Weary, old, a little broken, but not letting go of the dream: edtech in the 21st Century

Anne-Marie Scott joins a long line of weary edtech illuminati who have recently expressed sadness and disillusion about life, the universe, and, in particular, the edtech industry (she has plans to do something about that – good plans – but her weariness is palpable). One of the finest antidotes to it all, Audrey Watters, has pretty much given up on trying to do anything about it. Even the usually-optimistic Tony Bates has lost his cool over it (specifically the exploitation of data harvested about students, including children, by cloud-based tools, which I predicted would be a growing issue a while back).

Personally, I burned out long ago, and the remaining embers are barely glowing. My desire to change the world is undiminished, and I still have some ideas that I don’t think anyone else has tried before, but the means, the time, the energy, and (too often) the will left me years ago. I lost most of my passion for most of edtech research long, long ago: so much rehashing of things that we’ve done again and again, so little change apart from for the worse, so many mistakes being made over and over on ever larger scales, so little that’s good getting the exposure it needs, too much that’s awful being over-exposed. The emergency responses to the pandemic just depressed me further, and my own university is devoting pretty much all of its energy and resources into reinventing its infrastructure, leaving little space for my quirky brand of toy making (though the Landing is very slowly, in fits and starts, beginning to get the attention it deserved 10 years ago). But I will not go gentle into that good night. Not yet.

Online learning (e-learning, edtech, technology-enhanced learning, etc), by its nature, has a strong propensity to do ‘human’ badly, which is a pity because education is about very little else than being human with other humans. Edtech (and almost everyone who creates it) wants to control, to measure, to collect, to impose order on disorder. Even its most organic, volatile, social spaces are filled with instrumentality, on the part of both people and machines. Much of the time, human actions are input for the algorithms that seek to control them. Machines try to make automata inside us in their own distorted image. We become what we behold, and what we behold becomes what it has made us, a spiralling loop toward mediocre grey, mirrors reflecting mirrors till all the light has gone.  And the machines, in turn, are cogs in machines, that are cogs in machines, each one turning the next, grinding their gears, oblivious to our humanity, black-boxing what we once did ourselves in uniform, impenetrable digital containers, where efficiency is a measure of what can be measured, and of little or nothing that actually matters.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, those of us working in the still-fresh online learning field hoped we’d change the educational establishment but, instead, the educational establishment changed us. It took our monkey-paw rainbows of wishes, chewed them up, and spat them back at us in trademarked beige. It threw away what it didn’t need to reinforce its mediaeval mission, and made what was left into a cyborg prosthesis, an automated monk, each part like the next: efficient, sterile, bland, each human interaction with it a data point, each person a vessel for implementing its measured objectives, ignoring what it couldn’t measure as though it wasn’t there. In the process of putting mediaeval pedagogies online, we lost most of what made them (nearly) work, and amplified the things that make them fail, creating machines (pedagogical and digital) that attempted to control learners more than ever before.

Personalized learning depersonalizes the person. The tools provide a more efficient means of making people who are more the same, as near as possible cookie cutter images replicating the machine’s pre-programmed domain model in learners’ brains.  Increasingly, too, we are learning to be human from machines that learned to be like us from the caricatured curated facades we presented to others in the simplifying mirror of cyberspace. More and more of those facades that are mined by the machines are now, themselves, created by machines. They will be what the next generation learns from, and we in turn will learn from them. Like photocopies of photocopies,  the subtle gradations and details will merge and disappear and, with them, our humanity. It’s already happening. Meanwhile, outside the educational machine, we are herded like sheep into further centralized machines that use the psychology of drug pushers to feed us ever more concentrated, meme-worthy, disposable content, that do the thinking for us so that we don’t have to, that automate values that serve no one but their shareholders, that blend truth, lies, beauty, and degradation into an undifferentiated slurry of cognitive pink slime we swallow like addicts, numbing our minds to what makes them distinct. Edtech is learning from that model, replicating it, amplifying it. ‘Content’ made of bite-size video lectures and pop quizzes, reinforced by adaptive models, vie for pole position in charts of online learning products. These are not the products of a diseased imagination. They are the products of one that has atrophied.

This is not what we intended. This is not what we imagined. This is not what we wanted. Sucked into a bigger machine, scaled up, our inventions turned against us. Willingly, half-wittedly, we became what we are not. We became parts in someone else’s machine.

How can we, again, become who we are? How can we become more than we are? How can the edtech community find its soul again? Perhaps, for example:

  • By revering the idiosyncratic, the messy, the unformed, the newly forming;
  • By being part of the process, not makers of the product;
  • By supporting each personal technique, not replicating impersonal methods;
  • By embracing the complex, weird, fuzzy mystery, not analyzing, not averaging, not simplifying;
  • By appreciating, not measuring;
  • By playing for the joy of the game, not playing to win;
  • By tinkering, not engineering;
  • By opening, not closing;
  • By daydreaming about what could be, not solving problems;
  • By embracing, not rejecting;
  • By making machines for humans, not adapting humans to be parts of machines;
  • By connecting people, not collecting data about them;
  • By owning the machine, not renting someone else’s machine;
  • By sharing, not containing;
  • By enabling, not controlling;
  • By following the learners, not leading them;
  • By looking through the screen, not at it;
  • By doing with, not doing at one another;
  • By drinking from the living stream, unfiltered and unflavoured;
  • By finding softness, not imposing hardness;
  • By asking why, who, and where, not what, how and when;
  • By making learning, not just what is learned, visible;
  • By making learners visible (if they want);
  • By loving the small, the personal, the trivial, the bright seams of gold;
  • By being – and staying – beginners;
  • By grasping the end of the long tail;
  • By living on the boundaries, and tearing down the barriers;
  • By rejecting the central and the centralizing;
  • By engaging with the local, the specific, the situated, the social;
  • By knowing we learn in a place, caring we are in it, and cherishing who we share it with;
  • By searching for the cracks and filling them with light;
  • By doing the dangerous things;
  • By breaking things;
  • By feeling wonder.

We must make playgrounds, not production lines. We must embrace the logic of the poem, not the logic of the program. We must see one another in all our multifaceted strangeness, not just in our self-curated surfaces. We must celebrate and nurture the diversity, the eccentricities, the desires, the fears, the things that make us who we are, that make us more than we were, together and as individuals. The things we do not and, often, cannot measure.

The things that make education worthwhile.

The reasons it matters.

 

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor 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 two growing-up grandchildren. I live in beautiful Vancouver.

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