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This is a version of the talk I gave at ISTE today on a panel titled "Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?" with Gary Stager, Will Richardson, Martin Levins, David Thornburg, and Wayne D'Orio. It was pretty damn fun.

Take one step into that massive shit-show called the Expo Hall and it’s hard not to agree: “yes, it is time to give up on computers in schools.”

Perhaps, once upon a time, we could believe ed-tech would change things. But as Seymour Papert noted in The Children’s Machine,

Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: … the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.

I think we were naive when we ever thought otherwise.

Sure, there are subversive features, but I think the computers also involve neoliberalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% – it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers are implicated in the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They involve scientific management. They are designed by white men for white men. They re-inscribe inequality.

And so I think it’s time now to recognize that if we want education that is more just and more equitable and more sustainable, that we need to get the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom.

In the early days of educational computing, it was often up to innovative, progressive teachers to put a personal computer in their classroom, even paying for the computer out of their own pocket. These were days of experimentation, and as Seymour teaches us, a re-imagining of what these powerful machines could enable students to do.

And then came the network and, again, the mainframe.

You’ll often hear the Internet hailed as one of the greatest inventions of mankind – something that connects us all and that has, thanks to the World Wide Web, enabled the publishing and sharing of ideas at an unprecedented pace and scale.

What “the network” introduced in educational technology was also a more centralized control of computers. No longer was it up to the individual teacher to have a computer in her classroom. It was up to the district, the Central Office, IT. The sorts of hardware and software that was purchased had to meet those needs – the needs and the desire of the administration, not the needs and the desires of innovative educators, and certainly not the needs and desires of students.

The mainframe never went away. And now, virtualized, we call it “the cloud.”

Computers and mainframes and networks are points of control. They are tools of surveillance. Databases and data are how we are disciplined and punished. Quite to the contrary of Seymour’s hopes that computers will liberate learners, this will be how we are monitored and managed. Teachers. Students. Principals. Citizens. All of us.

If we look at the history of computers, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The computers’ origins are as weapons of war: Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, code-breakers and cryptography. IBM in Germany and its development of machines and databases that it sold to the Nazis in order to efficiently collect the identity and whereabouts of Jews.

The latter should give us great pause as we tout programs and policies that collect massive amounts of data – “big data.” The algorithms that computers facilitate drive more and more of our lives. We live in what law professor Frank Pasquale calls “the black box society.” We are tracked by technology; we are tracked by companies; we are tracked by our employers; we are tracked by the government, and “we have no clear idea of just how far much of this information can travel, how it is used, or its consequences.” When we compel the use of ed-tech, we are doing this to our students.

Our access to information is constrained by these algorithms. Our choices, our students’ choices are constrained by these algorithms – and we do not even recognize it, let alone challenge it.

We have convinced ourselves, for example, that we can trust Google with its mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” I call “bullshit.”

Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think much more critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.

Neither of these are neutral. Again, these are driven by ideology and by algorithms.

You’ll hear the ed-tech industry gleefully call this “personalization.” More data collection and analysis, they contend, will mean that the software bends to the student. To the contrary, as Seymour pointed out long ago, instead we find the computer programming the child. If we do not unpack the ideology, if the algorithms are all black-boxed, then “personalization” will be discriminatory. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued “a ‘personalized’ platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.”

If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

In the 1960s, the punchcard – an older piece of “ed-tech” – had become a symbol of our dehumanization by computers and by a system – an educational system – that was inflexible, impersonal. We were being reduced to numbers. We were becoming alienated. These new machines were increasing the efficiency of a system that was setting us up for a life of drudgery and that were sending us off to war. We could not be trusted with our data or with our freedoms or with the machines themselves, we were told, as the punchcards cautioned: “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”

Students fought back.

Let me quote here from Mario Savio, speaking on the stairs of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964 – over fifty years ago, yes, but I think still one of the most relevant messages for us as we consider the state and the ideology of education technology:

We’re human beings!


There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

We’ve upgraded from punchcards to iPads. But underneath, a dangerous ideology – a reduction to 1s and 0s – remains. And so we need to stop this ed-tech machine.

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Audrey Watters


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