Saturday, June 11, 2016

Varieties of Education Technology

The current conversation about Education Technology (or, Education Technologies, we should claim) is both poised with possibilities and depressingly limited. 

Despite all the billions of dollars channeled into exciting new start-ups, the headline technology companies such as Google and Microsoft making Education as one of their main focus areas and mobile computing extending the reach of content and culture far beyond the obvious, the scope of Ed-Tech still remains superficial and focused on extending the norms of Scientific Management, the very same paradigm that we are expected to leave behind in the post-industrial age, to classrooms. The focus of educational technology enterprises were to adopt key 'corporate' technologies, databases, remote communication technologies, walled-garden networks (apps) and measurement systems, for educational use. The keywords of the Education Technology community, accordingly, have been information, content, predictive modelling, communication, and costs, but rarely the ones Educators are used to - character, learning, and indeed education - outside the presentation slides and marketing campaigns.

This is broadly reflective of the trends in technology development in itself. The current claims that we have achieved the highest stage of technological nirvanna (or perhaps not, as we are awaiting the day when technology will create itself) are designed to stop us from asking - what does technology do? The benefits of Ed-Tech are sold mainly in terms of cost - that it would make things efficient by making one teacher teach many more students (answering the 'cost disease' problem posed by William Baumol) - and that it may solve the great problem to state finances posed by the advent of mass education. We simply can not educate so many people, the Ed-Tech evangelists would say, claiming that Ed-Tech is that white knight we are all praying for. Closely related to this is the efficiency argument, which posits that Ed-Tech can make education more personally tailored, predictively modelled and informationally communicative, so that we all know who is going to make it early in the cycle. This could sound like a tool of social engineering, like all technologies could be, and this as the sole theme of Ed-Tech conversation is a rather disturbing phenomenon.

Another kind of conversation is, however, eminently possible and one should make its case. What if one approached Ed-Tech not with the objective of making it efficient but try to make it effective instead? The difference will be to approach the technology from an understanding what teachers do, and what they are seeking to do, rather than trying to import business best practices into the classroom. This may sound obvious to some, but it is not common sense, as most technologists and investors are programmed to think that everything is business. They are blind to the possibility that any other value system, any other objectives, any other modes of relationship can exist in any other domain, or even if they accept its existence, they merely think of it as an ancient, inefficient way of doing things. It is this paradigm that restricts our view what technology could do and how it could be used. This lack of perspective is indeed what we see when the Ed-Tech start-ups complain of 'politics' and 'resistance' in imposing the system - they are perfectly innocent that what they propose may often be alien to those who teach and learn (as students, too, disengage) and that they are merely imposing a value system that may be at odds with the basic values of a classroom.

What are the teachers trying to do? Many, most, teachers embraced the profession because they took pleasure in seeing the transformation of their pupils, in making their successes possible. They are hardly going to be resistant if they find a way to achieve this better, particularly if they are to find an easier way of doing it. But, anyone who has ever taught knows that one of the effects of Ed-Tech on teachers is not to save their time or make them more creative; in most cases, it is about creating a corporate-style all-intrusive environment, taking the thinking out of the work and making the teachers delivery-drones of a pre-programmed curricula. It is more about responding to status-alerts at the middle of the night than being able to connect one's student with an exciting new possibility, at least more commonly so!

What would happen if this new variety of education technology was possible? Rather than revolving around the questions of predictive modelling and faculty-to-teacher ratio, Ed-Tech conversations then would focus on making connections across universities and countries (making credits transferable by making learning more transparent, anyone?), making education and experience interchangeable, making student work visible to employers and so on. It would be about liberating students from single-discipline thinking and from the eccentricities of time-tables. It would be about freeing up time to travel and to interact with more people than about creating Facebook pages. This, exploring the varieties of Education Technologies, should be the key challenge facing an Education Innovator, and to do so, one must transcend our ways of seeing it.

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