Book Review: The Monsters of Education Technology

As background, here’s a brief summary of my relationship with Educational Technology, from c. 2003 to the present:
My EdTech Arc
Thanks to my Twitter Archive and apps like TimeHop, I’ve been frequently exposed to my EdTech Pollyanna stage. There sure were lots of excited exclamation points

In the more recent past, I’ve been feeling a bit more like the EdTech Curmudgeon:

  • “Hey, have you heard about this tool? Students can make digital flashcards!” Me: “Ummm…”
  • “Look this tool that automatically grades ScanTron tests!” Me: “Ummm….”
  • “Check out these Khan Academy videos! Students can totally get extra help!” Me: “Ummm….”

Usually I don’t say much when friends and colleagues bring up questionable tools. I mean, that’s pretty much exactly where I was c. 2008. Though I do try to bring up issues with the tools, or their parent companies, or (most often) the type of teaching and learning these tools reinforce when there’s an opportunity, usually I just end up feeling like Debbie Downer in a room full of excited cheerleaders.

Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed reading Audrey Watters’ The Monsters of Educational Technology so very, very much.
The Monsters of Education Technology
Audrey Watters self-describes as the Cassandra1 of EdTech. As she notes about herself in the book:

"I don’t tend to talk about ed-tech revolution and disruptive innovation unless it’s to critique and challenge those phrases. I don’t give ed-tech pep talks, where you leave the room with a list of 300 new apps you can use in your classroom."

You're not going to walk away from Watters' writing feeling like a world beater: able to revolutionize the whole education in your classroom tomorrow. Instead she stares deep into the soul of so many Silicon Valley edtech startups and finds them to be empty.

But this is an important thing. Education technology has been, and- apropos the Cassandra comparison- will continue to be lauded as “the way” to “fix” what’s “wrong” with teaching and learning today. It’s flashy. It’s shiny. It looks futuristic and fancy to administrators and politicians. Unfortunately, so many of the tools simply replicate or reinforce questionable practices from our past. Instead, Watters challenges us (emphasis mine):

“To transform education and education technology to more progressive and less programmed ends means we do have to address what exactly we think education should look like now and in the future. Do we want programmed instruction? Do we want teaching machines? Do we want videotaped lectures? Do we want content delivery systems? Or do we want education that is more student-centered, more networked-focused. [...] And instead of acting as though ed-tech is free of ideology, we need to recognize that it is very much enmeshed in it.”

When schools adopt new technologies there often isn’t much thought given to the pedagogical or social implications the new technologies bring to the classroom. Very little consideration is given to what the tools really add to the learning process over already existing tools (besides being shinier and newer), and even less consideration is given to how this might affect who we are as humans, as Watters describes in her critique of algorithms designed to grade student essays:

"We have no laws of ‘ed-tech robotics.’ We rarely ask, ‘What are ethical implications of educational technologies?’ Mostly, we want to know ‘will this raise test scores?’ ‘Will this raise graduation rates?’ We rarely ask, ‘Are we building and adopting tools that might harm us? That might destroy our humanity?’"

Despite the picture I’ve painted so far, Watters goes beyond simply prophesying doom upon humanity at the hands of educational technology. Though deeply skeptical and harshly critical of most educational technology, she isn’t anti-technology.

She champions technologies that give students agency. Technologies that places students in control of their own learning.  Technologies that promote learning outside the artificial structures society has created in schools and universities. Clearly one of her favorite ideas is an initiative started at the University of Mary Washington, called a Domain of One’s Own. UMW gives each student their own domain- not just space on a university server- but a domain they can take with them after they graduate:

“Their own domain. Again, the word matters here. Students have their own space on the Web. A space for a blog or multiple blogs. A digital portfolio for their academic work that can become a professional portfolio as well. A place to store their digital stuff in the cloud. Moreover, a lesson on the technologies that underpin the Web. HTML. CSS. RSS. It's not quite “hosted lifebits,” but it’s a solid step in that direction. The initiative represents a kind of open learning – learning on the Web and with the Web, learning that is of the Web. ‘Domain of One’s Own’ offers a resistance to the silos of the learning management system and to the student as a data mine. It highlights the importance of learner agency, of learning in public, of learning together, of control over one’s digital identity and over one’s educational data, and the increasing importance of digital literacies."

This is an idea that seems so simple yet powerful. It’s something that could be done even at the high school level- maybe students don’t receive their own actual domain, but students could be given a space somewhere online where 1) they are in control and 2) that can be taken with them once they’ve graduated.

Audrey Watters’ work is simultaneously deeply informative, insightful, troubling, and hopeful. I highly recommend The Monsters of Education Technology and pretty much everything she’s written online at Hacked Education to anyone working in or near an educational setting.

The book is available directly through Audrey Watters’ website in a variety of print and e-book formats. You should definitely buy it.

"Indeed humanity and learning are deeply intertwined. They are intertwined with love, not with algorithms." - Audrey Watters

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  1. Cassandra of classical mythology was given the gift of prophecy, but when she spurned Apollo’s love she was cursed to always prophesy truthfully, but never to be believed.     (back)