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George Roberts :: Blog :: An Ada Lovelace legacy: women in (learning) techonolgy

March 24, 2009


There are many women in technology I admire. My field: learning technology is characterised, in part, by many female leaders. I think of Diana Laurillard, Grainne Conole (jfg them); colleagues: Rhona Sharpe, Patsy Clarke, Frances Deepwell, Judy Lyons in OCSLD; there’s Helen Beetham, Helen Barrett, Rose Luckin, Diana Oblinger; Robin Mason, who defined a practice through Mindweave and the Open University’s H8xx series of courses in the Institute of Educational Technology; my PhD supervisor Jane Seale: all people who have either shaped the field, shaped my view of it, or both. In writing this I realise the risk of naming more than one person; why have I not named every woman who has influenced the development of learning technology and my participation in it? How much have I got wrong already? Who have I forgotten? I won’t go on. You know who you are! Except perhaps a few more.

Joanna Bull shaped the practice of computer aided assessment in the UK. Without the “sisters of CETIS” learning technology standards would be far less accessible. With each name that comes to mind, two more follow it and four more behind them. And, I haven’t even stepped across the North Sea, where in the Netherlands and Germany the picture is replicated. And, in learning technology it is not just on the so-called soft side (what on earth is soft about changing pedagogical practice?) but in application development: coding, and systems integration girl geeks abound. One more: Wendy Hall (OK she’s only head of the British Computer Society, not a proper learning technologist;-). Step over to the US, where the Mozilla Foundation is headed by Mitchell Baker. The leading thinkers of the sociology of the Internet are women. And, all of a sudden I understand the poignancy and power of Ada Lovelace and her contribution to the world: the abstractable instruction set that could be applied to a machine in order to carry out calculations: a program. I am no longer fool enough to think that without so and so something would never have happened. Charles Babbage created the Difference Engine. But, Ada Lovelace showed even him that it could work. Babbage and Lovelace’s work directly underlies the work of Turing and von Neumann. It is not as if men weren’t involved. But there is something about computing: abstracting the universal-virtual essence that removes incidentals. I wouldn’t say sex is incidental in all cases - far from it! But, in most fields of practice, and certainly in the knowledge economy there is, or should be, an incidentality to one’s gendered body when it comes to recognising ability and achievement. It was popular ten or twenty years ago to engage in identity play online: on the internet no one knew you were a dog. Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto defined the richly gendered - and sexualised yet transcendent-of-sex reality of the chimeric creatures of a “post-gender world”. Like the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Doris Lessing incidentals are stripped away by computing leaving us not free but very differently bounded from a world where it is still necessary to legislate for equality and diversity. Step up Kisa Naumova and Sian Bayne two very different women: both “real” one “virtual”, whose understanding of embodyment: its power and fragility is anything but mere jelly. As I sit writing on the eve of the JISC conference I think of the women who direct and manage its development programmes, people who have as much influence over my professional life as anyone. I reflect on the pleasure of this field and I know that it is because learning technology with all its ambiguities is Ada Lovelace’s legacy.

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  1. What a good post - educative an inspiring.  I think the making it work is a significant contribution made by Ada Lovelace.  You have just reminded me that I didn't fulfill my promise to blog on Ada Lovelace day.  I will go now and do it - better late than never ....

    Rebecca O'RourkeRebecca O'Rourke on Sunday, 29 March 2009, 12:15 BST # |

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