Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Searching for Educators' EdTech

Conversations about Education Innovation is often about entitlements, who gets what. The conversations about EdTech plays along these lines too - either you are for EdTech or you are against it. Indeed, the technology vendors claim that this is all win-win, but from the point of view of poor adjunct, whose private time is invaded and paid time is cut, this picture is more difficult to see. And, since the very people who are to implement the technology seems to lose out from its success, the gap between rhetoric and reality of EdTech remains quite wide.

One could observe this tension in most technology debate. From taxi drivers chasing Uber cars out of airports and hotel owners lobbying for stricter regulations to keep AirBNB out, there is a battle going on in different sectors and professions. The usual narrative, one that plays out in mainstream media, is to shrug it off - isn't it inevitable that technology is going to eat the world - and carry on. There has always been winners and losers, we are told, but in the end, technology makes lives better for everyone.

To see what is happening in EdTech, looking out for winners is a good place to start. Now, definition of EdTech is varied and implementations come in all hues, but here is the point - everyone claims that the learners are the winners! It is they who got the power now! They can learn from anywhere, at will. EdTech is unlocking the brave new world of learner-centred approach, tailoring the material to each learner's preference. The tyranny of the teachers are over, the power balance of the classrooms are overturned, the crusty institution of the college would soon wither away. At its most ambitious, EdTech is claimed to be setting Education free.

But the students could hardly care. They go to college and expect teachers to teach. They do watch videos and may take online assessments, but not many of them would consider this as a replacement of sitting in a classroom. They know that a teacher who supports and understands them make lives better than a Nobel Laureate on YouTube. And, indeed, you make better friends in college than on a portal. And, if they are winners of EdTech, they do not want to pay for EdTech, and the best students are still queueing up to join the best universities.

So, who wins? The conversation about EdTech is all about efficiency. A teacher can teach more students, an administrator would suffice for the whole college, and greater profits can be achieved from a virtual class. Like many other conversations about technology, it is about extracting value rather than searching for better outcome. At the very moment when we are searching for a more creative education, as machines challenge us at the workplace and middle class jobs wither, the preachers of EdTech wants to turn college to a factory, an assembly line devoid of humans, unexpected turns and serendipity. 

At this point, the antagonisms arise. The winnings of EdTech accrue neither to students or the teachers, but to managers, owners and investors. Reversing the academic revolution, which may have overreached itself, EdTech creates the possibility of an all-adjunct college, where administrators hold the sway and the only agenda is to drive process efficiency and produce a surplus. The point of EdTech, as it stands today, is expanding the illusion of education, diplomas delivered online along with the associated debt burdens to the poorer people who can not afford college. It becomes not an enabler of education, but the maker of indebted man. 

But this is indeed the essential point of all technology. EdTech is a misnomer, first and foremost. There is no technology for education, but for communication, information sharing and management. These technologies are value-neutral by themselves, and it is only those who control them decides the winners and losers. The teachers and the students have no say in what technologies get deployed and for which functions, and therefore, they lose - teachers get sidelined and de-skilled, the students are roped into an elaborate illusion of education - and the control passes on to a group of bankers and managers, who, constantly looking for new opportunities to extract value, have now zeroed on Education.

The problem of EdTech illustrates two inter-related questions that our society now faces. First, an over-reliance on Finance creates the structural issue that extracting value as an economic activity has become more rewarding than creating new value. So, the questions about EdTech is about entitlements, of shifting privileges to another, and not about making education better. Second, Technology, in this setting, becomes anti-human, with the agenda of replacing human work with technology itself. However, education is essentially a human enterprise. A better education results not from Personalisation, which is the art of seeking universal patterns within individual action, but treating the students as persons, which is the art of seeking out the individual within the collective stereotype of a student. Because both the economics of value-extraction and human-replacement technologies can only operate at scale, EdTech, as it exists today, can not operate without essentially corrupting the idea of education as a personal, human enterprise.

It is possible, though difficult, to recast the discussion about EdTech as a value-enhancing, humanising process. There are activities, of connection and conversation, that can be enhanced through technology within the process of education. This is not part of the EdTech conversation today, because of its misplaced priorities, but could be. This is the possibility of the Educators' EdTech, rather than that of the Technologists', or of the Bankers'.

 


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