Here are my remarks today from a Contact North webinar with Paul Prinsloo: "Why Technology is Not the Answer."
So I want to apologize at the outset for being a bit unprepared for today's webinar. As you may well know, things have been a bit of a mess in the US lately — I mean, for at least the past four years, probably longer. But certainly for the past few months, weeks, and days. I started to prepare my remarks on Tuesday — election day in the US. As it stands, two days later, we still do not know the winner of the Presidential race. We do not know what Donald Trump will do with the 75 days he has left in office — hopefully he's on his way out, my god.
I gave my first keynote of the Trump era in February 2017, less than two weeks after his inauguration. I had a foreboding feeling about what his Presidency would hold — for the American education system and ed-tech most certainly, but for every sector quite frankly, and for the health and wellbeing of everyone in the world. At the time, I wanted to caution people about the ways in which education data might be weaponized by the Trump administration. It's been clear for decades now that Trump is a eugenicist. And I feared for immigrant students, queer students, and students of color in particular. I don’t think I was wrong to worry. If nothing else, as I said in my last Contact North webinar, we have seen ed-tech surveillance expand greatly in the last few years; and as we know, surveillance harms rather than protects. It disproportionately harms students already vulnerable, already struggling. But it also grooms all students for a lifetime of surveillance — at work and increasingly at home.
I knew, when Trump was elected, that the four years to follow would be difficult, particularly for those who worked in and attended schools. An administration that opposes science and undermines facts and trades in racist conspiracy theories is no friend to academia, no friend to scholarship. Trumpism is an epistemic crisis, and our institutions — all of them, not just educational ones — are weakened. They struggle to respond.
And look at us now. Over 47 million coronavirus cases and over 1.2 million deaths worldwide, with the US leading in cases and in deaths. I think there are many things we can discuss today — and I hope we can open the floor for Q&A quickly — but I just want to recognize the incredible and awful trauma that everyone has experienced, that many are still experiencing in many parts of the world. There are almost a quarter of a million dead in the US alone — a figure that is surely a vast undercount of the number of people whose lives have been lost directly or indirectly to the pandemic. A pandemic that, in the US at least, rages totally out of control. Few people are untouched by this crisis. Few students. Few teachers. Few staff. And as we talk about the future — whether it's planning for next semester or next year or beyond — I think we do an immense disservice to ourselves, to our shared humanity, if we fail recognize the trauma. We cannot "build back better" to borrow Joe Biden's campaign slogan if we do not stop to grieve and to heal.
I hope you'd agree that addressing the loss and trauma of the Trump Presidency, of COVID-19 is not a technological problem — I guess we can debate this. But when I tune into so many of the discussions about the present and the future of education, almost all I hear is chatter about technology. How to improve Zoom sessions, how to use email for asynchronous teaching, how to run assessments with or without online proctoring software, and so on. I get it — educational technologists are gonna ed-tech. But I feel like so much of this focus on the technology and even on the digital pedagogies that accompany it ignores the lived experiences of so many of us. It's largely an attempt to move offline education online, and in doing so to replicate traditional classroom practices. But far too often, I fear, this replication ignores or worse perpetuates trauma.
Here's my takeaway from today (I hope): To fail to address the trauma will leave us — individually, institutionally — vulnerable to a further erosion of trust and care. It is imperative that, long before we talk about the gadgetry that might comprise the future of education, we address the loss and the violence that is happening in education right now.
We know that students are experiencing acute trauma — illness, homelessness, hunger, threats of violence, threats of deportation, financial precarity, racism, homophobia, and ecological disasters — and they have been well before the pandemic upended any modicum of stability they might have had. (I should add that many staff and precarious faculty members are experiencing this too.) We know that these forms of trauma affect students' behavior, cognition, relationships, and feelings of self-worth. We know that school can cause and exacerbate trauma. We know pedagogical practices, school policies, and indeed the curriculum itself can traumatize. We know ed-tech is unlikely to ameliorate any of this, and is just as likely to make things worse.
I know that people bristle when I say this: "ed-tech is just as likely to make things worse." I think we like to think of new technology as "progress," and then we confuse that with progressive pedagogy and progressive politics. But ed-tech isn't necessarily progressive pedagogically or politically. I make a book length argument elsewhere that much of ed-tech is built on behaviorism, and its most famous advocate, you'll recall, B. F. Skinner famously did not believe in freedom. When it's built to serve oppressive pedagogies and discriminatory institutions — when it's built with a belief that students shouldn't have agency but rather should be engineered and optimized, then ed-tech, as the title of this webinar suggests, is not the answer.
I'd say that ed-tech is not even the right question.
A week or so, I was contacted by a reporter from a major US newspaper who wanted to talk to me about the future of AI in education. I get these sorts of media inquiries a lot, and I know that I have a particular role to play in how journalists plan to shape their stories. I'm there for "balance," to offer a critical perspective that runs counter to the promises and the hype that the ed-tech CEOs or their spokespeople advance. Such was the case this time. The future of AI in education was bright according to two ed-tech companies. The reporter wanted me to push back and say something about privacy, security, and algorithmic bias. I don't think I was a good interviewee because I wasn't offering her the sound-bites she wanted. I mean, sure I can speak to all of that. I can talk about the vast data extraction of education technologies, the shoddy security practices of companies and schools, the ways in which algorithms discriminate and obscure rather than enhance decision-making. But I wanted to complicate the reporter's story — I was in a mood, I guess. I wanted to challenge her assumptions that education would necessarily become more technological, that artificial intelligence would necessarily provide students and teachers and schools anything new, let alone good. But mostly, I didn't want to talk about the tech — or not, at least, how tech is typically defined.
I guess I should have said this at the outset. But I often cite the work of physicist Ursula Franklin who spoke of technology as a practice: "Technology is not the sum of the artifacts, of the wheels and gears, of the rails and electronic transmitters," she wrote. "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." "Technology also needs to be examined as an agent of power and control," Franklin insisted, and her work highlighted "how much modern technology drew from the prepared soil of the structures of traditional institutions, such as the church and the military." She could have certainly included the university there.
In my interview with that reporter, I wanted to talk not just "is the tech good" or "does the tech even work" but about the politics, about the ideology of ed-tech, and about the practices and systems of schooling — why do we value personalization and efficiency, for example. What does it mean for institutions that already rely so heavily on precarious labor to adopt more "labor-saving" software. What are the practices that are being automated and why? Ed-tech doesn't just emerge out-of-nowhere. Ed-tech is built on that "prepared soil," as Franklin put it.
The reporter asked me "what if we could build an AI that didn't have any privacy or security issues, that didn't have any bias?" And I argued with her that that was absolutely the wrong way to think about this. What if, for example, someone built an online proctoring tool that was bias-free, privacy-respecting, and absolutely secure? Well, I'd say that it would be impossible, but sure, okay. What if? It would still be a terrible idea because online proctoring is carceral pedagogy — that is, a pedagogy that draws on beliefs and practices that echo those of prisons — surveillance, punishment, and too often literal incarceration.
Carceral pedagogy is the antithesis of education as a practice of freedom. And carceral pedagogy is deeply traumatizing. We have heard over and over and over the stories of students deeply traumatized by online test proctoring — by its judgments about their facial expressions and movements and skin color.
And we come back to my first and what I hope my most important point: we have to address the trauma, the grief, and the loss that we have all experienced (that we continue to experience). And we cannot do that with carceral pedagogy. We cannot do that with carceral ed-tech.
One more point, I guess, before we turn to the discussion. If "technology" is not the answer, then I'm happy to say "more money" sure could get us closer to one. That we have starved our public school systems has only served to make them more unjust, more ruthless. That said, even if we fully fund education, if we make sure that working for universities is financially sustainable and that attending university is free, then we still have so much to do to reshape these institutions and their practices and to end the trauma they've inflicted for centuries now.