Earlier this summer, I saw a lot of talk about “edtech” in my feeds. Of course, some of this was due to the ISTE conference, held in their usual timeframe at the end of June. Mostly live for the first time in three years.
Recommendations for one post to read, one video to watch, one podcast episode to hear this weekend.
Although we could have another millennial-class argument about the timing, most people have decided we started a new decade on January 1. Which means we also get lots of retrospectives on the previous ten years. I guess that’s better than trying to make historic sense of only the past twelve months.
In one of the more entertaining entries, posted just before the turn of the calendar, The Verge offered their review of the 84 Biggest Flops, Fails, and Dead Dreams of the Decade in Tech.
In a recent edition of her Hack Education Weekly Newsletter (HEWN)1, Audrey Watters cites and quotes from a 1985 interview with Joseph Weizenbaum in which he discusses the impact of the computer on society.
That discussion provides an interesting perspective from an early pioneer in computer science. However, he made one particular point that jumped out at me.
I think the computer has from the beginning been a fundamentally conservative force. It has made possible the saving of institutions pretty much as they were, which otherwise might have had to be changed.
The example he uses is banking, saying that the computer allowed for greater centralization and more uniformity of products and services.
What the coming of the computer did, “just in time,” was to make it unnecessary to create social inventions, to change the system in any way. So in that sense, the computer has acted as fundamentally a conservative force, a force which kept power or even solidified power where is already existed.
Think of that in terms of computers in schools.
The promise was that computers in the classroom would allow for greater individualization and flexibility. For a more creative approach to learning, one that would allow students more control and agency.
Instead, schools, especially high schools, look little different that they did before bringing in devices, software, and networks. Still very heavily teacher directed, with a very centralized curriculum and schedule, using many of the same activities and lessons from long before.
In many ways, computers in education have largely been a conservative force. Making it “unnecessary to create social inventions, to change the system in any way”. Enabling the preservation of a traditional, formal approach to learning instead of disrupting it.
Just an observation. I have some thoughts about what to do about it, but you may not like them.
The picture is a pigeon, specifically an inflatable version of Mo Willems’ character, in honor of Audrey. If you read her newsletter, you would get the connection.
1. Which you very much should subscribe to.
A couple of posts back, I ranted about the ongoing quest for the new in edtech at large conferences. Of course, on the other side of that quest are the many companies developing and marketing their products at events like BETT, FETC, and ISTE.
Related to that, Audrey Watters is someone who does excellent work writing about the big money attempts to “reform” American education and the place of edtech in that process. In a recent essay, Fables of School Reform, she starts with this observation of the results of all that investment.
Over the past five years, more than $13 billion in venture capital has been sunk into education technology startups. But in spite of all the money and political capital pouring into the sprawling ed-tech sector, there’s precious little evidence suggesting that its trademark innovations have done anything to improve teaching and learning.
Extend that timeline back, say thirty years, almost the range in which I’ve been involved in the process of using technology for instruction, and consider all the money and time that’s been expended by schools, governments, and teachers. Can we say it has improved teaching and learning?
A question, not a judgement. One deserving a much more extensive debate.
Anyway, Audrey is excellent at following the threads of education reform through history and in this piece traces the efforts to bring computers into schools back to A National At Risk, the 1983 report that kicked off the modern panic about the American education system. As with so many of the studies that followed, the conclusions were based on test scores (the SAT in this case) and are “wrenched out of historical context”.
She then brings the thread into modern day by visiting the ASU + GSV Summit, “a business of education conference fondly known as ‘Davos in the Desert’” (before moving from Phoenix to San Diego). The New York Times called it “The must-attend event for education technology investors”.
This year featured speakers included such well-known education experts as former Mexican President Vicente Fox, former US president George W. Bush, and… Matthew McConaughey?1 Of course missing from the presenters (and likely the attendees)2 was anyone who could speak with actual experience to the process of teaching and learning.
In addition to the conspicuous absence of education researchers from the “constituencies” served at Davos in the Desert, there was no mention of either students or parents. Indeed, every year (this year’s was its ninth), the ASU+GSV Summit seems to nearly coincide with AERA [American Educational Research Association], an organization that’s been around since the early 1910s. It’s hardly an insignificant scheduling gaffe. If nothing else, the dueling conference schedules tap into a powerful cultural trope, one that’s particularly resonant among Silicon Valley and education reform types: that education experts and expertise aren’t to be trusted, that research is less important than politics, that the “peer review” that matters isn’t the academic version, but rather the sort that drives a typical VC roadshow.
There is much more to Audrey’s experience at the Summit and her observations of the edtech business in general. This post is well worth 20 minutes of your time to read it all. She is also someone you should follow.
The photo shows just a part of the vast Expo floor at the ISTE conference last June in Chicago. ISTE also works very hard to promote the edtech startup business through their Edtech Startup Pavilion and annual Pitch Fest.
1. The speakers at the 2019 event in April include a mix of tech executives, politicians, and celebrities. It’s a very strange brew.
2. With ticket prices starting at $2800, I’m guessing not a lot of teachers attend this conference.