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Here are the notes and the slides from my keynote yesterday at the BC Digital Learning Conference. I was asked to respond to some of the things I'd heard over the three day event.

Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak to you. I spend a lot of time on the road; I attend and speak at a lot of conferences. It’s always a pleasure to be at a conference that features educators and not just entrepreneurs, teachers and not just technologists.

It’s always a pleasure to be at a conference that recognizes there is a long history to distance education – that Stanford University professors didn’t “invent” online teaching or MOOCs just a couple of years ago.

Of course, it’s always a pleasure to be in Canada — particularly BC. As my mum is from England and my dad is from the US, I always felt more Canadian than either British or American. Alas, my dad is from Wyoming, so I reckon that probably makes me more Albertan than British Columbian. But I do now live in Los Angeles— the best of all worlds: sunshine and a good hockey team.

I find it fascinating to visit other places and observe other countries or other provinces’ education practices and politics. Too often, I think, we assume school has to be a certain way because that’s the way we experienced it — historically as well as nationally. Yet everyone everywhere is confronted now with questions about education — about what education means , what education should look like now and in the future, and how will we pay for it.

It’s somewhat consoling that the US isn’t facing this challenge alone, yet wildly frustrating that we seem to have exported some of our shady policies and products and practices elsewhere in an attempt to shape that future.

I’ve been asked to deliver the closing keynote here and respond to what I’ve seen and heard over the last few days. As someone who thrives on debates about education technology, I really really like having the final word. So again, thank you. But when I give the last word — heck any word – it tends to be a little dark, a little grave, a little provocative, a little pessimistic. So I apologize in advance.

I am a pessimist about education and technology (I hope, I try) in the tradition of Neil Postman and Leo Marx and David Noble. I am a “a pessimist,” to quote Antonio Gramsci, "because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.” I don’t think education technology is de facto awful but I do think late capitalism, neoliberalism, and technological imperialism generally are.

I want to frame my remarks — a mix of optimism and pessimism and a full blast of politics — around the theme of the conference: Engaging Flexible Learning.

That’s two adjectives and a gerund. Or a present participle, an adjective, and a gerund. Those three words have multiple meanings and as such the phrase “engaging flexible learning” has several interpretations. (As you can see, my formal academic background is in language and literature. I have a degree in Folklore not one from a business or engineering or education school. I study culture and stories.) I want to reflect on this phrase and these terms and ask a bunch of questions — questions that don’t have easy answers but that you (we, all of us) need to stew on as we leave this event and as we move forward into a world of shifting educational technologies and shifting educational practices and — this is key — shifting educational politics and power.

Let’s start with “learning."

It’s a relief — truly — to be at a conference where “learning” appears not just in its title and in session titles, but that was fundamental to many of the conversations that were held here over the last few days. We do spend an inordinate amount of time in education and in education technology talking about things other than learning. We talk about the tech, for example, using that as a proxy for learning. We talk about administration and management. We talk about efficiency. We talk about enrollments. We talk about data points and learning objects and content repositories. We talk about instruction, using that as a proxy for learning. We talk about assessment, using that as a proxy for learning.

It was, of course, President George W. Bush who famously observed, “Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?”

Shortly afterwards, he proposed the No Child Left Behind Act, federal legislation which when enacted in 2001 helped usher in the US’s current era of high stakes standardized testing, one in which we still find ourselves, an era in which what happens in school in the US has been greatly circumscribed as so much time and money and energy is spent on prepping for and administering the mandated language arts and math assessments.

With a grammatically twisted phrase, Bush asked “Is our children learning”; no surprise, what we got in response was a system that gave us a twisted answer.

We continue to struggle with all this testing madness in the US — and we’re doing our best (along with that education behemoth Pearson — thanks Britain!) to export this madness worldwide. Education and empire — some things never change do they.

Despite all this, you’ll hear many folks — myself included — insist that we now find ourselves in an era of remarkable potential for education. It is a great time to be a learner thanks in no small part to new technologies — the Internet, the World Wide Web, ubiquitous mobile phones and other cheaper computing devices. These technologies offer us exciting opportunities for learning new things in new ways with new people, for extending capacity and access, for as David Porter argued in his keynote yesterday “openness."

And yet we see much of this exuberance for learning happening in informal settings, not in formal education institutions. Watching YouTube videos at home so we can learn to play an instrument or make sushi or fix a leaky faucet, for example. Creating videos, writing blogs, making graphics or music and sharing them online. Supporting peers who want to learn how you did those things. Having a wide range of free, openly licensed educational material available online, along (again) with peers and mentors to work with through it. Joining the Maker Movement. Building with hardware and software and electronics and cardboard. Playing Minecraft.

Pursuing your own interests to your own end, building on your own experiences and discoveries. Exploring and experimenting. Learning.

It’s hard not to look at all this without invoking the American educator, psychologist, and philosopher John Dewey. As he wrote in 1938 in Experience and Education:

“There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.”

Computer technologies, many have argued, provide us with an opportunity to rethink and revise “traditional education,” to break free of old or outmoded practices so as — if you frame the change in Dewey’s terms at least — to make learning more meaningful.

And framed that way, I think “is our children learning” is the wrong question. Our (American) obsession with counting stuff, with measuring stuff, the wrong “answer.”

So what does “flexibility” have to do with that? What do we mean by the second word in the conference theme, “flexible"?

How do we make our schools more flexible? How do we balance the need to change with what’s often an institutional reluctance to do so?

What does “flexible learning” entail? What does “flexibility” afford us? What does it afford schools, teachers, administrators, parents, sure. What does it afford students? What are the repercussions — for individuals, for communities?

Does flexibility mean the removal of silos in education that make collaboration across subjects and across grades and across school buildings difficult? How do we best support that sort of flexibility? Who gets support? How? Why?

Does flexibility include challenging "seat time” — that is, ending the practice whereby school funding is allocated, a student’s progress is measured, degrees awarded by the number of weeks spent in class?

Will computer technology be the lever we use to reframe how students move through material, focusing as some suggest, on “mastery” of skills and concepts and “competencies”? What lessons can we learn from “competency-based programs” of the past so that we don’t make the same mistakes again? I think here of the GED test — something I think the US and Canada share. (Correct me on Twitter if I’m wrong.) What’s the point of the GED: passing the test or learning? What does the GED really tell us? What does the GED mean?

Does flexibility mean that learners have control of their learning? Does it mean they have agency in determining their learning path? (And I don’t mean here simply having the option to a choose between learning French or Chinese – although certainly the Internet does afford opportunities to learn Chinese whereas before there might have been no choice at all.)

Does flexibility mean that learners get to decide what “skills and concepts and ‘competencies’” matter to them? Or are these still going to be imposed on learners? Again, flexible how? Flexible for whom?

Is flexibility code for “school choice” — a politically-loaded phrase that in the US at least is associated with giving families opportunities to “choose” where their children attend school, as a result funneling taxpayer dollars away from public schools and into private, sometimes for-profit, sometimes online, sometimes religious schools.

(I should add here, I’ve spent the last few days trying to get a crash course on BC education politics and funding. I glean that it’s different here in BC. It’s different here than elsewhere in Canada. But I glean too that there are concerns about which schools —in part because of funding — get to be “innovative.")

Is flexibility code for ending or exempting schools from regulations? And which schools, which regulations might those be? Again, what do we know about the history of lifting regulations surrounding education and distance education? What can we do to make that process more just?

With “flexible learning,” are we pursuing Dewey’s vision of the future of education or are we pursuing Bush’s vision. Not just the policies of George W Bush but of his little brother, digital learning advocate and presidential hopeful Jeb Bush.

But that’s why this last term in the conference theme — “engaging” is so very important.

I’m going to take the liberty here of interpreting “engaging” a certain way. Not as an adjective modifying “learning” — I don’t mean “engaging” as in “interesting or riveting.” I don’t mean “oh hey, I paid attention” so someone somewhere gets to tick off this lesson as “engaging.”

Engagement is deep and difficult. Indeed, I believe that learning requires engagement otherwise learning isn’t likely to occur. Maybe memorization can happen, but not deep learning.

I’m not interpreting the term “engaging” here as in the Captain Jean Luc Picard sense of “Engage!” Onward with unquestioning obedience.

I don’t mean “engagement” as in some sort of nuptials between technology companies and schools. “I swear to honor and obey these Terms of Service ’til our profit margins insist we doth part."

“Engage” doesn’t mean “embrace.” “Engaging” means “grappling with” and “debating.” It means contestation and criticism. Not simply cheering. “Engaging" implies that there is discussion to be had about the shape our policies and practices take. This isn’t about passive or unquestioning adoption of new technologies; it’s about actively wrestling with difficult questions about what these technologies might mean, about who benefits and how.

Whether we like it or not, education is an incredibly political topic. Education is a political effort, partially of course because of the role that governments — local, provincial, federal – play in rules and regulation and funding mechanisms. And partially because one of the goals of education in a democracy is to produce citizens.

Education is political too because of the polis — the connections between education and community. Education is political because learning is at once personal (and, of course, “the personal is political”) and social; it is both a private and a public act.

Education is political. And so “engage” we must.

Taking an approach to ed-tech that is tinged with criticism and asking others to be skeptical about ed-tech might sound like a ridiculous thing to suggest we do at an ed-tech conference. And it’s probably frustratingly annoying advice to give those who’ve had to argue for decades now that computing technologies are something we want and need in schools. Doubly frustrating: despite our making these arguments for decades, we still face resistance — those who think there is no place for computers in the classroom, those who think the Internet should be blocked at school, those who see computers as distractions or as toys and not, as Seymour Papert put it, “powerful machines.”

But education technology criticism isn’t anti-ed-tech. It is not anti-computer. It is not anti-technology. Calling for what he called “computer criticism,” Papert argued that,

“The name does not imply that such writing would condemn computers any more than literary criticism condemns literature or social criticism condemns society. The purpose of computer criticism is not to condemn but to understand, to explicate, to place in perspective. Of course, understanding does not exclude hard (perhaps even captious) judgement. The result of understanding may well be to debunk. But critical judgement may also open our eyes to previously unnoticed virtue.”

The words and the work of Seymour Papert guide much of what I do and think and write about when it comes to ed-tech. If you follow me on Twitter or read my blog, you’ll hear me shout “Read Mindstorms!” a lot.

But I feel as though we are in a different world now than when Papert wrote his famous book — Mindstorms was first published in 1980 for crying out loud — where he argued that the age of the personal computer would be utterly transformational to the way in which we learn, the way in which school is organized.

It’s not as though we’ve listened to Papert in the intervening decades — sadly, quite to the contrary, even when computers have been adopted in schools.

But in the meantime, things have changed. Technologies have advanced. We are closer to the vision — Papert’s and others — of a computing device in every child’s hand.

But the politics of technology have changed as well, a reflection of the growing power of the tech industry. And let’s be frank here, the tech industry has its sights set on education — as a market, as an ideology, as something to automate, something to “fix,” something to “disrupt.”

“Education is broken,” we hear from Silicon Valley. “Education is a bubble,” we hear from Silicon Valley. “Education is ripe for disruption,” we hear from Silicon Valley. “Buy our product,” we hear from Silicon Valley.

And what in turn is Silicon Valley buying?

Google, for example, spent almost $16 million lobbying the US federal government in 2013. It was outspent by only 11 other organizations, including several in the telecommunications sector — AT&T and Comcast. (Google was the fifth highest spender the previous year, in 2012.)

And we’ve seen the laws governing marketing and advertising and children change, often in ways that are beneficial to companies like Google. We’ve seen partnerships between these companies and the US government promoting digital textbooks, Internet connectivity, and educational software.

As David Porter noted yesterday, Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Do we really believe that Google and Facebook and similar companies want us connected to the Internet out of some sort of altruism? Do we really think they want to be involved in education “for the sake of the children”? Both those companies have their hands in MOOCs, of course — Google employs both Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity and Andrew Ng, the co-founder of Coursera — two of the major MOOC startups out of Stanford. Google has partnered with Udacity. Facebook has partnered with edX. Hmm. Why?

The ideology of the technology sector and of Silicon Valley is something that educators need to pay more attention to, I’d argue. All the talk of “disruptive innovation” — who do they think needs to be disrupted? How do they define innovation?

And let’s note too: education technology startups have raised a record amount of venture capital funding in the first quarter of this year — in the first three months of 2014, companies raised over $559 million across 103 deals. Ted Mitchell, the CEO of NewSchool Venture Fund, one of the major investment firms funding charter schools and ed-tech startups, has been nominated by President Obama as the Under Secretary of Education.

How does this influx of investment and investors shape — or hope to shape — education?

As Neil Selwyn writes in his recent book Distrusting Educational Technology,

“While undoubtedly of great potential benefit, it is clear that educational technology is a value-laden site of profound struggle that some people benefit more from than others – most notably in terms of power and profit.”

We have to ask the difficult questions of technology, even those of us who consider ourselves advocates of technology.

We have to ask about student data, student privacy. We have to ask who owns student data, who controls it, who profits from collecting and analyzing it. (Spoiler alert: the answer here isn’t “the student.”)

We have to ask more questions about the collection and analysis of student data that is feeding algorithms that promise “personalization.” What do technology companies actually mean by “personalization”? We have to consider if we are reducing students from people to profile — and we must ask these questions, knowing full well that education institutions have never really done a good job recognizing students as people.

How might the marketing promise surrounding “personalization” steer us away from self-direction and into pre-determined, pre-ordained pathways? Can we have “personalization” if it’s built on top of standardized of content?

If, as I said at the beginning of this talk, this is a great time to be a self-directed learner, how might technology be used to dull rather than empower learner agency?

What are the repercussions of competency-based and mastery-based learning? What are the repercussions of choice? What are the repercussions of distance? What are the repercussions of scaling? Who gains? Who gains from “choice” — how do we reconcile the individual’s needs, how the individual benefits — from society’s?

I ask this because the ideology of computer technologies is radically individualistic. There’s a very powerful strain of American individualism — and California exceptionalism — that permeates technology: personal responsibility, self-management, autonomy. All that sounds great when you frame this — as I have repeatedly in this talk — in terms of self-directed learning. But how do we reconcile that individualism with the social and political and community development that schools are also supposed to support? How do we address these strains of individualism and libertarianism — anti-institutional, anti-governmental, and pro-“free market"? What do we do about the ways in which these ideologies are embedded deeply within many aspects digital technology in society?

In a recent talk at the DLD conference in Munich, Evgeny Morozov — author of To Save Everything, Click Here — argued that "We are losing the ability to talk about things at the level of the collective.” Morozov links this to neoliberalism, to American individualism exported around the world, to technology — as ideology and infrastructure, to the idea that we throw all of our problems to the markets, to venture capitalists, to bankers.

If the personal computer has heightened this today, might “personalization” via ed-tech inscribe this more deeply for tomorrow?

Markets don’t work at the level of citizens. Markets work at the level of consumers. Markets — big markets, the ones that raise over half a billion dollars in venture funding — don’t work at the level of community. Markets value competition. Collusion sometimes sure, but not really collaboration.

And so here we are. Do we empty out our ability to come together as a community because we believe, as Morozov has argued, in “technology solutionism” — that somehow apps can solve the very difficult problems that we’ve struggled with for centuries, the very difficult problems that we’ve created ourselves as “21st century problems.” Poverty. Environmental destruction. Education. Rather than “engaging” with these challenges — through debate, through democracy — we opt for an app. We choose the “easy button” — not because it works, but because it’s bright and shiny and says “click here.”

There are other stories, of course. Technology doesn’t have to look like that. I want to give a shout out here to Edward Hewlett, the head of technology at the Traditional Learning Academy, who held a workshop yesterday on his “experiment” — that’s what he called it — using Minecraft.

When people ask me what I’m excited about in ed-tech, Minecraft is one of my go-to answers. It’s not a flashcard app. It’s not a learning management system. It’s not a digital textbook. It’s not a learning analytics platform. Minecraft is an open-ended virtual playground.

It’s a deceptively simple world, all blocky and stuff — with graphics that make some adults sneer and say “oh my kids would never play with that.” But kids do. They love it.

Minecraft isn’t a game. Not really. There are rules, sure. To survive, you have to collect resources and build shelter — you have to build before night falls because at night, there are monsters. But that’s it, really. There aren’t levels to beat. There isn’t a “save the princess” narrative. The world you build is up to you.

The world that Edward Hewlett built with his school — a Christian online school — is particularly interesting. Hewlett initially envisioned building something that echoed some of his early experiences in virtual worlds — the good and the frustrating. He wanted to address something he felt was missing in a “distributed school”: a playground. He wanted to give his students a place to play and explore and learn — to figure out the “mechanics” of Minecraft and from there build their own virtual world.

And it wasn’t simple. It wasn’t easy. Hewlett and his students have built beautiful buildings and beautiful cities. They’ve created transportation systems. They’ve developed a virtual economy.

But there were challenges: a student vandalized things — virtual items were destroyed. Hewlett’s Minecraft character became the target of a virtual assassination attempt. And accusations flew. The online community was in peril.

Hewlett’s response is noteworthy. Although it’s certainly possible — through various add-ons and modifications — for the owner of a Minecraft server to wield complete and total technical power, to track every click and every brick that students placed for example, to prevent students from interacting or modifying or destroying others’ creations,

Hewlett didn’t opt to do that. As he put it in the workshop yesterday, he chose the “moral solution” instead of the technical one. He worked on strengthening the community. He helped the students develop their own governance — human rules not programmatic ones. Human capacity for care, not technological solutionism.

Engagement. Political, community, and intellectual engagement.

If you’ve played Minecraft or if you have kids who play Minecraft, you probably know the hours and hours and hours and hours of work that go into building and exploring in that world — much more time, I’d wager, than what students probably spend on other school projects, essays, and so on. There is learning there. A great deal of learning. Take a look at the videos on YouTube, for example, and you’ll see a wonderful example of networks of learning and sharing. But it’s hard to test via a standardized test. It’s messy too — the community building and the building building. A Creeper can come along and destroy everything.

But such is learning at its best. Frustrating. Messy. Open-ended.

When George W. Bush quipped “rarely is the question asked, ‘Is our children learning?’” he demanded schools answer by measuring more stuff, by focusing on “the data." That obsession for measurement dovetails nicely with computing technologies. We are now creating data at an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented velocity and increasing complexity. The temptation is to believe that if we can just collect all the data from our students — all their clicks — run it through an algorithm, do a little pattern-matching that we’ll solve everything, that we’ll unlock the secrets of the human brain, that we’ll unlock the potential of each child.

But it’s not that easy. Learning — human learning — isn’t an algorithm. The problems we face surrounding education cannot be solved simply by technology. They require political debate and democratic engagement. They require morals not markets. They require flexibility. They require compassion. They require justice. They require great care.

Education is a human endeavor — profoundly human. We cannot, we should not automate these processes with teaching machines. Because we are tasked with teaching people after all.

Thank you.

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Audrey Watters


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