This talk was presented today at ETUG's Fall Workshop in Vancouver, BC. Special thanks to Jason Toal for DJing my talk. You can find the full slide deck here.
Thank you very much for inviting me here to speak to you today. (And in particular, thank you to Jason Toal. When he asked me to speak, I said “only if you DJ my talk” – something that’s been a dream of mine for a number of years now, since I saw him do the same for a Brian Lamb keynote up in Kamloops. Honestly, I’ve always wanted my life to be musical theater, so this is amazing.)
And thank you too for the theme of this event – your willingness to talk about failures and struggles with education technology rather than, what’s almost always the case, this strange dogma the field demands – that we only offer praise and thanks for the glory of education technology.
In the face of this dogma, I find that my keynotes are often received with shudders and squirms. No one wants to make eye contact. After my talk, I sometimes get a couple of folks who come up and confess with a combination of shyness and panic, “Shit. What am I doing?!” I don’t always intend to frighten people – I mean, obviously sometimes I do – but I do want to shock people. That’s the role of the keynote speaker, I’d like to think. I want to shock listeners and readers in a similar way to what avant-garde artists and theorists have called for: to defamiliarize education technology, “to make the familiar unfamiliar,” to détourne, to disrupt (and to détourne and disrupt, in particular, the Silicon Valley narratives of disruption).
But today I have been asked to talk about monsters and monstrosity. I’ve been sanctioned, encouraged to do so. I’m not sure if I can be as shocking under these circumstances. I will still try to be brutally frank. It’s almost Halloween – I will try to be frighteningly frank.
I’ve written two books on the monsters of education technology; I’m publishing a third in the series at the end of the year.
My academic background – I do have an official, institutional credential – is in Folklore. So while I am not officially, institutionally credentialed to speak or write about education technology – I’ve never taken a class on the topic – I have a Master’s Degree in Folklore. Saying scholarly things about monsters just might be right up my academic alley.
My background in Folklore certainly informs my interests in storytelling: what are the stories we tell to cajole, frame, admonish, ordain, encourage, frighten, teach?
I want to talk briefly about Folklore Studies here not so much to tout my academic qualifications to speak to you here today about monsters – quite the opposite really. I want to touch on the monstrosity of academic disciplines. There have been some calls recently that education technology needs to become a discipline – which I guess implies that the field is not one already, despite all the journals and departments and degrees and jobs and conferences and gatherings (like this one). The rationale for a discipline: more coherence, more prestige. That last item seems key to this initiative, even if it’s a point not always explicitly made – how can education technology, education technologists get more respect, more power, more money?
Let us consider that the subtext to this talk, perhaps. And let us keep in mind these questions: How historically have disciplines emerged? How have they managed to convince the university’s administrative and intellectual infrastructure that they are legitimate? How historically have technologies emerged? How have they managed to convince the university’s administrative and intellectual infrastructure that they are legitimate.
For academic disciplines, this involves a couple of rhetorical tactics, I’d contend: you can either reach back and tie your field to antiquity or you can reach forward and tie its claim to science.
Folklore Studies, for its part, did a bit of both.
A bit of history: Around the turn of the twentieth century, folklorists – many most academics at the time – became particularly enthralled with creating classification systems. In the 1920s, American folklorist Stith Thompson translated a system developed by the Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne, adding his own revisions to help others to identify and organize folk narratives into tale or motif-types. The Clever Fox. The Quest for a Lost Bride. The Magic Ring. The Golden Goose. The Fool’s Errand. The Dragon Slayer. Not a list of titles; a classification system of tale types. The Soviet folklorist Vladimir Propp criticized this index, the Aarne-Thompson index, for not accounting for how these tale types and motifs functioned, publishing in the late 1920s The Morphology of the Folktale. Propp identified thirty-one functions – no more no less – of the structural elements in Russian tales. Again, not the titles of tales, but the pieces that moved the stories forward. Someone in the hero’s family is missing – a mother, a father. There is an interdiction, but the hero ignores it. The hero must undertake a journey, a quest. The hero must face a villain. The hero must obtain a magical item. There’s a battle. The hero is victorious. And so on.
We recognize the structure. We recognize the types. We might quite like the classification – it’s comforting; it’s organized and orderly; it’s “science.”
And that’s what’s important to note here: to classify tale types and their function is to make the study of folklore appear to be much more rigorous, more scientific. For its part, the field of education – particularly education psychology – did something quite similar around the same time. Education developed its own classification systems; we’ve churned out graphs and charts and rankings. Our current obsession with educational data has its roots in very similar attempts: to quantify.
How do you turn a craft, a practice into a discipline? You invoke history, sure. But more significantly, you invoke science. You measure. And as the twentieth century progressed, another tactic became clear: you add machines.
I want to point out that we have added monsters. Unpredictable and wild and terrible and unsettling. I don’t summon monsters to classify them – they’re too unruly and I am utterly uninterested in rule – but rather to name them and then to un-name them and to wake us up from ed-tech’s nightmares.
I could, I suppose, sketch out a taxonomy of sorts of education technology’s monsters to underscore the types of tales we already tell. Again, the types of tales, not necessarily the titles of the tales or technologies themselves. I could construct a morphology of monsters. But I have no interest in order or hierarchy, only a hope to unravel the pretense of science, a hope to unleash ourselves from the way in which these monsters discipline us.
See, I don’t want us to become Max, the little boy sent to bed without any supper in Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are. That is, we shouldn’t aim to become the king of the monsters by growling and shouting and convincing them we can be just as horrid. I don’t want us to long for Max’s Wild Rumpus, as celebratory as that joining with monsters might seem, because this is not about a taming or a disciplining or a mastery or a return at the end of the storybook to (a warm supper and) order unchanged. I want us to refuse to be disciplined. I do want us to be wild; I don’t want us to be monstrous.
When I conjure “the monsters of education technology,” it’s an alchemical acknowledgment of both science studies scholar Donna Haraway and computer scientist Seymour Papert. These monsters are “figures to think with” – epistemological markers, not merely (sorry, folklorists) narratological motifs.
Any disassembly of the monsters of education technology is assembled with the work of sociologist of science Bruno Latour and his argument that we have misread the most famous literary monster, the main character in Mary Shelly’s 1818 novel Frankenstein. Indeed, we often mistake Dr. Frankenstein for his monstrous creation, calling the latter Frankenstein. We tend to read the book as a cautionary tale about science gone awry. But as Latour has argued, we misjudge Frankenstein’s crime. It “was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology,” writes Latour, “but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself.”
“Remember that I am thy creature,” the creature says when he confronts the scientist. "I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good – misery made me a fiend.”
Left alone to discover the world, to educate himself, the creature becomes a monster. And we too have created technological and scientific monstrosities because, like Dr. Frankenstein, we have forgotten to love and care for our technological and scientific creations. We have forgotten to love and care for one another.
These are our monsters. These are the monsters of education technology.
What follows is not a taxonomy, not a morphology. It’s just some monsters I’ve seen as I’ve traveled through the nightmarish landscape of education technology.
“Books will soon be obsolete in schools” – Thomas Edison, 1913
“Over the next few years, textbooks should be obsolete” – Arne Duncan, 2012
“I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture... where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency.” – Thomas Edison, 1922
“Nothing has more potential to enable us to reimagine higher education than the massive open online course, or MOOC, platforms that are being developed by the likes of Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and companies like Coursera and Udacity.” – Thomas Friedman, 2013
Zombie ideas, according to Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman are “beliefs about policy that have been repeatedly refuted with evidence and analysis but refuse to die.” The American political landscape, he contends, is crawling with them.
The history of education technology is as well.
If you’ve worked in the field long enough, you readily recognize the undead of ed-tech, those monsters that, despite our best efforts, our refusals, our outcry, our challenges, just keep coming back. Learning objects. Learning portals. Portals to learning object repositories.
Sometimes we think that we’ve vanquished them. The zombies seem to wither and die. But then a few years later, they resurface, and they’re in the headlines again. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could hold college lectures in virtual reality?” “Wouldn’t it be awesome if students could watch moving images about other places and other cultures?” (This time, of course, with an Android phone strapped to their face.)
Perhaps the most powerful of zombies in education technology is the student information system and its monstrous offspring the learning management system. Reviled, utterly reviled. And yet these monsters have become part of schools’ infrastructure, embedded in the very way in which we imagine – imagine not just administer – the relationships among the student, the teacher, the course, the institution.
This zombie has become such a banal monstrosity that we cannot tell the story of education technology, so it seems, without it.
Both the learning management system and the student information system could also be categorized as another form of ed-tech’s undead: the vampires of education technology.
Every time you hear someone talk about “student data,” imagine them saying “students’ life blood” instead.
These are the monsters that live off our digital lives, feeding off our personal data, the monsters most sanguine about the promises of data extraction and analysis. These are the monsters hoping to extend their own existence, their own relevance by normalizing surveillance – the ambient collection of all types of data through devices that promise more efficiency, that promise better “outcomes.”
That’s the lure, in part, of the vampire: their supernatural power. But that power always comes from stealing life from others. The vampires of education technology might convince us to do their bidding, but they can only sustain themselves through extraction and exploitation.
Conveniently, they are powerful enough to not cause a reflection in the mirror.
These vampires – many of education technology’s monsters, if we are honest – are what literary theorist Noel Carroll has described as “horrific metonymy.” They might appear to be normal (or normalized), but we always sense that they are dangerous. There are hints and clues and just that uneasy, unsettled feeling that something is very very wrong.
There is a spectre haunting education technology… the spectre of behaviorism. Actually there are several spectres. The spectre of venture capitalism. The spectre of racism. The spectre of imperialism. The spectre of war. The spectre of libertarianism. The spectre of individualism. The spectre of instructivism. The spectre of elitism. The spectre of “roaming autodidacticism.”
The ghosts of education technology’s past. The ghosts of education technology’s present. The ghost of education technology yet to come.
The ghosts of failed projects. The ghosts of broken promises. The haunted closet where the overhead projects and mimeos and discarded machines reside.
Papert. Pask. Montessori. Minsky. Mitra. Skinner. Suppes. Siemens. Schank. Kay. Kaplan. Koller. Khan. Katzman. Cormier. Dewey. Thorndike. Thrun. Gates. Gardner. Groom. Agarwal. Bushnell. Bruner. Bloom. Zuckerberg. Piaget. Pittinsky. Chasen. Wiley. Rousseau. Illich. Ng. Downes.
So many men...
Some of these names are unassailable. Some of these are “big friendly giants,” no doubt. Some are not.
The mad scientists of education are those who experiment on students. Those who experiment on public education. They do so for their own ego. They isolate themselves – in their laboratories, in their towers, in their executive suites – distancing themselves from any sort of ethical core.
They build machines. They model and aim to mold mankind. They believe they’re on the cusp of building a new world, a world that they alone can control.
Maybe the trolls of education technology are mine to battle alone. I don’t know. Maybe you see them too. I hope not. But I face them all the time, particularly on Twitter. (This is after I purposefully removed comments from my website. Trolls, as we all know, live under bridges and in comments sections.)
Women, particularly women of color, are assaulted by trolls constantly online. We need to recognize there are trolls when we compel our students to work on the Internet.
The trolls of education technology fish for fights, starting arguments just to anger and upset people with intentionally inflammatory messages. “Wait Audrey, that’s what you do!” No. I start arguments to make things better; I don’t start arguments simply to sow discord. I believe in what I say and write. I stand by it. The trolls of education technology don’t always, yet they’ll summon their friend, the straw man.
Where do the trolls of education technology live? In a well, actually. #rimshot
Clowns are not necessarily monstrous, of course. Clowns can make us laugh. Clowns – as jokers and jesters – can challenge and mock political authority. Clowns are kin to tricksters, those mythological creatures that make and break the world.
There’s a whole pantheon of tricksters. Mischievous, chaotic, deceptive, witty, lewd, sacred, profane.
Some tricksters are humbugs, as P. T. Barnum proudly described himself. These do not lie per se but lure you into their circus tents with fanciful stories and promises, just want you want to hear. The show men. The ones who sell you “sea monkeys” that are, in fact, brine shrimp. The snake-oil salesmen. The ones who promise you that their adaptive teaching software can “semi-read your mind” and that “we literally know everything about what you know and how you learn best, everything.” The ones who waves their hands about as they make their sweeping proclamations about the future of education, desperately hoping you do not peek behind the curtain and see that there is no great and mighty wizard there. There’s just a clown.
Monstrous education technology is the Blob, a corrosive alien substance of unknown origin that consumes everything in its path. It’s almost impossible to stop. It’s almost impossible to fight. No one knows how it started. But it rolls through the streets, through the schools.
“There’s a tsunami coming,” as Stanford president John Hennessey put it when the massive open online blob lurched out of Palo Alto, oozing through the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Wall Street Journal into the administrative offices of many, many college campuses. “Software is eating the world,” as investor Marc Andreessen gleefully proclaimed.
The Blob is education technology is obsessed with scale – it must always grow and extend its reach. The Blob dominates through massiveness, through expansion, through fear and horror, through imperialism.
Cthulhu is the mythical monster created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu, a malevolent cosmic creature, first appeared in the pulp fiction magazine Weird Tales in 1928. Lovecraft describes a statute of Cthuthlu as “a monster of vaguely anthropoid outline, but with an octopus-like head whose face was a mass of feelers, a scaly, rubbery-looking body, prodigious claws on hind and fore feet, and long, narrow wings behind.” Just looking at Cthulhu drives a person insane, but even without eye contact, Cthulhu is said to be the cause of an ongoing and perpetual anxiety among humans.
Cthulhu might fall under the literary theorist Noel Carroll’s classification of monsters as a “magnification” – a giant octopoid, a kin of other monstrous giants like Godzilla and King Kong. Or perhaps he’s an example of what Carroll called “massification.” (I’m trying very hard to avoid classification systems here, I promise.) That’s what I’m going with – even though Carroll used the term to classify swarms of monsters – swarms of birds, swarms of worms, swarms of zombies.
The massification of Cthulhu as a monster of education technology gives us MOOCthulhu, that terrifying monster that paralyzed us, filled us with anxiety, that threatened to bring about the final disruption of education.
Education’s end times.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The rough beast, W. B. Yeats cautions, is coming, bringing with it despair and suffering.
There is something quite apocalyptic about the stories you hear about education, particularly those stories told by Silicon Valley and by Harvard Business School professors and Stanford University presidents – stories of “disruptive innovation,” of “tsunamis” set to wipe out institutions. Soon half the colleges in the US will be bankrupt. Soon there will only be ten colleges left in the whole world. Soon education will be automated, “personalized,” with students hard-wired to some Matrix-like machine all uttering in that deadpan Keanu Reeves voice, “Whoa I know calculus.” “Whoa I know chemistry.” “Whoa I learned to code.” “Whoa I know Kung Fu.”
Robots are coming for our jobs. They will drive our cars and order our groceries and diagnose our diseases and vacuum our floors and teach our children. Or so we’re told.
The robots of education technology sometimes boast of their artificial intelligence, but they do not want us to think too deeply what exactly we mean when we talk about “intelligence” or how intertwined the history of “intelligence testing” is with eugenics.
The robots of education technology boast of “machine learning,” then create frameworks and models for learning that they try to fit humans into in turn. This is the monstrosity of standardization.
The robots of education technology, like many of education technology’s monsters, privilege speed and efficiency. The robots of education technology watch our clicks and analyze our preferences. The robots of education technology are teaching machines and testing machines and surveillance machines.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention my beloved pigeons. Symbols of decay and disorder. Weaponized by the military and by educational psychologists. We forget, of course, that doves and pigeons are the same bird, so also symbols of peace. Neither fully domesticated nor completely wild. As I’ve argued elsewhere, pigeons are – with a nod to Donna Haraway once again – a companion species gone astray, a border creature that might mark its own and just as importantly our own trainability, a reminder of what happens when our cyborg fantasies about hybridity and resistance are, despite their subversive theoretical promise, quite submissive to the technologies of command and control.
We train pigeons, curbing their own desire and agency in order that they become compliant. Our training devices and practices are monstrous. It’s no surprise that in response pigeons cover our streets and statues with shit.
We are warned of the dragons in dangerous places, the unexplored places, the over-explored places, the stagnant, the lands of outmoded ideas – all the places where we should no longer venture.
Hic Sunt Dracones. Here be dragons.
Instead of avoiding the margins and staying to the safety of center, I’d argue, we need to face our dragons. We need to face our monsters. We need to face the giants. They aren’t simply on the margins; they are, in many ways, central to the narratives of education technology.
One story I return to again and again is the closing keynote from NEXT 2013 held in Berlin, in which science fiction writer Bruce Sterling spoke about “Fantasy Prototypes and the Real Disruption.” The theme of that event was “Here Be Dragons.” Hic Sunt Dracones.
In his keynote, Sterling offers what he admits is probably a painful message for an audience of entrepreneurs and designers, an audience the conference itself describes as “digital forethinkers and tech experts”: “Those that live by disruption die by disruption.”
“Those that live by disruption die by disruption.”
I’ve written and spoken about disruption a lot over the last few years – not in terms of “design fiction” as Sterling does it but in terms of folklore. I link the stories I hear about ed-tech disruption to Silicon Valley mythology, millennialism, apocalypticism, late capitalism, End Times fantasies. Sterling links disruption to dragons.
His talk reminds me of the necessity of always circling back to monsters.
Sterling is very clear that startup culture lives within the belly of a fiery, destructive, disruptive beast. All this entrepreneurial exuberance is, he argues, actually “a tacit allegiance between the hacker space favelas of the startups and offshore capital and tax avoidance money laundries. And what were they doing? They were building a globalized networked society. And that’s what’s coming next. An actual globalized networked society.”
The globalized networked society that the 1% envisions – the technology investors, the venture capitalists, the banking class – is neither progressive nor egalitarian nor transgressive, despite all the stories that we tell ourselves as we do their bidding, use their products, fatten their wallets, feed their monsters. Their globalized networked society is about a system of finer-tuned surveillance and control, all thanks to the technologies we readily adopt. It’s about the extraction of our data, about turning every moment in our lives into some sort of transaction – a transaction for profit and for profiling.
Startups tell themselves otherwise, of course. They say they’re here to challenge “the system” and “the Man.” But “we are all auto-colonialized by the austerity,” insists Sterling. “That’s your big dragon,” he tells them. “That’s your actual dragon. … As long as you are making rich guys richer, you are not disrupting the austerity. You are one of its top facilitators.”
These are startups’ dragons. These are the technology industry’s dragons. These are the dragons of education technology too.
As long as you are making rich guys richer, smart kids smarter, smart rich kids smarter and richer, you are not disrupting the austerity. You are one of its top facilitators.
Whether we like it or not, these are our monsters.
I see these monsters all around us. I fret that others don’t. I fret that others are content to curry favor with monsters, to leave gifts for them, to offer them students as sacrifices, to take gifts from them, to wear their swag.
I often joke about being called “ed-tech’s Cassandra.” It’s an incredibly serious and incredibly awful name and role to invoke. I already cringe when I’m threatened with violence online. Things didn’t work out so well for Cassandra; things didn’t work out so well for the Trojans either. I’m not pleased that, by being “ed-tech’s Cassandra,” I’m placing myself in a familiar tale of destruction and death.
It’s been a decade since I left academia. I don’t look back. But nor can I seem to escape my training as a folklorist. I’m not sure that I would want to. I am fascinated by storytelling. I am fascinated by tradition, by culture, by mythology, by ritual. I recognize that traditions are fragile; culture changes. But I know too that traditions are also incredibly resistant; culture is resilient. It refuses to change.
Humans have long told stories of monsters. Monsters are, quite often, those who live on the edges and the outskirts. Those who defy expectations of appearance and behavior. Monsters transgress. They disobey. They defile. They destroy.
As Cassandra, I must warn you that education technology’s monstrosity will bring about our doom. The monsters of education technology are a Trojan Horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource and unbundle and disrupt and destroy. Those who tell you that education technology promises personalization don’t actually care about student autonomy or agency. They want surveillance and standardization and control. You have been warned.
Education technology is full of monsters. We’ve given birth to some of them. We’ve given birth to the story in which “everyone should be online.” We’ve demanded that everyone have their own device. We’ve demanded that everyone use the learning management system. Look what we have done. We’ve welcomed monsters into our schools, our classrooms, our homes.
We needn’t. We needn’t accept the monstrosity of technology. Remember Dr. Frankenstein. Technology, education technology, is our creation. It need not be our monster. Education technology requires our deliberate and loving attention so as to not become even more monstrous, so that it can become marvelous instead.
That demands we resist and we fight – undisciplined – that we build better, that we care more, that we tell a different story.