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This talk was given today at CENTRO's symposium "Data, Paper, Scissors Tech-Based Learning Experiences for Higher Education" in Mexico City.

Thank you very much for inviting me here today. I must apologize in advance for a couple of things about this presentation. First, I apologize that it’s in English. Second, I apologize that it takes such a grim tone. I’m well known, I think, for fierce criticisms and cautions about education technology, and what I’ve prepared today is perhaps even darker and more polemical than I’d like, strikingly so on this beautiful campus. I confess: I am feeling incredibly concerned about the direction the world is taking – politically, environmentally, economically, intellectually, institutionally, technologically. Trump. Digital technologies, even education technologies, are implicated in all of this, and if we are not careful, we are going to make things worse.

History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history. If we pretend otherwise, we literally are criminals.

"I attest to this: the world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank." – James Baldwin

I want to be sure that anytime we talk about “the future of education,” that we always consider “the history of education.” We cannot break from history. We have not severed ourselves from the past through the introduction of computers or computer networks. Our institutions have not been severed from the past because of these. Our cultures have not. (At least not entirely. Not yet.) We have not.

When we talk about “the future of education” as an explicitly technological future, I want us to remember that “the history of education” has long been technological – thousands of years of writing, hundreds of years of print, a century of “teaching machines,” 75 years of computing, almost 60 years of computer-assisted instruction, at least 40 years of the learning management system, more than 25 years of one-to-one laptop programs, a decade (give or take a year) of mobile learning. Education technology is not new; it has not appeared “all of a sudden”; and it is not a rupture. It is inextricably linked to history, to histories of education and to histories of technology.

Education technology has its roots in traditional institutions, including and particularly the university and the military.

To be clear, when I talk about education technology or technologies, I am not referring simply to tools or artifacts or products; and technologies certainly aren’t simply computing devices – software or hardware. Technologies, to borrow from the physicist Ursula Franklin, are practices. Technologies are systems. Technology “entails far more than its individual material components,” Franklin wrote. “Technology involves organizations, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.”

When I say that education technology is not new, I’m not arguing that technologies do not change over time; or that our institutions, ideas, experiences, societies do not change in part because of technologies. But when we talk about change – when we tell stories about technological change – we must consider how technologies, particularly modern technologies like computers, emerged from a certain history, from certain institutions; how technologies are as likely to re-inscribe traditional practices as to alter them. We must consider how technology operates, in Franklin’s words, as “an agent of power and control.” We must consider how technologies carry this in their design, in their code, in their materiality, in their usage, in the ideologies that underpin them. Because of industry and because of institutions and because of capitalism and because of the weight of history and tradition, technologies are often hegemonic, even if, from time-to-time, we can seize them for counter-hegemonic stories and practices.

All this is particularly important, I would argue, when we think about the technologies – practices, beliefs, systems – that are developed by or developed for educational institutions, when we think about education technologies and when we think about educational change.

There are compelling stories, no doubt, about education technology. We’ll hear them today. Old stories and new stories. Education technology as disruptive. Education technology as transformative. Education technology as progressive (“progressive” as in progressive education like that envisioned by Maria Montessori or John Dewey; or “progressive” as related to social reform movements; or “progressive” as relating to technological progress). In the twenty-first century (as it has been for some time now) we are quite taken with the notion of technology as the force for “progress,” for change. But let’s not confuse new products and new practices and new politics with better.

If technology is the force for change, in this framework, those who do not use technology, of course – schools and teachers, stereotypically – are viewed as resistant to or even obstacles to change.

Seymour Papert, an early promoter of the narrative that personal computers would transform learning, wrote in 1993 that he’d already seen the ways in which educational institutions had dulled computers’ radical potential. “Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away,” he wrote in his book The Children’s Machine.

Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, 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.

It’s been almost 25 years since Papert wrote that book, and we can debate whether or not computers have actually failed to change educational institutions. (Certainly the title of this segment of today’s event – “the new normal” – seems to conclude that something in School’s ways, to borrow Papert’s phrase, has shifted.) We can debate too whether or not computers were ever really a “subversive instrument of change” in education. Or rather, what exactly do computers subvert? (Institutions? People? The public?)

And this is the question, I think, that feels incredibly pertinent for us to consider, particularly as the education technology industry boasts about its disruptive capabilities and exerts its financial, political, and cultural power. What might be subverted? What might be lost? (That is, who will lose?)

When I hear the phrase “the new normal,” I cannot help but think of the ways in which those same words were used in the US to describe the economy during and since the financial crisis of 2007–2008 and subsequent global recession. A period of slow economic growth, limited job creation, and stagnant incomes. A period of economic instability for most of us, and one of growing economic inequality globally as the super wealthy got super wealthier.

That period was also one of enormous growth in new digital technology companies. Facebook and Twitter grew in popularity as social networks emerged to profoundly reconfigure information and media. Netflix moved from DVDs to a streaming service to a media company in its own right. Amazon introduced “The Cloud.” Apple introduced the iPhone, and “apps” became ubiquitous, leading some to pronounce the World Wide Web – a scholarly endeavor at its origin, let’s not forget – was dead. Venture capitalists became exuberant once again about investing in high tech startups, even those in education, which had for the previous decade been seen as a difficult and unprofitable market. Another Dot Com boom was predicted, this one centered on personal data.

But the growth of Silicon Valley didn’t really do much to improve the economic well-being of most of us. It didn’t really create jobs, although it did create wealth for a handful of investors and entrepreneurs. It did help further a narrative that our economic precarity was not only “the new normal” but potentially liberatory. The “freelance” economy, we were told, meant we didn’t have to have full-time employment any longer. Just “gigs.” The anti-regulatory practices and libertarian ideology espoused by the CEO of Uber became a model for talking about this “new economy” – that is until Uber (and others) are able to replace freelance workers with robots, of course. “We’re like Uber,” became something other companies, including those in education, would boast, despite Uber’s skullduggery.

This “new normal” does not simply argue that governmental regulations impede innovation. It posits government itself as an obstacle to change. It embraces libertarianism; it embraces “free markets.” It embraces a neoliberalism that calls for shrinking budgets for public services, including education – a shifting of dollars to private industry.

Education needs to change, we have long been told. It is outmoded. Inefficient. And this “new normal” – in an economic sense much more than a pedagogical one – has meant schools have been tasked to “do more with less” and specifically to do more with new technologies which promise greater efficiency, carrying with them the values of business and markets rather than the values of democracy or democratic education.

These new technologies, oriented towards consumers and consumption, privilege an ideology of individualism. In education technology, as in advertising, this is labeled “personalization.” The flaw of traditional education systems, we are told, is that they focus too much on the group, the class, the collective. So we see education being reframed as a technologically-enhanced series of choices – consumer choices. Technologies monitor and extract data in order to maximize “engagement” and entertainment.

I fear that new normal, what it might really mean for teaching, for learning, for scholarship.

Seymour Papert argued that “School’s ways” would persist, despite the subversiveness of computers, but I’m not so sure. Or rather, I’d argue that we do see a subversiveness from computers – let’s call it an Uberification – but it looks nothing like what he had hoped for. If School’s ways have been altered, it’s because of the political and fiscal pressures on them. I’d argue new technologies are prompting schools to acquiesce to, to merge with “Silicon Valley’s ways,” with surveillance capitalism, for example.

Technologies may well be poised to redefine how we think about learning, intelligence, inquiry, the learner, the teacher, teaching, knowledge, scholarship. But remember: technological “progress” does not necessarily mean “progressive politics.” Silicon Valley’s ways also include individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, imperialism, the exclusion of people of color and white women from its workforce. These biases are now part of algorithms and algorithmic decision-making.

Again my fear with our being comfortable or complacent with this “new normal”: Silicon Valley’s ways and Silicon Valley’s technologies are readily subverting the values of democracy and justice.

The values of democracy and justice should be School’s ways. But to be fair, neither democracy nor justice are values that most educational institutions (historically, presently) have truly or fully or consistently lauded or oriented themselves around.

If we want the future to be something other than an exploitative dystopia, I think our task must be to resist the narratives and the practices and the technologies that further inequality.

We cannot do this through through technological solutionism (although technologies are absolutely part of what we need to address and fundamentally rethink). We need to rethink our practices. We have to forgo “personalization.” We must do this through collective action, through community. We do this through action oriented around social and racial justice. We do this through democracy. (And through art.)

If educational institutions cannot take leadership in this crisis – a crisis of “the new normal” – then I don’t think we have any hope at all. My hope right now rests in the leadership of those outside Silicon Valley, indeed outside the US.

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Audrey Watters


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