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The Promised Technological Utopia Falls Short

April 27, 2015

Jacobin editor Megan Erickson’s essay, Edutopia describes the failed promise of educational technology, offering historic and current examples of forecasted breakthroughs in schooling that would result as a result of advances in technology. The most recent example of over promising is “design thinking”, whereby groups of individuals crowd-source solutions to thorny and seemingly intractable problems. Here’s Erickson’s description of the process as it was introduced to a group of teachers at a staff development workshop:

Tim Brown, IDEO’s CEO and a regular at Davos and TED talks, has described design thinking as a way to inject “local, collaborative, participatory” planning into the development of products, organizational processes, and now schools.

After providing a more detailed description of how “design thinking” might play out in schools, Erickson’s skepticism about this process comes out in this paragraph:

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency. If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

Erickson provides a history of “teaching machines”, beginning with Edward Thorndike’s ideas of precise measurement of mental skills in 1912, B. F. Skinner’s theories in the 1950s, the various individualized curricula designed in the 1960s, and the notions of technology billionaires today. She concludes that all of these conceptions are off the mark:

The fact is, education is not a design problem with a technical solution. It is nothing like building a spaceship. It is a social and political project that the neoliberal imagination insists on innovating out of existence. The most significant challenges faced today in education are not natural obstacles to be overcome by increasing productivity — they are man-made struggles over how resources are allocated.

Erickson then provides some stunning facts on how our country chooses to allocate it’s resources:

The United States is one of just three OECD countries, along with Israel and Turkey, where schools that serve rich families have better resources and more funding than schools that serve poor families. The other thirty-four countries included in the index either provide equal funding for all students or spend a disproportionate amount of money on students from low-income families.

In a country where the top 20 percent of the population earns eight times as much as the bottom 20 percent, this inevitably leads to two distinct and parallel systems of education, one for the rich and one for the poor. It’s not that “money doesn’t matter” for reforming the education system, or that technology can be a substitute, but that children from working-class and poor families score lower on standardized test scores than their wealthy peers — and America has many more poor families than rich.

Erickson then describes Sal Khan’s efforts to provide individualized lessons for children in a wide array of topics, characterizing his work as “…a fine way to practice math problems or learn a didactic skill” but notes that it deemphasizes “…the importance of interpretation and critique in education“.

Erickson asserts that individualization in isolation is a flawed way to deliver instruction:

Teachers who encourage resistance are essential sources of support and guidance for kids. People do not learn to think critically and construct meaning in isolation — which is the assumption behind the trend of textbooks that respond individually to each student and allow them to move at their own pace.

Erickson is also dismissive of the notion that children need to be protected from some content for fear they will be guided in the wrong direction:

As Katherine McKittrick has pointed out in response to the idea of trigger warnings being placed on college syllabi: the classroom isn’t safe. It should not be safe. Teaching, for McKittrick, is a “day-to-day skirmish,” and teachers must work hard to create classroom conversations “that work out how knowledge is linked to an ongoing struggle to end violence,” to engage with the history that students bring with them into the classroom and resist reification of oppressive thinking in practical ways.

Erickson DOES see one form of schooling that meets the needs of children… a method that minimizes the use of technology:

Waldorf schools incorporate creative and tactile experiences and tools including hammers and nails, knives, knitting needles, and mud — but not computers — into the curriculum. Engagement comes from the connection between children and their teachers, who stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans.

I agree completely with much of the thinking in Erickson’s essay, particularly her disdain for those who want to use technology to reduce costs and monetize schooling. But felt that she overstated the ineffectiveness of technology and oversold the status quo model of education. For example, Sal Khan himself would acknowledge the limitations of his “Academy”. He realizes that his lectures and lesson packets work most effectively when the content is hierarchical and objective because in those cases the need for intermediation is minimal. And while his work was underwritten by Bill Gates, I do not that Khan’s curriculum should be dismissed on that basis. It is conceivable that by using Khan Academy to deliver instruction that is hierarchical and objective that teacher-time could be used to engage and connect with with students and design lessons that stress critical thinking and aim to create interesting, inquiry-based lesson plans. Indeed, I could see public school teachers behaving more and more like Waldorf teachers and students progressing at their own rate on topics that are highly interesting and engaging based on their skill levels.

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