Earlier this week, the XPRIZE organization announced its latest competition: a $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE — "a five-year competition challenging teams to develop open source and scalable software that will enable children in developing countries to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic.”

The announcement was heralded by all the usual suspects, who dutifully touted the possibility that technology could “solve the problem” of education in the developing world. None of whom mentioned the $500 application fee. For what it’s worth, the average annual income in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) is $315. Nor did any of these articles mention that the literacy portion would require the children learn English. For what it’s worth, English is not the primary language (although it is in some cases the official language) of many of the countries where the XPRIZE software will be piloted.

Ed-Tech as Ideology

To me, that speaks volumes of how the XPRIZE imagines this problem will be solved. That is, it won’t be solved locally. It won’t be solved by children or by communities in the developing world. It won’t be solved by people even, but by software. It will be imposed from elsewhere — from engineers. And likely from engineers from a different geographic location and almost certainly from a different economic class and from a different culture.

The “solution” we’re told — and really, this is a perfect example of what Evgeny Morozov calls “technological solutionism” — to the 58 million children worldwide who are not in school will be delivered via AI on an Android tablet.


Ed-Tech as Imperialism

We don’t talk a lot in education technology about imperialism. (Or more accurately: we in the US don’t much.) But we probably should.

Instead we too often repeat the promises heard from a variety of politicians, pundits, philanthropists, investors, and entrepreneurs: that access to digital educational resources will be transformative. Airdrop devices. Balloon in some Internet. Technology will provide an educational salvation.

The latest in a long line of educational salvations that the Global North has imposed on the Global South. Bless us all.

True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the "rejects of life," to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands — whether of individuals or entire peoples—need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world. — Paulo Freire (from The Pedagogy of the Oppressed)

It’s an uncomfortable truth, perhaps, for those who want to see their work in education as about “critical thinking” and “agency": education (the system) is hegemonic. It perpetuates knowledge and as such, perpetuates power relations. It plays a key role in Empire.

Notice the present tense verb. “Plays.” The connection between education and imperialism is not something of the past and is not something severed once countries claim their independence. Indeed, education — systems, practices, curricula, and so on — continues this process, and technology now adds a new and powerful dimension to it. Beyond “cultural imperialism,” we have what Siva Vaidhyanathan describes as “infrastructural imperialism”:

There are imbalances of power in global flows of culture, but they are not what traditional cultural-imperialism theorists claim them to be. If there is a dominant form of cultural imperialism, it concerns the pipelines and protocols of culture, not its products—the formats of distribution of information and the terms of access and use. (from The Googlization of Everything)

It isn’t simply that an XPRIZE would likely offer an imperialist curriculum — that it’s in English is only part of the problem here. (What does it mean to teach “O is for Octopus” in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example?) It’s that all of this will be delivered on an Android tablet, and with that comes a host of other technological imperialist overtures — telecommunications companies offering hardware and software and banking and schooling; Google’s special brand of data-mining; and more broadly the tech sector’s penchant for surveillance, for starters.

What is the goal of the Global Learning XPRIZE when it comes to learning? Is it for children in the developing world to join the global economy, for example? If so how? On whose terms? To what end? In what role? Why? How? Under whose Terms of Service?

Ed-Tech and (vs.) Freedom

I’ve been thinking a lot lately — even before this week’s XPRIZE announcement — about a conversation from the 1980s between Paulo Freire and Seymour Papert, two educators whose work is incredibly influential on my own. (Video and transcript)

Both men lay out the radical promise of a different sort of “education” — one (Freire), the potential for powerful transformation (in bell hooks’ formulation ”transgression”) through a “pedagogy of the oppressed” — that is, a rejection of the “banking” approach to education whereby students’ heads are filled with the ideas of the ruling class. Instead learners are encouraged to engage in a more critical and activist dialogical process whereby their needs dictate their educational demands. The other (Papert) points to a powerful transformation of learning through the advent of the “children’s machine"; that is, thanks to the development of “powerful machines” (that is, personal computers), learners now have a tool to not just visualize but actualize what might otherwise be mathematical abstractions — and from there to build their intellectual worlds.

Both Freire and Papert position the learner at the center, as the subjects not the objects of education. For Freire, this is a political act. For Papert, it’s an epistemological one.

But their (brief) conversation suggests that their positions might be irreconcilable. Papert argues that computers mean the end of “school” for the individual learner; Freire sees school as a necessary cornerstone for radical community resistance. They talk past each other in ways I find frustrating and, as someone who admires them both immensely, deeply deeply unsettling. (Watch the video. You'll see what I mean.)

Can we foster liberatory educational practices with and through and alongside education technology?

The easy answer: sure. Of course. Papert’s student (now a professor at Stanford) Paulo Blikstein has written about his work in the favelas in São Paulo that blends both Freire and Papert’s ideas and demonstrates that education technology can resist some of the imperialist push from both spheres — that is from both “education” and “technology." (See: “Travels in Troy with Freire”) But would this project gain XPRIZE support? I don't know. I doubt it simply because it refuses to work on behalf of some of the underlying ideologies of ed-tech: standardization, scalability, surveillance, Empire.

And that points to a more plausible and chilling answer to the question "Can we foster liberatory educational practices with and through and alongside education technology?" What if the answer is "No."

Me, I can't help but consider how Empire and technology and education and education technology have changed since Papert and Freire talked in the 1980s. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, self-directed learning now invokes (and certainly benefits) those "roaming autodidacts" whose ethnicity, class background, gender, and nationality are obscured (because, hullo, these learners fit a certain profile in some way: white, male, upper middle class from the global North). Moreover and beyond what learners do or want, computers and the Internet increasingly now serve to foster a very particular ideology that's wrapped so tightly in individualism, California, libertarianism, Ayn Randism, and neoliberalism.

See? Oh, how neatly that dovetails with imperialism, whether in the form of the XPRIZE or in a multitude of other stories that please the powerful. (MOOCs. MOOCs. MOOCs.)

And this should give those in ed-tech pause, because the XPRIZE isn't only about education in the developing world either. Not when education labor in the developed world is also so very full of conflict, so expensive, still demanding collective bargaining. So last century or the century before that, as we hear again and again from ed-tech entpreneurs.

What happens when we who work in ed-tech fail to denounce ed-tech's imperialism because we still want, so desperately, for computers to be liberatory? What if all our demands that "everyone has access" (which is awesome, right?) is actually a new and powerful form of imperialism (eek!) that has much less to do with the transformative potential of learning new things and much more about new systems of exploitation, imperialism, capitalism, and control? New markets and new labor?

Who's gonna claim the prize for that?

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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