Half awake in our fake empire

I was at the ICDE conference last week, and there was a very interesting set of keynotes. Paul Prinsloo had deliberately chosen speakers to offer something of a counter-narrative to the “wow! ed tech!” type talks we often get. So for example, we had Audrey Watters on the Californian ideology that underpins much of ed tech, Laura Czerniewicz on the paradoxes and potential of open ed, Tressie McMillan Cottom on the access paradox and Joyce Seitzinger on the use of design approaches as a possible way of addressing some of the issues we’ve found with online learning. Watching these four excellent keynotes in particular made once again reflect on the nature of the educational technology field.

I blogged a couple of posts back about how ed tech is a rather strange discipline that people seem to wander into. I used a National lyric for that post so have set myself the challenge of only using lyrics from the National when blogging about this topic. And, no, I don’t care how tortuous or strained that gets.

I think most people who I spoke with welcomed the intelligent critique present in talks such as these. But I was aware of how rare they were as the type of keynote we get at ed tech conferences. All speakers stressed that they weren’t anti-technology, that they used it and encouraged its use in education, but that here were some issues for us to explore. Too often in ed tech we have uncritical talks, or occasionally someone brought in to be the contrarian. Neither of these approaches is helpful. I think there is a fear that if we offer up any criticism, then it will be seized upon by the doubters, naysayers, etc and used as an excuse – “see, I told you there was nothing in this internet thing. Back to the dusty tomes people!”

I confess, I think back in the early elearning days, when I was trying to convince people that there might be something in this internet thing for educators, that was my feeling. I wanted to emphasise positives and ignore negatives. But I feel it is a sign of maturity in the field that we can now have these discussions. Imagine a sociology, or art history conference that wasn’t interested in critiquing the field itself. No, you can’t. That’s how the field evolves.

As I joked to one of the keynotes the problem is you’ll never get rich offering this nuanced, thoughtful position. There is something about throwing technology in the mix that demands people set aside critical faculty. If you want the big keynotes, the money slot on TV or the big book deals then you’d better be coming with a dystopian or utopian vision. Preferably based on sweeping generalisations from your own personal experience. That’s what sells here.

So, this is just a long plea for other speakers, and conferences, to take a leaf out of the ICDE book and start to have thoughtful, research based analysis of ed tech itself as a discipline. And, oh, look, a National song:


  • dkernohan

    I think that we have an emerging field here, which we could maybe describe as “critical edtech”, drawing on threads taken from critical education, education policy history, education theory, cultural studies, and a chunk of the wilder side of business and organisational studies.

    I have no insight as to what we do with this idea. But a critical edtech journal is loooong overdue.

    • admin

      That’s a good point David, the critical analysis of the field itself does become a separate sub-discipline often. I am a bit conflicted though – I don’t want to engage in the real navel gazing for its own sake kind of approach. Also, I prefer it when people have a solution – eg critiquing open education is fine, but I want to know what someone’s alternative is

      • dkernohan

        I don’t think having a fully costed viable alternative needs to be a pre-requisite for offering a critique. Sometimes being able to demonstrate something is harmful and counter-productive is enough. The alternative can be as simple as “hey, let’s not do the harmful counter-productive thing, let’s carry on with what we did before”

        • admin

          Ha yes, I didn’t mean a fully costed alternative. And of course if it’s harmful then stop, I just mean I personally don’t like papers very much that critique, say, the work of everyone on the OER field, but then don’t really offer any other course of action. Do you want us to stop? Do more? Do less? Do it differently? Or are you just demonstrating that you are clever? But that is a personal preference for what I like to see in a paper, not an absolute requirement or anything.

          • Rolin Moe

            This is the trouble of pragmatism, yes? How do we act in x situation? And that’s important, and education is a field merging scholarship and practical extension.

            From my vantage, at this point the mixture is too skewed toward the practitioners…not necessarily those who create but those who do with what was created. We need multiple critical readings, and one of the problems of good criticism is that it often asks more questions than it answers. Moreover, it is easy for scholars to flex their intellectual muscle for the purposes of a scholastic posedown rather than to push the field towards more perspectives. Marx becomes a badge of smarts rather than a lens from which to critique some of the assumptions of a cause/movement/phenomenon. That serves no one.

            But it also serves no one when we ignore Marx either from the sociological or the capital. Moreover, if we are to argue that education is a public good, we have to at least acknowledge the base and superstructure and what happens outside of the products and instruments and case studies. At this point, for me, that means wrestling with the Open concept as it is defined in OER versus as it is defined by Khan Academy (or other non-exclusive materials providers) versus as it is defined by Disney or Pearson (or other paywall materials providers). I look to people like Sian Bayne and Jonathan Worth as examples of strength in this criticism. I do not have an answer, I have more questions. I hope to get to answers, but I have a feeling they will likely lead to more questions too. That said, isn’t that similar to empirical research? =)

  • sensor63

    is it time for ed tech communities to be simply ed communities?

    “Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.”

    Clay Shirky

  • Rolin Moe

    Excellent post. Some anecdotal data — and understanding that *our* is the perspective of the insider within the world of educational technology/OER/scholar practitionerwhen my critical look at EdTech is primarily looking at *those with whom we do not agree,* I find my sessions hugely popular. When my critical look at EdTech turns the lens on some of our biases and preconceptions, you can hear a pin drop. I never claim to be right, but I do wish to ask questions on all sides. I’m not a name on the speaker series, but I can certainly see how giving people what they want is the purpose, and by and large the conference format behooves someone speaking on agreeable terms and providing a listicle of ways to change the world.

  • Dominik Lukes (@techczech)

    This is all an important corrective to the tech hype machine but you don’t go nearly far enough in problematising the issue. I tried this a bit in the context of technology and societal change here: http://metaphorhacker.net/2011/05/the-natural-logistics-of-life-the-internet-really-changes-almost-nothing/

    You can look at technology as falling between two poles: 1. infrastructural (Web, IPTV, P2P, VoIP, mobile, social) and 2. fashion (iPhone, Facebook, Blackboard, Smartboards, Firefox, etc.) The former is transformative, but the latter is essential for getting the support. Which is why all infrastructure has its start in hype, corruption, dispossession, and bubble crashes. Look at most canal projects, railways, telegraphs, failure, private roads, AOL.

    Examples in ed tech are ‘everyone must have smartboard’ or ‘all aboard the VLE train’. Looking at institutional buying decisions and subsequent use you can only marvel at the waste and monumentally misguided decisions by overpaid directors (which is why one definition of entreprise software is apps paid for by people who don’t have to use them). However, I would argue this is the inevitable cost of getting to where we are. It’s not pretty but that’s how the cathedrals, Roman roads, or under sea cables get all built.

    That’s not to say that we cannot strive for moderation in all this but I don’t think it can ever provide more than a mild corrective to the hype machine. Gillian Tett identified some fo the principles in her work on the financial markets – how smart people can work together to produce stupid decisions (although her proposed solution is just another example of hype). Similarly, Audrey Watters’ work is great but it suffers from what I like to call (following HG Wells) ‘hidden utopias’. She critiques the hyped utopias without explicating her own – and once you write down the utopia on a piece of paper, it starts looking a lot less appealing. I can sign up to the critique and while I can imagine many ‘better’ alternatives, I’m not at all certain they will live up to the glory of assumed utopias which are often hiding inside all the tought and nuance of conference keynotes.

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