The alchemy of ed tech

Medieval alchemy drawing

Image from Public Domain Review
(replace this with an architecture and data flow diagram)

I’m reading a few popular history of chemistry books at the moment (notably Mendeleyev’s Dream and Napoleon’s Buttons). One theme is how the history of chemistry was plagued by the completely bogus notion of alchemy. The idea that base metals could be transmuted into gold dominated any dabblings in chemistry for centuries, and kept reappearing in different cultures and at different times. “This has to be possible, right?” was the persistent motivation. The dogged pursuit of alchemy was characterised by the following:

  • Greed – unlimited wealth awaits!
  • Obfuscation – it persists through rumour, and secret formulas, adding to its allure. The process is never made public.
  • Magical lexicon – this obfuscation works not only by being secretive but by creating a language that is difficult to penetrate
  • Vagueness – although the ultimate aim (Gold!) is clear, there is a lot of vagueness otherwise about benefits (immortality, spiritual awakening, general goodness)
  • Occasional unexpected side benefits – almost inevitably given the time devoted to it, there would be the odd chemical breakthrough which occurred as a side benefit of alchemy, for example, the discovery of phosphorous
  • Persistence despite results – obviously no-one ever got alchemy to work, but this complete lack of success was only seen as reason to continue. It had to be true, dammit! Hundreds of years, and some of the best historical minds (hello Isaac Newton) were involved in this fruitless pursuit.

Now, is it just because I have a particular mindset, or does this set of characteristics sound familiar? As I was reading it I kept thinking of the ed tech equivalents of alchemy. Goals that are pursued at different times, in different guises and never actually realised. I would suggest the “gold from base metal” dream of ed tech is automated, personalised tuition across all subjects – essentially the removal of the human educator. We’ve seen this with industrial systems, early AI, MOOCs, and now new improved AI. I think it matches all of the characteristics of alchemy I’ve given above. We do get breakthroughs, and automatic tuition and assessment is possible at a fairly simple level. Let’s consider the similarities with my alchemy list:

  • This offers vast riches for the discoverer who can sell the product at great cost, because this will still be cheaper for providers than employing people. The education market is estimated at $6 Trillion annually. That’s pretty much turning base metal into gold.
  • It is frequently obfuscated by commercial interests with black box algorithms. They only report questionable results which are difficult to verify because we don’t know the underlying transformations.
  • It has its own lexicon of algorithms, learning analytics, intelligent systems that increasingly becomes to look like magic.
  • There is often a vagueness around improved efficiency, retention, learner satisfaction, democratisation of learning, etc. All of these are actually worthwhile goals to pursue in their own right, but there is a magpie tendency to grab the latest concern and say “yes, we can help with that too. Plus, did we mention we can turn lead into gold?”
  • Accidental side benefits – this intensive work with algorithms and data does have some benefits, learning analytics that help educators improve their course design for instance. But this isn’t the real goal
  • Persistence – Audrey Watters has talked of “zombie ideas” in ed tech that just refuse to die. Certainly automatic tuition is one of these, no matter how small the gains are, there is always the sense that it is ‘just about to happen’.

Just to be clear – I am NOT saying ed tech is rubbish. I love ed tech. It has provided genuinely new ways of teaching and reaching different audiences. It can solve very specific issues and offer lots of benefits for learners. My objection here is to the overblown claims, and the often unspoken alchemic tradition that persists in ed tech. The way to combat this is openness (of data, algorithms, claims, results), focusing on very specific problems to address (instead of grand revolutions) and calling bullshit when we see it.

Like alchemy I fear we will waste time, effort, money and good minds on the pursuit of a really big, unattainable goal instead of focusing on smaller, actually achievable ones. What if we say we don’t think you can, or want to, remove the human educator from the education process. If we accept that as a premise, then what can we now go on to do with ed tech? Just like with alchemy once they stopped trying to produce gold, they went on to discover elements, invent medicines, create all manner of new materials that can be used in the objects we use everyday, and so on (and yes, quite a few weapons along the way, but that’s another post).

I think I’ve heard others talk about the analogy of alchemy in ed tech. Certainly Audrey Watters has mentioned it a couple of times. But I can’t find anything in detail. My apologies if I’m actually just regurgitating something I heard once and have now mistaken for an original idea (it happens).

In the comments Mark Brandon reminded me of this Blackadder scene. I’d meant to include it originally as it kept coming to mind when I was reading, but then forgot. It pretty much is the perfect analogy, thanks Mark:


    1. Thanks Mark – it’s important not to get caught in false dichotomies I think eg either you think we need the full revolution or you think everything is perfect and nothing should be changed.

    1. [at a complete tangent, to Ed Tech anyway: the discovery of mauveine had pretty much the same reaction as Percy gets for Green. Perkin was supposed to be synthesising quinine. His boss told him to throw away the pretty coloured distraction, instead he turned it into the first synthetic dye and founded industrial chemistry. If you’re interested I recommend “Mauve: How One Man Invented a Colour That Changed the World” by Simon Garfield]

  1. Really enjoyed this post Martin and I like the idea of focusing on smaller. achievable goals but I do think we need to keep the bigger picture in view at the same time. When I read your post, my first candidate for alchemy was megacorps like Facebook and Google who are taking increasing interest in education, often in the guise of philanthropy. The black box algorithms that you mention impact on our whole experience of social media, not just research results. When we engage in learning activities on social media, the ideas that bubble to the top are affected by the stream algorithm. So the surfacing of some really great ideas are not only impacted by structural inequalities such as race, gender and existing power relations but they are further pushed down by algorithms that operate in what Edwards called “inscrutable” ways. The shifting of social learning to our favourite SNS may never be addressed as a decision, whilst a lot of energy is spent on ‘provider’ services. Edupunk may turn out to be (unknowingly) in league with the megacorps – maybe a bit like punk that lost its political ‘edge’ πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks Frances, and as usual you have made me think about it beyond my original scope. The black box algorithms of SNS are indeed a kind of alchemy, any time we don’t know how it happens, it’s magic, and the more significant these become in our daily lives then the more that alchemy matters. But then, maybe they really have turned base metal (silicon) into gold?

  2. “Just to be clear – I am NOT saying ed tech is rubbish”

    – why not? If it is (or large parts of it is) we should say so. Certainly if I threw a housebrick at – say – BETT I’d feel fairly confident in hitting something that adds absolutely nothing to what is already possible in terms of supporting learning.

    Not that I’m going to start going to go to BETT to throw housebricks around.

    1. It would be quite an odd thing for a Prof of Ed Tech to say it’s all rubbish – there’s a big difference between saying “there is a lot of rubbish peddled around out there by people wanting to make money” and “educational technology has no value whatsoever”. For instance, having lived through the elearning change it has had a big impact and meant we could do thinsg we couldn’t before and reach students we couldn’t before.

  3. This is an interesting analogy which may be enriched by a more historical notion of alchemy, as being intertwined inextricably with the rise of science in the 17th century. When you say “the history of chemistry was plagued by the completely bogus notion of alchemy” you seem to be using a 21th century meaning of the word “alchemy”, which weakens the analogy with edtech.

    “Alchemy remains a strange hybrid to modern eyes: shrouded in secrecy, obscure riddles, and mysticism, it was also the major impetus for new
    experimental methods. It also provided the first serious challenge to
    Aristotelian matter theory in centuries.

    Alchemists introduced and refined basic laboratory techniques (distillation, sublimation, filtration, purification, catalysis, …); emphasized quantification; and pursued systematic investigation of wide-ranging reactions.”

    ( )

    If you take this (I think more accurate) historical view of alchemy, the analogy seems to be saying that edtech may be a catalyst towards a science of learning.

    1. I don’t know, that seems quite a generous interpretation of alchemy to me. Inevitably, given hundreds of years going at it, there were some breakthroughs, but if they’d be focused on trying to develop knowledge instead of greed, then we would have had these much quicker.

    1. Thanks Sheila – yes, these magic words are a bit like the four elements or phlogiston – we just need to find the right combination and bang, gold!

  4. Thanks for the link to that fascinating historical account and I think that ed tech ‘alchemy’ can contribute to technique. My concern would be that the application of technology to learning needs more than a ‘science of learning’ and I hope that ed tech can contribute to that too. It won’t do it if it only looks within itself though.

  5. Thinking back to my study of the history of science, I remember that alchemy wasn’t simply about greed. Turning base metals into gold was seen as a process of purification, which had spiritual implications. So there were two strands that were intertwined, and often confused. From the outside – and presumably for many alchemists – the aim was to find a way to get rich quick. But for some alchemists, the aim was to refine and improve themselves and humanity as a whole. Maybe the same confusion is apparent in ed tech today.

  6. You kind of broke my heart with this post Martin. I embrace alchemy as a metaphor for liminal approaches transgressing physical, spiritual, and philosophical mediums.

    I suppose you are right on one level – I only ever claimed to be an amateur in this regard. I can see some hearing about changing lead to gold and jumping on board for the wrong reasons.

    I’ve always seen alchemy as this mixture of hard science and spirituality which I know is controversial in this day and age but I wonder if we forgot something important when we severed those two so cleanly.

    1. Aw I never want to break anyone’s heart on my blog Autumn πŸ™‚ As Rebecca has commented just before you too, there was definitely a spiritual aspect of alchemy. But that was part of the problem in the obfuscation, it got wrapped up with secrecy, and vagueness. I guess I’m too hard-nosed a scientist to see those two sitting comfortably together.

      1. πŸ™‚ It’s okay Martin. I’m a broken heart from way back; I can take it. ;-p

        I have a lot of respect for hard nose science but I also like the idea of finding a kind of golden mean between science and spirit. Mind you I’m a radical agnostic myself.

        I agree that they wouldn’t sit comfortably together. I think this is where the obfuscation and vagueness come from. It is most certainly an uncomfortable relationship. But learning is often uncomfortable and strange to us.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *