No Really, What Should Technologists Know About Education?

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A forum discussion comment that was so verbose it became a blog post. As one does...

I'm quite flattered to see my "Audrey Test" show up as part of the #TeachtheWeb discussion. I’m also a little mortified – perhaps it’s always weird to see something you wrote several years ago back in circulation.

I wrote the post at a particular time in my thinking and at a particular moment in ed-tech. The post was also a response to a specific request (to devise the ed-tech equivalent of Spolsky’s “The Joel Test”). Without the urging to do so, I’m not sure I ever would have framed it in quite such a pedantic manner. Or at the very least, I’m not sure I’d have framed it as a “test.”

(For what it’s worth, I have added a section to this site -- the Hack Education Ed-Tech Guide -- where I’ve expanded on this question of “what should we know about ed-tech” but also included what educators need to know about tech. And I plan (some day) to add a section about what learners should know as well about both industries. I'm happy to include resources. Here's the Github repo. You should know what to do right?)

I do stick by the overarching and original argument that motivated “The Audrey Test” – one that several folks have pointed out on this thread: that there’s a dearth of knowledge about and experience in education among many in ed-tech, particularly among the latest surge of ed-tech entrepreneurs and among those who are suddenly interested in boosting technology education.

The word “education” here is shorthand for a number of things, of course: how people learn (what we know about cognitive development, what we know about social interactions that welcome or dissuade people along the way, how learning theories have and have not shaped classroom practices, etc); how individual schools function (in terms of procurement, pedagogy, policy, etc); how we came to have this particular institution and its particular disciplines (what’s changed, what hasn’t, and why).

Frankly there’s actually no need for a “test.” I can tell within the first few minutes of talking to folks what they know, what they want to know, what they want from their work in education, what they think about “the public sphere,” what they think about kids, what they think about me. (That doesn’t mean I write them off, dismiss them, “fail” them. It’s really not that simple. Except when it is.)

Nevertheless I’d still like to point people to edu resources to help us all think through our endeavors as we work towards building the future of learning. (That’s what I hope I do with my blog, I guess.) And it’s worth noting too, as I think @toolness mentions, that those who could and should benefit from these resources does indeed include those already in education, not simply those in the business of education.

If all this looks too much like a reading assignment, well, there you go. I am partial to reading. Very partial to reading.

For what it’s worth, I actually don’t have, as I think @epilepticrabbit suggests, “a background in education” – not formally at least. I mean, I taught for a long time. But my academic background is in literature, folklore, media studies, and women’s studies. What I learned about “education” as a practice comes through thinking about pedagogy and literacy and freedom. What I have learned about “ed-tech” comes from experience (as a student and as a teacher); what I have learned about “ed-tech” comes from my own purposeful and extra-academic immersion in the field. It does come from reading some books. So there ya go.

And it’s true: when I point people at resources to help them think through their approach to technology and education, it’s probably going to be colored by some of the framework of my academic training. I care about language, culture, equity, justice. I read blogs. I read books.

But I worry that, when we don’t think about education technology through that rich framework – the history and theory and practice that has come before us – that we’re gonna fuck up at a really important moment in history. It isn’t simply that we’ll recreate the mistakes of ed-tech past or that we’ll burst free (INNOVATION!) of ed-tech past via our imaginative ignorance (that’s not quite @carlacasilli’s point, I recognize). It’s never easy to shake off the ideology of education or of technology. They’re so deeply embedded in politics and power. When we “disrupt” institutions, power doesn’t simply dissipate, it moves to new nodes. One of those powerful new nodes is the tech sector. Let’s recognize that, eh?

See, I look around technology today (tech and ed-tech) and I see an incredible reverberation of the work of the behaviorist BF Skinner, for example. Now if you turn to programs in “academia” that teach "educational theory," you’ll find that Skinner, while taught, isn’t lauded. He hasn’t been for decades. He was resoundingly dismissed in other disciplinary circles too via Noam Chomsky. And yet, all around me, I see Skinnerism – click-for-immediate-feedback. People as pigeons. Zynga. Farmville. Gamification. But without the language and the theory and the history to say, “hey we recognized in the mid 1960s that this was a wretched path, one with all sorts of anti-democratic repercussions,” we’re not just making the same mistakes again, we’re actually engaging in reactionary practices – politically, pedagogically.

It matters what we know about the history of education. It matters what we know about the history of technology. We don’t all have to know every detail. Good grief. Me, I learn something new every day. I’m a student of the field. But to suggest that such an undertaking is a waste of time or only for academics (eyeroll. academics) and that instead we should in education technology “fail fast and pivot” means we’re adopting the language of business and moreover the ideology of the technology industry (and all its imperialist history – right? we know that history? the history of computing and war?). And it’s becoming a resoundingly anti-intellectual ideology.

And if we’re so obsessed with failure as a goal, we need to recognize too that while we work things out – because we’re too busy to learn about the past – we’re in the meantime screwing with a lot of (often marginalized) kids as we “play.”

So what should technologists know about education? And when should we call technologists (those inside and outside of educational instituions) on their powerful and troubling ideology of "I know nothing!"?

Image credits: David Bleasdale and The Noun Project



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