I am Writing a Book on Technology and Spirituality in One Month

I just had an experience that prompted me to shift my writing priorities and finish a book on Technology and Spirituality this month called Digitized: How Technology Shapes Us and What We Can Do About It. I”m truly honored to give keynotes and invited presentations to teachers, policymakers, school leaders and executives, boards, and many other people/groups. This speaking literally takes me around the world with trips last year to Australia, Hong Kong and Italy; and upcoming trips to Slovakia and Italy.

Yet, on Thursday of last week, there was something incredible about giving a presentation on the Spiritual Implications of Technology at the Athanatos Arts and Apologetics Conference. It was a small but wonderfully thoughtful group for this first year, and I pray that Dr. Anthony Horvath, the coordinator, considers it for a second year, as I will certainly help promote it.

Great Group

Here is what I loved about my one day at the event. First, it was well-organized and Tony brought in some truly thoughtful and talented speakers and performers representing music, film and literature…not to mention other area. It was so much fun to interact with this small group of thinkers, artists, authors, and difference makers; all of who do not shy away from the wonderfully messy world of grappling with the intersection of faith and life in the contemporary world.

Authenticity

Second, it was authentic and high quality without having that sort of aloof or overly polished feel that I often experience at the large events where I keynote. I can get into those massive conferences with 50-foot screens and flashy lights, but it is also refreshing to interact with just as thoughtful and informed people under a tent in the middle of a North Wisconsin field with an impending thunderstorm demanding time on the stage. In fact, the storm did get on the stage, even musing out loud about blowing away the main tent. People just jumped into action, helped hold down the poles, and continued the conversation. In fact, I had a great chat with an old friend holding a wooden pole that kept coming out of place. You don’t get that sort of action at SXSWEdu, the Education Innovation Summit, or the annual ISTE event. In fact, I contend that the storm, while taking us off schedule a bit, made the event that much better. Maybe we should check with the big guy about scheduling that as a regular part of future versions of the festival. 

Rekindling

Third, it reconnected me with my love of apologetics, a Christian perspective on the humanities, presuppositional and literary apologetics, and more. It challenged me to think about how I can create more time in my life and writing for some of these topics. I have no intention of abandoning what I consider to be my calling to exploring the intersection of education and entrepreneurship, futures in education, and challenging all of us to further explore the possibilities for life and learning in a connected world. It is just that part of my personal story and convictions about life in a connected world is a deeply spiritual one, and this event reminded me not to let go of that, to think out loud (and on screen/paper) about that. As a mentor and friend once told me. “We learn too late their our convictions matter.” 

I realize that I have colleagues and collaborators across a wide spectrum of beliefs, contexts and worldviews. I love that exchange and value these many relationships. I learn so much from this diverse group, and we have many ideas in common. I also realize that what I will write about the spiritual dimension of life in the contemporary world will not resonate with some of you, just as not all of my articles do right now. I just think it is great that we’ve all built connections that don’t break us into little ideological clans. There is something important about crossing borders, engaging in rich and lively conversation, and sharing a mutual interest in the pursuit of truth and wisdom for this age.

The Book

Finally, and very practically, this event was the push I need for me to move one of my “future writing projects” to the “write this now and get it out to the world” list, namely a topic that I’ve shared on for over a decade: Spirituality and Technology, certainly coming from my distinctly Lutheran/Christian vantage point. As such, I am going to set the goal of trying to get as close as possible as having a full draft of this book done by the end of August. That means about 40,000 – 50,000 words on that book in less than a month. Of course, I have several speaking appointments this coming month (including a week international trip) and full days of work to balance, but I think this is a reasonable goal. I basically need to average 2500 words a day to hit this goal, but I love and know the topic well, so it is within the realm of possibility. Worst case, I make much more progress than I did in the last decade, and I finish it up this fall. I’m going to go with the working title of Digitized: How Technology Shapes Us and What We can Do About It.

Yes, Educational Technology is a Trojan Horse. It Has Been One for Centuries

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.

6 Quotes to Keep Us Grounded in the Digital Age

We live in a media-rich world, but I’m still fond of words. I like words that paint pictures, that challenge me to look at things from different perspectives, that help me explore the possibilities, and that invite me to consider both the affordances and limitations of life in an increasingly technological and connected world. As one originally trained in qualitative and ethnographic approaches to research, I continue to seek out and cling to meaning statements, short or long quotes that embody a key insight in a larger narrative or discourse.

With that in mind, following are six quotes (five of which are Tweet-able) that keep me grounded in the digital age.

“You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion.” – G.K. Chesterton

Chesterton’s writings are full of rich and memorable meaning statements. This one reminds me to have patience in a world that celebrates immediacy; instant gratification; and a ready, fire aim approach to life and work. Ideas matter and have consequences, and our world is persistently in need of deep, thoughtful people. That tames time, study, and the kind grit that allows someone to grapple and persists with projects, explorations, inquiries, and causes over weeks, months, years, decades, even centuries.

“Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.” – Dean Inge

The spirits of each age are transient. As much as we like to think that our conclusions, discoveries, and insights are destination points; that is rarely true. Inge’s quote reminds me that even the most compelling spirits of this age are best contrasted with the wisdom on the past and the possibilities and opportunities of the future. It reminds me to use the mind tools of this age with humility.

“It is appallingly obvious our technology has exceeded our humanity.” – Albert Einstein

Educational and social innovations are not exceptions to the wisdom in this quote. Early in life I was inspired by the spirit of the frontiersman, the inventor, the explorer, and the entrepreneur. It is easy to be some enthralled in bringing something new into this world that we fail to heed the warning that each new innovation always has affordances and limitations, benefits and drawbacks, winners and losers (as explained by the author of the next quote, Neil Postman). Einstein’s quote reminds me that critique and thoughtful consideration about moral and ethical matters is not simply the rumblings of the neo-luddite. It is the calling anyone who gives birth to new ideas and innovations.

“There is no escaping from ourselves. The human dilemma is as it has always been, and we solve nothing fundamental by cloaking ourselves in technological glory.” – Neil Postman

Postman had a way of reminding us that there are longstanding human questions, challenges, and yearnings that remain constant even amid some of the most promising innovations.

“A certain amount of opposition is a great help to a man. Kites rise against, not with, the wind.” – Lewis Mumford

Mumford is another voice that continues to have some much wisdom to offer our technological age. In this quote, I appreciate his reminder that challenge, disagreement, critique, and tension are not just about resistance. Our ideas and innovations can be refined and retooled in important ways as we subject them to healthy critique.

“The fact of knowing how to read is nothing, the whole point is knowing what to read.” – Jacques Ellul

In this age of information overload, we can be frozen or impassioned by the wealth of information and knowledge available to us. We partly define and distinguish ourselves by what we choose to read. As such, learning and choosing how to direct our attention in this age is an important part of developing agency.

Bold But Humble Innovation: A Philosophical Primer for #SXSWedu

london-600921_640As I prepare to head out for what I hope to be an amazing conference at SXSWedu, I decided to take the time to remind myself about a few of my core values when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship. Without question, I am a champion of educational innovation, but one of my core values in this arena relates to innovation with humility and any eye toward genuine social good. As such, I write the following as a reminder to myself and and invitation for others to join me in bold innovation that is seasoned with humility and transparency.

If you are a champion of educational innovation, an educational entrepreneur, or an educational technology evangelist; I contend that it is a moral responsibility to investigate the affordances and limitations of one’s work. There are wonderful benefits to educational entrepreneurship. There are also side-effects, even negative consequences. The same is true to pretty much anything that we do in life. Maybe it is easier to go about one’s work without knowing the downside, but I believe that all work in education is a form of social entrepreneurship. It exists to do more than generate revenue (which is a perfectly good and admirable outcome in many contexts). It is about seeking and pursuing some form of social good. As such, this calls for us to devote just as much scrutiny to our social impact as we do to the financial reports. It calls us to be interested in digging down through perception to what is really happening.

In 2001, Larry Cuban published, Oversold and Underused, a critique of the growing investment in computers and technology in schools. The book garnered cheers from some and sneers from others who thought it was little more than the complaints of a University Luddite who masterfully cloaked his fears in academic language. It was so much more than that. In the text, Cuban shared rich cases about mass purchases of technology in schools with not only limited positive impact, but even some significant negative consequences.

A couple of years later Todd Oppenheimer wrote The Flickering Mind, a less academic but equally strong critique, pointing to what we he saw as, “the false promise of technology in the classroom.” Oppenheimer made his case by describing multiple instances of technology adoption in schools and how they failed to deliver on the stated promises.

The more we embrace life and learning in the digital world, the more important and valuable it becomes for us to engage in ongoing, healthy, scrutiny of where we are going, what we are doing, what is being done to us, and what we are becoming. As Marshall McLuhan explained, “”We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us.”

I’m not arguing that we necessarily need to slow down, just that we leave room for questions, reflection, the relentless pursuit of data about the impact of what we are doing, and an ability to look at multiple sides and perspectives. I often find myself in meetings where I am advocating for an idea, and some might not agree with it. It is interesting how they sometimes seem confused or surprised when I agree with some of their critiques and add a few of my own. Why would someone join in critiquing their own idea or proposal? In my case, I do it because I believe that ideas have consequences, and that we are accountable for what we do. Even when we do it with the best of intentions, there can be unexpected negative results. As Neil Postman wisely pointed out, there are always winners and losers with a new technology, and that applies to new methods, strategies, philosophies, programs, ventures, products and services. It may make us feel better to ignore the negative impact of our work, but it does nothing to help us try to muffle or minimize those negative implications with the goal of maximum social impact.

Consider the nature of much political debate. How often do we hear politicians openly acknowledging or even personally pointing out the potential negative implications of one of their proposals? Some in media do not help the cause by polarizing people in their reports.

The same thing happens in education, even when it comes to publications and reports. When research comes out showing the low performance of some high school students in virtual schools compared to brick and mortar schools, how do we make use of that as advocates of online learning? Some might respond by ignoring it, minimizing it, or even trying to explain why it was not valid. It is certainly appropriate to assess the validity and reliability of any study, but taking the time to read and understand such research gives us wonderfully valuable information for online learning advocates. Why not learn from it and use it to create better online learning experiences with improved results? This example can apply to everything from micro-credentials to competency-based education, adaptive learning software to project-based learning, self-directed learning programs to blended learning initiatives and the maker movement in education.

My challenge is not that we hold up every new idea or ensure its demise by tearing it apart. We tear it apart to know what we are doing, to more fully understand the potential harm and help that comes from it. We critique to make it better, to genuinely and more fully understand the impact on real people with real needs. It would be malpractice for medical practitioners to ignore the most current research because it challenges their preferred methods. The same is true when it comes to educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

We can find some help from a less known area of study called media ecology. The Media Ecology Association consists of a wonderfully diverse and insightful collection of scholars who are, “dedicated to promoting the study, research, criticism, and application of media ecology in educational, industry, political, civic, social, cultural, and artistic contexts, and the open exchange of ideas, information, and research among the Association’s members and the larger community.” They represent a form of much-needed scholarship as we find ourselves in contexts that inch closer to propaganda and further away from a candid search for the truth and understanding.

Where do we go with these ideas? One step is to start or recommit ourselves to asking the tough questions, seeking answers to them, and creating time and space to talk through the implications. That also leads us to an obligation to act on what we discover. Another great starting point is to get informed about some of the thoughtful critics of our technological age. While there are new books coming out each year, I still find value in starting with some of the classics. Check out Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Civilization, Neil Postman’s End of Education and Amusing Ourselves to Death, Marshall McLuhan’s Gutenberg Galaxy, Water Ong’s Orality and Literacy, and Jacques Ellu’s The Technological Society. Many of these do not explicitly deal with education, but they are almost certain to help any thoughtful reader with developing a sensitivity to the types of questions that can help us as we explore the affordances and limitations of educational innovation and entrepreneurship.

With all this stated, I’m off to one of the most exciting education innovation events of the year!