I confess. I’m a little perplexed by the recent call to create a new discipline for education technology. There are already hundreds of academic conferences and academic publications and professional organizations and published studies devoted to education technology; hundreds of schools offer degrees – primarily graduate degrees – in education technology. Depending on what you count as ed-tech, the field has been around for at least a century.

And yet, in a story in Inside Higher Ed in May none of that history or existing academic activity is mentioned. This particular push for a discipline apparently emerged at a small event at Georgetown, responding to a report from MIT on the future of online education. That report doesn’t call for a new discipline but instead for a “new breed of educational professional” – the “learning engineer,” a deliberate rebranding of the job title that many of the people who work in the field hold. And perhaps that’s the crux of my dissent here – this feels like yet another rebranding, rehistoricizing of ed-tech by elite American universities. Indeed, in a recent Campus Technology article – “Why It’s Time for Education Technology to Become an Academic Discipline” – it seems clear that this push for a formal discipline is a response to 2012, “The Year of the MOOC.”

It’s not really clear from the media coverage why we might need a (new? another?) discipline. To be taken more seriously? To conduct more “rigorous” research? To glean more funding? To make better purchasing decisions? To boost test scores or graduation rates? Do these really require a discipline? Or does this reflect a more traditional academic initiative: to help “establish a canonical body of texts that you could assume most people in ed tech are familiar with,” as Martin Weller has recently suggested? That is, to determine the intellectual contours and to shore up the departmental boundaries – to decree an orthodoxy – for education technology?

Why discipline ed-tech?

I cannot help but think here of Michel Foucault and his Surveiller et punir, translated into English, of course, as Discipline and Punish. The book is certainly best known for the theory of Panopticism, Foucault’s history of the development of a disciplinary society through specific mechanisms, movements, technologies, and processes of surveillance. But this disciplinary society isn’t simply a function of an architectural or technological Panopticon. This is always for Foucault about knowledge and power. And importantly, in Discipline and Punish, he traces the rise of academic disciplines in the 18th century alongside the establishment of the modern prison – they share the practices of investigation, intervention, examination, interrogation, control. “The disciplines characterize, classify, specialize; they distribute along a scale, around a norm, hierarchize individuals in relation to one another and, if necessary, disqualify and invalidate.”

Education technology is already a discipline; education technology is already disciplinary. That is its history; that is its design; that is its function.

Education is replete with technologies of discipline. It has been, Foucault argues, since it was formalized in the late eighteenth century. By ranking students, for example, by assigning students to rows, these disciplinary technologies and practices “made the educational space function like a learning machine, but also as a machine for supervising, hierarchizing, rewarding” [emphasis mine].

Can a discipline of education technology challenge or undo or even see its own disciplinary practices, mechanisms, technologies?

Weller suggests that a discipline “creates a body against which criticism can push.” But I’m not sure that that’s the case. It seems more likely that the almost utter lack of criticality in education technology is because of how disciplined the field already is. It works quite hard to re-inscribe its own relevance, its own power – that's what all disciplines do, no doubt; it forecloses contrary ideas – most importantly, the idea that these technologies might not be necessary, that they might in fact be so tightly bound up in practices of surveillance and control that they forestall teaching and learning as practices of freedom and liberation.

The very last thing that education technology needs right now is to become more disciplinary. We need, as I said last week in my keynote at DeL, a radical blasphemy, a greater willingness for undisciplining.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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