Friday, December 21, 2018

Behind the edtech glitter

As the end of the year approaches it is customary for experts, news media and bloggers to reflect on what has happened and try to draw some conclusions for the future. Before you read any of these, I would like to point you in the direction of Audrey Watters' blog post, The Stories We Were Told about Education Technology (2018). Audrey has been a tireless campaigner for a more balanced and mature view of the role of technology in education and has warned repeatedly about the dangers of simply riding the wave of edtech hype and accepting the corporate storytelling. Normally she writes a series of in-depth articles at the end of the year, critically analysing trends in edtech. This year, however, she sees an enormous mismatch between the continued glowing promises of the industry and the harsh realities of today's education system (especially the USA): poor employment conditions for teachers, segregation, increased cyber bullying and hate crime, school shootings, increased surveillance etc. Ironically a major growth area in the edtech sector is now school surveillance and security systems.

This year, she summarises the situation in just one post and conveys a bleak analysis.

If I look back at what I’ve written in previous years, I feel like I’ve already covered everything I could say about 2018. Hell, I’ve already written about the whole notion of the “zombie idea” in ed-tech – that bad ideas never seem to go away, that just get rebranded and repackaged. I’ve written about misinformation and ed-tech (and ed-tech as misinformation). I’ve written about the innovation gospel that makes people pitch dangerously bad ideas like “Uber for education” or “Alexa for babysitting.” I’ve written about the tech industry’s attempts to reshape the school system as its personal job training provider. I’ve written about the promise to “rethink the transcript” and to “revolutionize credentialing.” I’ve written about outsourcing and online education. I’ve written about coding bootcamps as the “new” for-profit higher ed, with all the exploitation that entails. I’ve written about the dangers of data collection and data analysis, about the loss of privacy and the lack of security.

We have all been dazzled by the narrative of transforming education through technology but I think more and more educators are becoming more wary about the technology we use. There are much more pressing issues facing schools and universities than the purchase of every new gadget and device that hits the market and above all we have to reconsider very seriously the systems we use and who can access and exploit the data created by our students. 

Watters' post is not easy reading and contains many home truths. Her role of critically reviewing the field of educational technology has irritated many and the consequent criticism has understandably taken its toll. Critical thinking is surely a central element of academic practice but it takes a lot of courage to question ideas that sound as attractive and exciting as those offered by the edtech industry. Her conclusion is sadly to move on to other projects and reflects in resignation:

This is the ninth year that I’ve reviewed the stories we’re being told about education technology. Typically, this has been a ten (or more) part series. But I just can’t do it any more. Some people think it’s hilarious that I’m ed-tech’s Cassandra, but it’s not funny at all. It’s depressing, and it’s painful. And no one fucking listens.

Many of us do listen and we also need someone to voice our fears in a balanced and credible manner. But it is unreasonable to leave this to just one person so I can only thank her for many thoughtful and investigative posts over the years and the best of luck with new ventures. I suspect however that the blog will continue.

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