What if disrupting education isn’t such a hot idea after all?

28 11 2011


Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the Clayton Christensen interview I linked to last Monday, was the explicit comparison between techno-skeptical teachers and Luddites. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything edtech-related that was quite this smug:

In the early 19th century, British textile artisans protested the Industrial Revolution with the anti-technology “Luddite movement.” They believed mechanized looms would replace them and make their jobs obsolete. They were right.

Automation in the 19th century was the disruptive equivalent of high-speed digital technology today, which is replacing jobs in the manufacturing and service sectors at astonishing speeds. Self-checkout counters at the grocery store, complete with laser scanners to read bar codes, are starting to replace human cashiers. On the road, the advent of EZPass and other computerized toll machines are replacing human tollbooth collectors. The rise of online education could effectively render terrible teachers redundant, while bolstering the careers of talented educators. There’s a word for this; it’s progress.

But what if it isn’t?

What if education suffers when the technology of pedagogy changes? We can all agree that that’s within the realm of possibility, right? This issue seems especially relevant for online education in its current underdeveloped, often poorly-administered form. Why can’t we wait for online education 2.0 rather than embrace the current extremely rudimentary product that most colleges offer? Besides, who says teachers who don’t embrace every disruptive technology that comes down the pike are necessarily Luddites? Why not accept the ones we like and reject the ones we don’t? After all, it seems as if for every wonderful innovation like Zotero, there’s a Courseload out there too.

Writing at Tenured Radical, Judith C. Brown offers what I think is a pretty good rule for telling the difference between a good edtech innovation and a bad one:

The key to the success of incorporating digital approaches is to know when and how to use them for pedagogical purposes rather than simply to lower costs.

Teachers and professors are undoubtedly in the best position to tell one from the other. Unfortunately, since online education in America is primarily about lowering costs, they don’t exactly get consulted very often. It’s gotten so bad that even Anya Kamenetz, who I have had absolutely nothing nice to say about previously, can write:

Personally, I’d like to see more university presidents making faculty their partners, not adversaries, in the transformation process.

Does that make her a Luddite too? If some administrators actually listened to this advice, educational technology disruption might be a little less…ummmmm…disruptive. Unfortunately this whole line of argument is really just titling at windmills, because the educational disrupters aren’t interested in education. They’re interested in money.

But what about administrators who facilitate this kind senseless disturbance? They already have money. What they’re interested in is power. As Thomas Pynchon explained in reference to the relevance of the Luddites to the modern world in 1984:

The word “Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D.D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.

That’s why campus police have pepper spray. The only disruptions allowed on campus are in the classroom, as long as the faculty and the students aren’t the ones doing the disrupting.

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One response

28 11 2011
Lisa M Lane

Excellent post. And keep in mind administrators themselves promote thoughtless tech adoption because they are trying to show that their jobs are not obsolete.

I’m not sure I’m with you on teachers being the best people to know what’s useful, though — this has to be learned. Techno-skeptical is great, but resistant to all tech would mean the person can’t tell a useful tool from one that isn’t.

It’s only when a teacher has enough experience to know that his/her individual pedagogy can be expressed through particular technologies (or not) that there can be intelligent resistance. In some cases, admins are too restrictive in allowing teachers to use what they want. This can be as much of a problem as them pushing the latest fad.

I think in most cases the situation has been the adoption of enterprise-level technology that functions poorly and is quite expensive, but touts itself as being secure. Only teachers who know some tech can resist such stupidity.

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