#NotAllEdTech Derails Critical Educational Technology Conversations
Last month, Rolin Moe and I published an essay in EDUCAUSE Review highlighting the ideological and sociocultural factors associated with the rise of educational technology (hereafter EdTech). Motivated by two responses to our essay, I decided to write this additional piece highlighting an argument/misunderstanding that can often elude and derail critical discussions in the field.
The criticism, made by Downes and Kim, counters our underlying premise. They say: Not all educational technology is characterized by technocentric, market-focused and product-driven ideologies. Downes argues that the way we describe educational technology does not describe it, and by implication many who work in the field. Kim notes that she doesn’t know anyone in the field who thinks and behaves in the way that aligns with how she describes the rise of EdTech.
Moe sparingly summarized these responses as #NotAllEdTech, as a version of the hashtag not all educational technology is like thisparallel to the use of the phrase “not all men”.
I’ll unpack the meaning of #NotAllEdTech here.
#NotAllEdTech posits that not all educational technology is malevolent and that not all educational technology represents an insidious attempt to privatize and automate education. The #NotAllEdTech argument points out that there are a lot of good people in our field. People who care. Entrepreneurs, researchers and colleagues of many vocations – instructors, pedagogical designers, directors of digital learning – who work, in their own way, to improve teaching and learning with technology. Not all educational technology is sinister, atheoretical, ahistorical, and driven by unsavory desires. #NotAllEdTech. Individuals making this argument seem to want to protect themselves, and others, from being defined by the ideologies we identified in our original article.
This all makes sense, of course. If it weren’t for the thoughtful, caring, creative, innovative, and justice-oriented people in the field focused on making a positive difference in education and society, I would have changed careers long ago. Moe and I, and countless colleagues, use educational technology for valuable purposes, from providing educational opportunities where none existed before, to providing them in more flexible ways, to rethinking the way students learn and instructors teach. Making a meaningful contribution to society is at the core of this multifaceted and exciting field.
We know that educational technology is good. To borrow Downes’ terminology, we know that educational technology can be benign.
But that’s not the point.
Just because there are many well-meaning people in the field, just because our essay doesn’t accurately characterize Downes, just because Kim doesn’t “know” anyone who thinks about educational technology in the way we’ve described, it does not mean that educational technology is operating outside of socio-cultural, economic and political forces.
I’m sure that many well-intentioned people participated in a wide range of initiatives that ended up being problematic. Many well-meaning people believed in xMOOCs and for-profit online universities as emancipatory. Many well-intentioned people write, adopt, and otherwise participate in the operations of the textbook publishing industry despite the exorbitant prices charged by some publishers. Many well-intentioned people review or publish in journals that are not open access and support the academic publishing industry despite industry restrictions on the dissemination of knowledge. Many well-intentioned individuals envisioned the aforementioned practices as ways to democratize access, but the presence of well-intentioned individuals did not ensure positive outcomes.
The most pressing problem with the #NotAllEdTech argument, however, is that it perpetuates a dangerous counter-narrative.
#NotAllEdTech can be a tactic that derails and derails discussions of educational technology as a practice that needs deep questioning. #NotAllEdTech could, perhaps inadvertently, redirect attention to the optimism surrounding education technology while ignoring the larger landscape around which education technology operates. It could also create a false binary: the heroes and good guys of EdTech vs. the bad guys (eg for-profit, big business, etc.). Most importantly, this binary could imply that those on the good side are somehow protected by external forces (some of which, like pressures to rethink our practices, can actually be very helpful).
What I fear, and hope to avoid, is a world where conversations about educational technology focus solely on individuals (eg, those who use the technology, create the technology, etc.), while avoiding criticism of educational technology as an overly optimistic practice modeled. by social trends. It is easy to change the focus on people. It is easy to blame teachers for not using technology in a participatory way, teachers for not employing more progressive digital pedagogies, and researchers for not publishing in open access sites. But this blame, a “stand up for your bags” approach, ignores the unequal distribution of power in our social systems and ignores the socio-cultural and socio-political constraints that individuals face. Teachers could face testing regimes that favor certain (poor) pedagogies. Researchers may face institutional policies or disciplinary rules that favor publication in certain (closed) journals. Using a parallel example, it is easy (and tempting) to claim that Uber drivers enjoy opportunities to supplement their income, work in their spare time, and make use of idle resources (ie their cars) , and easy to avoid research into broader social trends. around the gig economy.
Have we had success using educational technology to reimagine pedagogical approaches, expand flexibility, reduce costs, improve outcomes, and increase access? Of course we have. And the future is bright. But if we continue to ignore the ways in which educational technology is a symptom of powerful forces, like our changing economybeyond the control of any well-intentioned individual, we could find ourselves supporting systems and practices that are in conflict with the positive social ideals to which we aspire.
Through these conversations, our field becomes more vibrant, critical, and reflective. And for that, despite our disagreements, I’d like to thank Downes and Kim.
Dr. George Veletsianos is Canada Research Professor in Innovative Learning and Technology and Associate Professor in the School of Education and Technology at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. He blogs at http://www.veletsianos.com