George Siemens says 'Adios Ed Tech. Hola something else'

soft and hard technologies My friend and colleague George Siemens is concerned about dehumanizing trends in educational technology and, in this post, disassociates himself from them. I couldn’t agree more and I am especially glad that he is distancing himself fully from the harder end of the learning analytics movement, which has worried me since before it became a thing (we used to have such issues in adaptive hypermedia). And I couldn’t agree more about the dangers of Knewton.

George is concerned not about edtech in general but about what I would call hard educational technologies. Hard technologies orchestrate phenomena for us: they take away human agency. This can be a very good thing sometimes. I’d much rather have a hard technology sorting out my annual leave requirement or my taxes than one which I have to use creatively, though I do deeply hate the cog-like role that I do have to play in such things – it’s the worst of all possible worlds when we must be a component of a hard technology, doing badly what a machine can do better. I am even less enamoured of those that Ursula Franklin describes as prescriptive technologies and that Gary Boyd calls ‘dominative‘, that actively control me, especially if they are trying to make me learn or teach in a way that someone else has decided I should. These are the ones George hates, and so say we all.

I think that what George is seeking is what I would call soft educational technologies, akin to (but not identical to) what Franklin calls holistic and Boyd calls liberative technologies. These are flexible tools (including the cognitive, pedagogic, social, ethical, organizational and physical) that we orchestrate ourselves, that demand creativity of us, that are incomplete without us, that allow us to do better things as human beings, not as part of someone else’s program or orchestration – words, pencils and paper, guitars, computers (when we control them), pedagogies, and so on. We are even more a part of soft technologies than we are of hard ones because they have no meaningful existence without us. We bring them into being. 

Hard technologies can very much be a part of soft assemblies – they give us bigger, smarter, more interesting chunks to assemble and play with – and that is great, as long as they do not demand that we become a part of them. If they add to what we can do then it is wonderful – we can (literally) go to the Moon with hard technologies. If they replace what we can do, then it is only worthwhile if the thing they replace was not worth doing in the first place. There are many hard technologies that we must be a part of – where our role is entirely fixed and proscribed – that would be far better done by machines.  Automation, a particular subset of hardening, can be awful, but it can be great too, as long as it automates the right things and does not take away our agency in the process. For instance, I really like that fact that modern cars can park themselves (as long as I can do it myself if I wish) or that Twitter hashtags are auto-linked so I don’t have to run a manual search any more, or that I don’t have to be a uuencode/decode guru just to send an attachment through email, or that I don’t have to be a part of the hard technology of putting letters on a page with a pen (though I could if I wished) or sharpening a quill.

What matters is automating the right things and extending the adjacent possible, not diminishing it. And it is always important to remember what we lose in the process as well as what we gain. I’m very glad that people don’t have to read my handwriting any more (and so are they, trust me on that) but there are times when nothing else will replace it. The physicality of the handwritten letter, the intimacy of it, the connection it makes with another human being, is not so easily replicated by a machine. There are likewise things about paper books that e-books, despite their manifest superiority in most ways, cannot duplicate. Giving someone an e-book just ain’t the same as giving them a physical book, and the space they take on the shelf serves other cognitive purposes apart from making it easier to find them. And don’t get me started on learning management systems as drop-in replacements for physical classrooms…

Hopefully we will figure that out as part of making our technologies more human, not to return to the old but to fulfill the promise of the new. One of McLuhan’s Laws of Media is concerned with what new media retrieve that was previously obsolesced. To see that, we need to know what we have lost. When we grasp adjacent possibles we don’t always notice what we leave behind, and we really, really should.



Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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