Educational technology is a Trojan horse. It has been one for longer than we’ve used the phrase “educational technology.” Audrey Waters was the guest on episode 8 of the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast. The provocative title for the episode, “Why Audrey Waters Thinks Tech Is a Trojan Horse Set to ‘Dismantle’ the Academy” was indeed provocative, enough for me to listen to it. What I heard was a good and important reminder that technology is a cultural artifact that is not neutral. Audrey’s ideas in this segment would be common and welcome at the annual Media Ecology Conference. As such, this was familiar ground for me, given that I cut my teeth on educational technology from an unusual collection of thinkers, not from technologists but from some of media and emerging technology’s greatest critics and analysts. This included people like Neil Postman, Walter Ong, Jacques Ellul, Lewis Munford, Sven Birkerts, Daniel Boorsten, Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, Jack Goody, and Jay Bolter. These and others taught me that technology is values laden, and that more than often, it has its way with society. As many of these people say in different ways. We create technology. Then is creates us.
I get that. It is why many of my early presentations at education conferences (especially those about ten years ago) were about the adverse impact of technology in education and society. I was driven by what I considered a holy discontent about people’s seeming ignorance to the realities of how technology works on us, uses us, shapes us and our world. My plea was not for the use or rejection of it, but simply for us to deeply and persistently consider the affordances and limitations. To get a sense of how much I’ve used that phrase, simply Google “affordances and limitations” and scan the articles that appear on the first 3-5 pages.
Even though that is not the focus of much of my work today, highlighting the dangers of technology in education, it is still a line of thinking that I consider important for those of us working in the education space. In an age where everyone is touting the importance of teaching critical thinking, we are wise to do a bit of our own critical thinking about our decisions and technologies in education.
In the interview with Audrey Waters, the following quote is shared: “Education technology is Trojan horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource, unbundle, disrupt, and destroy.” I agree and the statement reminded me of how I used to start many of my presentations about ten years ago. I would begin by explaining that educational technology is a conspiracy. Technology is not neutral and those of us who are its greatest advocates in education are co-conspirators. Educational technology will and does shape and reshape education. When we adopt it, we are knowingly or unknowingly joining the great ed tech conspiracy. Furthermore, many of us who champion its use in education have ulterior and a subversive set of motives. I certainly do, and I develop new subversive motives all the time.
The difference is that I’m okay with that. A turning point for me in education was a realization that many critics of emerging educational technologies were doing so to protect a set of personal values. These were often values that helped protect their power, privileged position, and preferred perspective. As Postman and many others point out, there are always winners and losers with each new technology. I completely agree. I agree so much that I think it is true with the traditional and dominant technologies today as well. The concepts of the age-graded classroom is a technology with winners and losers. The technologies that amplify the lecture creates winners and losers. The technology of letter grades has winners and losers. The technology of credit hours, academic standards, learning objectives, course syllabi, faculty tenure systems, professionalism about teachers and professors, teacher unions, college diplomas, modern transcripts, standardized tests, education funding models… All of these are technologies or are amplified and supported by associated technologies, and they all create winners and losers. I am completely okay with challenging these more established technologies or systems, and I do not start from a place that gives them privilege because of their history or broader acceptance in society or the education establishment. These deserve just as robust of a critique as do the new technologies.
This is not to suggest that new is going to be better, but it will be different. It will generate new winners and losers. This is why I continue to come back to the argument that a diverse educational system is the most humane. There will always be different winners and learners, so we must at least embrace a variety of options so that the largest possible number of people will find places where they can be winners. I admit that I am intolerant of absolute claims about the “right approach in education”, whether they come from government, the corporate world, teacher unions, education researchers, or any other source. An education system that fights to exclude that which is different or highlights different benefits is one that is fighting to become an educational monopoly. Even some the people who are most outspoken about the corporatization of education are essentially seeking their own type of monopoly or power hold on the system.
Before the next paragraphs, perhaps I should slow down and share a working definition of educational technology. From AECT, ” educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.” As such, it is much more than mobile devices, educational software, computers in the classroom, interactive whiteboards, virtual reality in education, and other more “techie” artifacts. Educational technology also includes assessment frameworks, grading systems, educational policies, teaching strategies, approaches to designing curriculum and lessons, and the many structures that are considered standard aspects of schooling today. Not everyone agrees with my broad approach to the phrase, but I see too much danger in using more narrow ones. The critiques of computers in the classroom and new educational software are needed, but it is just as important for us to critique these other technologies.
Yes, educational technology is here to dismantle, outsource, unbundle, destroy and do so much more. Isn’t that what the technologies undergirding the education system of the 20th century did to the systems that preceded it? Didn’t the modern University dismantle the higher education system prior to it? Didn’t teacher professionalism undermine the model in existence prior that construct? Didn’t age-graded classrooms destroy the more diverse vision of the one-room schoolhouse? Didn’t the technologies of the book and literacy education unbundle learning from centralized authorities as the sole source of knowledge for many? Didn’t the textbook invention change things? Didn’t the letter grade system dismantle and disrupt the way in which students and teachers thought about feedback? Isn’t the national standards movement undermining greater local control and influence on curricula to some extend? Even the concept of curriculum (or rather the many concepts) was an an undermining invention.
As such, people who are defending the status quo in education are just as much advocates of a Trojan horse, just a different one. Every past, present and future educational technology is a Trojan horse. You don’t have to agree with my individual questions to see my general point. This is what technologies do. They represent a conspiracy against that which came before them.