs because it often forces people into responding to a straw man and I think that this work on Thirdspaces is quite strong without having to refer to a perceived necessity for MOOCs.

Thirdspace theory is used across a variety of disciplines at the moment. Firstspace in our context could be face-to-face learning, the second space is “on-line learning” and the speakers argue that this binary classification is inherently divisive. Well, yes it is, but this assumes that you are not perceiving these are naturally overlapping when we consider blended learning, which we’ve really had as a concept since 1999. There are definitely problems when people move through f2f and on-line as if they are exclusive  binary aspects of some educational Janus but I wonder how much of that is lack of experience and exposure rather than a strict philosophical structure – but there is no doubt that thinking about these things as a continuum is beneficial and if Thirdspace theory brings people to it – then hooray!

(As Hugh noted yesterday, MOOC got people interested in on-line learning, which made it worth running MOOCs. Then, hooray!)

A lot of the discussion of technology in education is a collection of Shibboleths and “top of the head” solutions that have little maturity or strategy behind them, so a new philosophical approach to this is most definitely welcome and I need to read up more on Thirdspace, obviously.

The speakers provided some examples, including some learning fusion around Blackboard collaborate and the perceived inability of pre-service teachers to be able to move personal technology literacy into their new workplace, due to fear. So, in the latter case, Thirdspace allowed an analysis of the tensions involved and to assist the pre-service teachers in negotiating the “unfamiliar terrain” (Bhabha, 1992) of sanctioned technology frameworks in schools. (An interesting example was having t hand write an e-mail first before being allowed to enter it electronically – which is an extreme sanctioning of the digital space.)

I like the idea of the lens that Thirdspace provides but wonder whether we are seeing the liminal state that we would normally associate with a threshold concept. Rather than a binary model, we are seeing a layered model, where the between is neither stable nor clearly understood as it is heavily personalised. There is, of course, no guarantee that having a skill in one area makes it transferable to another because of the inherent contextual areas (hang on, have we gone into NeoPiaget!).

Anything that removes the potential classification of any category as a lower value or undesirable other is a highly desirable thing for me. The notion that transitional states, however we define them, are a necessary space that occurs between two extremes, whether they are dependent or opposing concepts, strongly reduces the perceived privilege of the certainty that so many people confuse with being knowledgeable and informed. Our students, delightful dualists that they are, often seek black/white dichotomies and it is part of our job to teach them that grey is not only a colour but an acceptable colour.

I think that labelling the MOOC discussion as a techno-determinist and shallow argument doesn’t really reflect the maturity of the discussion in the contemporary MOOC space and is a bit of a dismissive binary, if I can be so bold. We did discuss this in the questions and the speakers agreed that the discussion of MOOC has matured and was definitely in advance of the rather binary and outmoded description presented in the first keynote that I railed against. Yes, MOOCs have been presented by evangelists and profit makers as something but the educational community has done a lot of work to refine this and very few of the practitioners I know who are still involved in MOOC are what I would call techno-determinists. Techno-utopians, maybe, techno-optimisits, often, but techno-skeptics and serious, serious educational theorists who are also techno-optional, just as often.

The other potential of Third Space Theory is that it “provides a framework for destabilisation” and moving beyond past patterns rather than relying on old binary conceptualisations of new/old good/bad updated/outmoded. Projecting any single method to everything is always challenging and I suspect it’s a little bit of a hay hominid but the resulting questions clarified that the potential of Thirdspace is in being capable of deliberately rejecting staid and binary thinking, without introducing a new mode of privilege on to the new Thirdspace model. I’m not sure that I agree with all of the points here but I certainly have a lot to think about.