Last week, The New York Times wrote about a new simulation program, funded by the Department of Homeland Security, that aims to teach teachers how to respond to an active shooter on school grounds – a simulation “that includes realistic details like gunfire, shattered glass and the screams of children,” one in which teachers can play the role of school staff, law enforcement, or the shooter her- or himself.

It was not the first article on the program known as EDGE, the Enhanced Dynamic Geo-Social Environment. There were a flurry of stories on the shooting simulation software at the beginning of the year – Gizmodo, Engadget, Rolling Stone, The Verge – several of which seemed to build on an AP story filed in the closing days of 2016.

At least five school shootings occurred (sixteen by some counts) between the publication of that AP story and the one that appeared in The New York Times.

From what I can tell, the story of the shooting simulation was not covered by any education publications – only by a handful of technology ones. This raises a number of interesting questions about coverage and about definitions. What counts as an education story? School shootings certainly do. But what counts as “ed-tech”?

I tweeted something rather flippant about the story back in January when Gizmodo posted a video about the simulation, and I received an admonishment from one ed-tech evangelist that the software “has nothing to do with ed-tech.” I replied that metal detectors are ed-tech, that windows are ed-tech, and that one should consider how these technologies are distributed among various school buildings and communities. The individual sneered that my definition was uselessly broad, that this would mean that locks on school doors are ed-tech.

Well, locks on school doors are ed-tech.

When most ed-tech evangelists, like my interlocutor on Twitter, talk about ed-tech, they don’t mean “technologies used in education.” They don’t even always mean “computers in education” – or not all computers, at least. While they readily refer to the use of computers used for instructional purposes, computers used for administrative purposes are less likely to be touted, particularly with the recent focus on “personalization” or “learning outcomes,” particularly when education-related computations occur outside a school or district (as in the case of private student loan companies, for example).

Perhaps due to education publications’ funding by education reform organizations and by venture capitalists, the coverage of “education technology” in much education media tends to coincide with these investors’ policies and portfolios. The definition of “ed-tech” is therefore incredibly narrow, often focused on products rather than practices. And that skews the ways in which we talk about “ed-tech” – how we might consider its politics and its purposes, how we might think about its origins and its implications.

In her 1989 CBC Massey Lectures, the physicist Ursula Franklin offered a different definition of technology, one that I use in my own thinking and writing:

Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters. Technology is a system. It entails far more than its individual material components. Technology involves organization, procedures, symbols, new words, equations, and, most of all, a mindset.

If we recognize technology as practices, we can more readily see the connections to social relations, Franklin argued. We can then think about technology not just in terms of the introduction of a particular tool, but in terms of how technology might support or shift pre-existing values. Cultural values. Political values. Institutional values.

To claim that a school shooting simulation isn’t “ed-tech” is remarkably unhelpful. It serves to bolster the ideological claims that technology is always bound up in “progress.” And importantly, this refusal to include certain technologies in “ed-tech” circumscribes much of the analysis one might undertake about systems, structures, histories.

What is the history of military teaching machines, for example? What role has the military played in developing education technology (particularly training simulations) that have made their way into classrooms? How might the military’s values – overtly and subtly – permeate ed-tech? How do those coincide and how do they conflict with the values of the public school system?

And what is the history of weapons used at school and of the machines used to detect and deter school violence? “Since the attack on Columbine High School in 1999, mitigating the damage of on-campus shootings has been an increasingly urgent priority,” The New York Times writes in that article about school shooting simulation software. “More than two-thirds of public schools nationwide practiced their response to a shooting in the 2013–14 academic year, according to the Department of Education; 10 years earlier, fewer than half of schools did so.”

But of course, Columbine was hardly the first school shooting. And the practices (and products) adopted to “mitigate the damage” have a very different history in affluent, suburban schools than they have in high poverty, urban schools where metal detectors, for example, were introduced almost twenty years earlier.

New York City. Boston. New Orleans. Washington DC. Detroit. These cities all experimented with metal detectors and mandatory searches of (some) students (in some schools) in the early 1980s. The adoption of these practices was a response, according to school officials, to fears of youth violence and weapons incidents in and around schools (but overwhelmingly the latter). Along with the introduction of drug-sniffing dogs, students increasingly found themselves exposed to surveillance and searches at school, the legality of the latter upheld in a number of Supreme Court decisions that decade.

There were concerns at the outset about the effectiveness of metal detectors – not simply whether or not they reliably caught students bringing weapons to campus but whether their introduction changed school culture. “We’d be concerned about the impact psychologically on the climate of the schools,” Robert Rubel, the director of the National Alliance for Safe Schools told The Detroit Free Press in 1985 when the Detroit Public Schools introduced unannounced weapons sweeps using handheld metal detectors.

Indeed, many other school districts that experimented with metal detectors admitted that they found them to be counterproductive. If nothing else, the screening process posed a logistical challenge, with students complaining they had to wait in line so long that they were often late to class. But some districts stuck with metal detectors nonetheless, often as part of a broader police presence in schools. As Carla Shedd writes in Unequal City, the Chicago Public Schools’ Office of Public Safety boasted in 2013 that it supported a range of these types of technologies: “8,000+ cameras, 500+ alarm systems, 150+ X-ray machines, 300+ metal detectors, 400+ door entry systems, and 35 bus trackers.”

Shedd argues that

Contemporary urban youth are exposed to police contact more frequently and at earlier ages than their predecessors. Schools – and for those who live in public housing, even some homes – have begun to resemble correctional facilities. Metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and other mechanisms designed to monitor and control inhabitants are now standard equipment in American urban schools. Youth who must navigate these spaces are inevitably at high risk of police contact, which may lead to frustration, disengagement, and delinquency.

“Standard equipment in American urban schools.” Education technologies, even.

What happens if we refuse to talk about these as “ed-tech”, if we refuse to address the practices of surveillance and control as well as products of surveillance and control? If nothing else, this refusal stops us from having the necessary conversations about why some schools might get simulations that train teachers how to respond to a potential shooting, and some schools get metal detectors that interpolate all students as potential shooters.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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