Your silence will not protect you -- Audre Lorde

This hasn’t been a good week for me. An air travel snafu combined with some family issues meant I missed an event where I was scheduled to speak; and now I’ve been stuck in Eugene, Oregon for far too long. A rolling stone gathers no moss; I’m feeling stuck in a stagnant pool of rainwater.

Stuck and stewing. And as if all the talk of robot graders and robot writers weren’t enough to challenge “what I do” (and what I’ve done) and to fuel all sorts of dystopian speculation on my part, I tuned in to the Twitter stream coming from the Education Innovation Summit this week. Brave New World indeed.

Automated writing machines and automated assessment software and adaptive learning tools don’t care, I suppose, if they’ve had a bad day, if their dog died, if they’re out of coffee, if it’s raining, if it’s Tax Day. They don’t know much about politics (well, maybe.  Is there an algorithm for that?). At this stage of our collective history at least, the robots have not claimed “the right to rise” (a phrase from Jeb Bush’s keynote at the summit). Robots work, they write, they grade, with no loss of productivity, no concerns about creativity, no questions about equity and justice, no declarations of political or emotional bankruptcy when the conditions aren’t quite right. (I get the feeling sometimes that certain folks don't really want "the right to rise"; they want more of this robotic efficiency and compliance.)

As for me, I honestly don’t know how to respond to the Tweets from the Education Innovation Summit other than sit here with my mouth agape, with a knot in my stomach, with my fists clenched, shaking with fury. I've hardly been able to think or write all week. Ah, artists. How fragile and useless we are. I tried storifying some of what I read. But I couldn’t really craft the social media output from the event into anything clever or insightful, anything more than a long list comprised of 140 characters of awfulness.

Part of my problem: I wasn’t there.

The Innosight Institute’s Michael Horn has called the event education’s “Davos in the Desert,” a phrase highlighting that, to the participants at least, this was a gathering of the global elite – the financially and politically powerful – who are now turning their eye to education, with its public funding crumbling, hoping to seize this opportunity to remake it, high-tech it and of course profit.

In my work as an ed-tech journalist, I suppose I should have attended. I had other obligations; but even so. I remember first hearing about the event, looking at the list of keynoters and at the sponsors and thinking “eww.” There’d be better ways to spend my time, other folks I’d like to hang out with (Little did I know that there’d be several folks there who I very much do like to hang out with: Mitch Kapor, George Siemens, and Chris Lehmann, for example).

And there’s the question of budget too, not just budgeting my limited time and energy, but budgeting my very limited money – even if my registration was “comped” as press (and I should note here: my status as such is always up for debate, as I’ve been reminded this week by ISTE 2012 when it pushed back on my press registration as I don’t have an editor or “official media credentials.”)

I should have gone to the event at ASU nonetheless. I should have found the time and the money. I realize now more than ever that there’s only so much you can do with a 140 character impression of an event; there’s only so much editorializing I can offer without first-hand observation; there’s only so much I can rely on my networks when I can’t document things myself. As a journalist, I can’t really write about something I didn’t see or hear or do. Hell, I didn’t even tune in to the live video stream. I just couldn’t.

But I should have. I should have been there.

When danah boyd attended the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, she received a fair amount of criticism. But she argued that there was much more happening at the event than simply world and corporate leaders rubbing elbows. “This is not to say that WEF/Davos is not an odd – and at times, deeply problematic – place,” she writes. “It is. It’s many things good, bad, and ugly. While I have never met a WEF employee who makes me depressed or angry, I cannot say the same for some of the attendees. The Forum desperately wants people from different sectors to learn from one another to address the world’s problems, but there are plenty of attendees who are more interested in maintaining the status quo.”

How ironic then that, by boyd’s formulation at least, that the World Economic Forum is a more open place than education’s “Davos in the Desert.” Activists and scholars and NGO workers and scientists were present at the WEF, not just VCs and corporate execs, as was overwhelmingly the case at the Education Innovation Summit. In his summary of the event (which is a must-read), George Siemens too noted the exclusivity and narrowness of the attendees and their vision:

The concepts that I use to orient myself and validate my actions were non-existent on summit panels: research, learner-focus, teacher skills, social pedagogy, learner-autonomy, creativity, integration of social and technical system, and complexity and network theory. Summit attendees are building something that will impact education. I’m worried that this something may be damaging to learners and society while rewarding for investors and entrepreneurs.

Pedagogy, policy, profits

Educators are attempting to remake education according to their pedagogical vision. Politicians are driving their vision through policy. Corporations are driving their vision through profits.

The conference was mono-voiced. During the cocktail reception, someone asked me what I thought of the summit so far. I replied “very interesting, some great ideas, but there was a lot of crap that I need to call out and bitch about”. He seemed offended that I could think anything other than puppies, unicorns, meadows, rainbows, and sunshine about such a wonderful event.

On reflection, that exchange sums up much of my unease with the summit.

In a knowledge economy, we play with ideas constantly. We don’t really know which ones are bad or just suck. We play, experiment and debate. I didn’t see enough of that at EI Summit. I saw strong agreement in the vision forward. People on panels would say really odd things (i.e. “get rid of more teachers and spend it on technology”). The problem with idiotic ideas is that they become foundational in a conversation if they are not interrogated when they arise.

I get worried when everyone agrees on, well, anything.

I should have been there to disagree, to stomp my foot, to give the attendees my cold hard Paddington-like stare in person. To watch. To write. To learn.

What I learned from the Education Innovation Summit is mostly something that I learned about myself (partly because I've learned already about a lot of this corporate ed-tech nastiness, sadly). I learned I have to maintain my presence at these events, even when the attendees make me angry or uncomfortable. I have to continue to “speak truth to power” when it comes to education and its future. I have to be a witness. I have to provide a record. I have to speak up and speak out. I can’t let my fury stop me from writing. I can’t worry about compromising myself by being at the places where the rich and powerful are at play with our collective future, because the greater compromise is to walk away and be silent. I think that’s probably what they want, after all.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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