EdTech Heresy

In an effort to read more and write more, I have been checking out books from the library at a mad clip (yes, I still prefer books that I can hold to their Kindle-ized version…) and making my bedside table look a little bit like a Jenga pile.  Some selections have been random (like the book by David Mellor who mows all of the patterns in professional baseball outfields)  and others have been parodies of higher ed that have made me giggle outloud (I highly recc’d Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher). I read Ta-nehsi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson back to back and was grateful for a faculty staff book group that formed on campus so that I could unpack everything I felt and thought after reading those amazing, painful, powerful works.

I read blogs to get suggestions for reading and usually I will steer clear of anything Ed Tech related because, well, I deal with EdTech all day and the evangelizing sometimes just gets to be too much. I have grown weary of people telling me that an app or a tool will make teaching better or learning come more easily.  I certainly don’t need to spend my quiet at home hours reading more of the same.

So maybe, given that weariness, when I saw someone blogging about reading Geek Heresy:Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology by Kentaro Toyama  I thought that I could make an exception this one time.  I was not disappointed.

Actually, I am pretty sure I was smitten at the first chapter which was called “No Laptop Left behind: Conflicting Results in Educational Technology.” yessssss.

This is a great read. Toyama reminds us, using a variety of scenarios, that one size never fits all and how technology can exacerbate inequities, imbalances, and disconnects faster than it can rectify them.

Here is someone who worked for Microsoft, who led all sorts of high tech “interventions” around the world and who, now, is telling us that actually the tools weren’t the keys to progress and success in these projects. Actually: educated, intentional, purposeful people were the reason for the success.  It was people who did the hard work of figuring out and articulating what needed to be fixed and not just impose a tech solution with the hopes that it would be the cure-all.

Tomaya reminds us that the very people who can best articulate what they want tech to do for them often come from privilege and that this privilege also allows them greater access to tools… such that the cycle reinforces itself over and over again. Meanwhile, people with less training, less access, fewer resources… the very community that needs support…. don’t gain those skills through the imposition of tech.  Rather, it exacerbates the divide even more.

As the author says in this webpage

In project after project, the lesson was the same: information amplified the intent and the capacity of human and institutional stakeholders, but it didn’t substitute for their deficiencies. If we collaborated with a self-confident community or a competent non-profit, things went well.  but if we worked with a corrupt organization or an indifferent group, no amount of well designed technology was helpful.  Ironically, although we looked to technology to attain large-scale impact into places where circumstances were most dire, technology itself was unable to improve situations were well-intentioned competence was absent. What mattered most was individual and institutional intent and capacity.

His research into the famous “one laptop per child” initiative in Latin America is damning. He cites a report by Ana Santiago at the Inter-American Development Bank where they found no educational advantage to OLPC in Peru.  3 months after the hype and the pictures of happy children with laptops, the novelty wore off, and the use of laptops began to drop off. Similar results were found in Uruguay: “Our findings confirm that the technology alone cannot impact learning.”

What I read about these experiments and projects hit home.  Far too often I have seen technology adopted that only privileges one group of students over others, or one teaching/learning style at the expense of another.  Technology all by itself does not level the playing field, nor does the introduction of computers always close the digital divide

Tomaya speaks often about the Law of Amplification…. in a negative sense this can be how technology tends to amplify systems and imbalances and disconnects that are already present.  In a more positive sense it can be seen as how technology makes things that were already working well work even better.  An example of that an be seen in some of the blogging experiences that have been shared here on LLU… it wasn’t the  class blog that made the difference. It was the blog as an amplifier of something that was already in place and in need of a kickstart (that is, a class becoming a community of learners that also saw the benefit of connecting with others outside of the classroom).

Rather that fetishizing the newest/ brightest/ shiniest / enterprise-level whatever, it’s about then human hard work of connecting it with teaching goals and learning outcomes.

As I write this, my twitter feed is exploding with images of bright and glitzy keynotes from EDUCAUSE 2015. Our EdTech world continues to be seduced by gadgets and gizmos. Our language textbooks keep pushing materials online and only shiny Super Sites and e-Learning sites, telling us that this is what our students want and this is how they will learn better (while charging them an additional fee to access it on top of the $$$$ for the textbook).  It’s neither what they want nor helping them learn, but that is fodder for another blog post.

While I think the book could have been about 100 pages shorter (the author himself admits in the endnotes that he was stubborn in this regard) I think his message is one that bears consideration.  I was particularly taken by how the book ends:

For anyone wanting balanced progress, for anyone with self-transcendent motivations, for anyone genuinely seeking social change, the most meaningful efforts are not those boosted by technocratic values. Packaged interventions are relatively easy. Nurturing individual and collective heart, mind, and will is hard. What we need is more people taking the long, hard road. (page 210)

You can read more about the author, the book and his thinking here.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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