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I participated on a panel this morning at the Digital Labor conference. The panel title: Digital Labor & Geographies of Crisis. On the panel: Karen Gregory, Daniel Joseph, Matthew Tiessen, Austin Walker, Dan Greene, and myself. I've included my notes, along with the image that I used to frame my presentation and to provoke a discussion about what digital labor looks like in the classroom. After all, we aren't simply talking about teachers' labor; we need to talk about students' work too. The panel was really interesting as the participants all talked about crisis and labor in very different ways: work in video games, in high frequency trading, among psychics.

Marx famously remarked that “the history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles” — an irksome assertion for many reasons, so bear with me for invoking it. I do so only to suggest what seems to be the inverse maxim offered by the technology sector today: “there is no history; there is only planned obsolescence. There is only meritocracy, entrepreneurship, and the sharing economy.”

I write about education technology — a lot about the history of education technology — and so I’m always clenching my teeth when I hear someone suggest that Sebastian Thrun created the first MOOC or that MIT created online education, or that whatever app just raised a million or so dollars will “revolutionize education.”

I’m currently working on a book called Teaching Machines that examines the history of automation in education This drive is not simply a technological or scientific; it’s cultural, political, socio-economic. And it’s the story of education in the 20th century. The development of schooling practices as we know them today — curriculum, assessment — dovetail so nicely with the quest for teaching machines. My book explores the ways in which we have conceptualized the mechanics of human intelligence, and how has that shaped in turn the way in which we imagine and build so-called intelligent machines. 

How do teaching machines work -- do teaching machines work? And whose work, whose labor, might they replace or enhance? Those are some of the questions that I think we’re set to address today.

A quotation from Sidney Pressey, who patented (arguably at least) the first teaching machine in the 1920s: 

There must be an "industrial revolution" in education, in which educational science and the ingenuity of educational technology combine to modernize the grossly inefficient and clumsy procedures of conventional education. Work in the schools of the future will be marvelously though simply organized, so as to adjust almost automatically to individual differences and the characteristics of the learning process.There will be many labor- saving schemes and devices,and even machines--not at all for the mechanizing of education,but for the freeing of teacher and pupil from educational drudgery and incompetence.

Fast forward almost one hundred years, we see any number of technologies that echo what Pressey envisioned. Automated assessments, robe-essay graders, adaptive textbooks, algorithmic course recommendations. And I think much of the time when we talk about digital labor and education, we are focused on what that means for teachers — particularly in a world of increasing adjunctification. What technologies do we build and adopt that save teachers from "the drudgery" of school?

I am very interested in what digital labor now looks like for educators. But I also want us to talk about what it looks like for students. I see little that wants to help students escape that drudgery. Sure, you have robots grade your essays or your multiple choice questions. But you still expect students to do that work. 

What happens now, thanks to digital technologies, to student data and student content? What happens to "student work"? We’ve used “work” to describe what students do for a long time — “school work” and “homework.” But now those are efforts that don't simply serve to fill the teacher's gradebook. They feed the software algorithm. Student "work" is a new and growing part of unpaid digital labor. 

I hear so much talk about “24-7 learning,” and the affordances of new technologies for students, for learners. But again, does that mean that students’ free time is subsumed under institutional goals? Even if much of this "24-7 learning" currently is “informal learning,” again, what labor are students performing? For whom?

And in and out of the classroom: which students? Which students are pegged as "the product"? Which students are pegged as workers? Which are pegged as creators? 

When I hear the rhetoric today about personalization, I do hear the echoes of a hundred years of education technology that has fantasized about students moving through "the curriculum" at their own pace. But phrases like "personalization" and "student centered" and "student control" don't really get to the heart of student agency. They still demand that students be consumers of "content." But now -- and this is what I think we need to consider more -- they demand too students are producers -- of data and content and "feedback loops.” Students have very little control over this "work," and this work is (and perhaps will increasingly be?) stratified along socio-economic and racial lines.

(The image above is of a computer lab at a Rocketship school. Rocketship Education is a chain of charter schools, where students -- mostly low-income students of color -- spend a great deal of the school day working on software that purports to be "personalized." I was told this was the most depressing image at the conference. Nice work, ed-tech.)

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Audrey Watters


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The History of the Future of Education Technology

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