I have had "write year-in-review" on my To Do list for about a month-and-a-half now. But every day I ignore the task, hoping that I'll feel more like writing tomorrow. Tomorrow is the last day of this year, and I don't anticipate anything will change so I am going to try to type a few, very generic thoughts about what happened in ed-tech in 2020.

This reflection is not going to be as lengthy as in previous years. I don't have the heart right now. I can't revisit all the suffering this year has brought about. But there's one thing that I've learned penning these year-end posts for the last decade or so: not much changes. The themes are the same year after year after year: more surveillance, more inequality, more dismantling of public education by tech companies and by tech narratives about "the future of work" and so on. Even during a global pandemic — a year when I'm sure plenty of ed-tech evangelists will try to tell you that "everything changed" — what I think we have witnessed is an acceleration of certain trends that were already in motion rather than any major shift towards something new and different. More surveillance, more inequality, more dismantling of public education. "Cop shit."

In 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn gleefully predicted that, by 2019, half of all high school classes would be on the Internet. They were wrong, of course, and wrong by a long shot. And that all classes moved to the Internet in 2020 does not prove them right. That all classes moved online was not a triumph of online education, but rather a reflection of the steps schools had to take to prevent further loss of life and, no doubt, the result of the utter failure of leadership at all levels to prepare for the pandemic, let alone respond with compassion and care.

I'm sure that there will be many pronouncements about the failures of ed-tech this year. We've known for a very long time about what works and what doesn't work (although that's never stopped schools from investing heavily in the latest gadgets and gizmos with little attention to research). Unsurprisingly, the move to online education, facilitated by video-conferencing software and digital worksheets, hasn't been great — for teachers or students. Of course, face-to-face education wasn't so great for many teachers and students either.

It's been a cruel and terrible year — one that has changed many lives irrevocably. But will it change institutions? Will it change educational practices? I don't know. These callous monsters still demanded a college football season, so we know they'd rather see students and teachers die than make adjustments to tradition. (To revenue.)

I am certain that many education reformers and technology companies are hoping that they've managed to sink their claws securely into a fragile system, that crisis education becomes the permanent mode of operation. "There's no going back," they'll tell you. Again, I don't know. I think people long for a return to the Before Times and crave a Zoom-free life.

Then again, no one should want to go back — not to how things were.

Going forward, we have to build something better, not for the sake of the digital prophets — I cannot stress enough when I say "fuck those guys." We must build something better for the sake of an equitable and sustainable future, for the sake of democracy. And that future cannot be oriented around "cop shit." And folks, that means that future cannot be oriented around most ed-tech.

In my work, I write a lot about ed-tech amnesia — the ways in which the history of education and technology are forgotten, dismissed. What will we remember from 2020, and what will we forget? I often worry that we forget too much. As a result, we hold none of the monsters accountable, and so they return with new ventures, and we have to battle the bad ideas all over again. In my own small effort to fight the amnesia, I have written lengthy essays at the end of each year, detailing all that's happened, so that at least somewhere we have catalogued their names and misdeeds. Each year, I write, desperately hoping people will learn from the past.

But this year, I can't do it. I am too wrapped up in my own memories and my own grief. That said, this year, more than ever, I wonder and worry about what we are going to try to erase, telling ourselves and others that we must forget to move on from all this trauma. I don't believe that forgetting is the path to healing. But I admit, I can't see that path clearly from where I stand.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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