Reviewing the ed tech angst


Audrey Watters’ understandable withdrawal from the ed tech sphere has prompted some musings, and I like a good navel gaze, so I thought I’d join in. Audrey sums it up rather bleakly:

I have to put this decade-long project to rest so that I can move on to something that doesn’t consume me in its awfulness and make me dwell in doom

Jim Groom bemoans the selling out by many in the field, stating:

There are a lot of edtechs, in the true sense of that word for me, that have willingly resisted the lure of exchanging cachet for cashFolks who continue to good work, edtechs that I deeply respect who reside far from the maddening crowd of the financials of firms that have little to no interest in the transformative power of augmenting teaching and learning

But he is still hopeful for the field and maintains enthusiasm for it. Tom Woodward (following an excellent lion punching metaphor) also finds room for hope:

I look for things that change my mind about what can be done. Those things, regardless of the source, keep aggregating to change how I think and what I try to do. The source (person, company, college) isn’t all that relevant to me. I don’t even care (much) any more if I’m creating any degree of change beyond the limited sphere of people I interact with directly. I’ll take what I can get.

Anne-Marie Scott probably speaks for a lot of people in the sector, when she writes of exhaustion and disillusionment:

 The techno-bullshittery never ceases, and the lack of respect for learning and teaching expertise and for human scale initiatives is unrelenting.

I have sympathy with all these views, and I’ve been thinking about them quite a bit while walking the dogs. I’m not sure there’s any meaningful synthesis here, more just snippets that have occurred to me.

The ed tech industry is different to the ed tech community of practitioners. Of course, there is considerable overlap, but I couldn’t do what Audrey has done for so long and spend time immersed in that venture capital, “how can we monetise this?”, bullshitty, tech-bro world without having burnt out long before she did. But that’s not what I experience when I got to conferences like OER22, ALT-C, OEGlobal, etc. Here I meet practitioners who care about students, are enthusiastic in finding ways to use technology creatively, passionate about social justice, and suspicious of bullshit. The ed tech industry is probably what happens when any sector meets hyper-aggressive capitalism – it’s never pretty. There is probably a big difference in Big Pharma, and the community of tertiary education chemistry lectures, for instance.

I liked their early stuff. In an earlier post, Jim comments that “Seeing the next generation of edtechs come into their own has been the unexpected joy of playing the long-game”. I think there is a danger in his later post I linked to above of being a bit like grumpy old music fans who preferred a band before they sold out. I agree about the new generation of ed tech practitioners coming through – and I think those of us who’ve been around shouldn’t bemoan the state of current ed tech too much, when these people are shaping it to their own ends. I have no evidence for this, but my experience suggests a lot of new ed tech people are driven by values, such as social justice, rather than an interest in the tech itself. In the early days of e-learning the possibilities of the internet were exciting because they could challenge convention, so they offered new ways to realise things such as widening participation. Now, I suspect, it is more the case that the technologies are taken for granted, but rather the focus is on implementing aspects of social justice. That’s a subtle distinction (which I’m not sure I’ve articulated very well). But the rambling point I’m trying to make is, a new generation of ed tech practitioners are here and they may approach it differently than the old hands, and I am very much all for that.

Ed tech eats its young. Back in the early days of the internet we used to say internet years were like dog years, it moved 7 times as fast. That was all techno-zealotry to scare people into making change (any change!) now. But there may be some truth in the rapid (and rapidly repeating) nature of ed tech that burns people out. I mean, if it’s 1 calendar year = 7 ed tech years, then I’ve been in the field for about 190 years. So, yeah, a bit tired.

It’s all a bit shit everywhere. I really have no idea if ed tech people are feeling more drained than everyone else. You’ve probably noticed, there has been A LOT going on over the past 5 years or so. Just living in a chaotic, catastrophic Tory governed UK is exhausting, not to mention pandemics, wars, the US situation, etc. So we’re all feeling it and sometimes the effect of *all this stuff* is difficult to extract from your immediate context.

We know we’re unloveable. The pandemic was of course draining and frightening for everybody. But for many in ed tech it was also a time of manic workloads. They were suddenly called upon to keep the whole education show on the road. And largely, they managed to do that, often putting in stupid hours, sacrificing holidays and abandoning their own research and interests. And then when it was all over, there was a big parade to thank them. Well, no. They were chastised in the media for online education being on a par with stealing from the charity box outside a sweet shop. And many found that post-pandemic their views were not respected, but instead met with a ‘thanks, but now we’ve seen how important it is, we’re going to put a proper executive in charge’ approach (not at the OU I should hasten to add, just things I’ve picked up anecdotally). That kind of stuff can get a person down.

From this rather dour view I think we can draw some positives though:

  • There are people engaging with ed tech who use it for the best intentions.
  • It’s firmly placed in higher ed to achieve real change in many of the areas we care about (pedagogy, widening participation, diversity, etc).
  • There’s a solid basis of theory, application, and experience to draw upon.
  • There is still fun to be had (probably)

Anyway, I’m still here, although I think that enthusiastic engagement with any new tech has faded. I mainly do it for the metaphors now. And thanks to Audrey for her amazing work over the past decade or so. I hope the next phase is as productive, but brings more joy.

[UPDATE: Because he’s always ahead of the curve, Alan Levine had combined pretty much exactly the same posts over on his blog before I did this, and of course, made a better job of it.]


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