This post is inspired by this post by Kerry Pinny and from discussions I’ve had with many a friend of mine working in EdTech circles over the last few years. It’s also something I was reflecting on after attending a couple of EdTech events over the last few months. I found myself coming away from these events feeling a little bit uninspired and thinking that not much had moved on over the last few years and nobody was doing anything particularly ‘innovative’. I then realised that my own internal narrative about EdTech was making me feel this way, rather than what other people were actually doing. I realised that, by default, I was still looking for an ‘answer’. A ‘solution’ to my educational ‘problems’ that someone would tell me about at a conference and I would be blown away. We’ve been sold a lie by tech companies that if we buy their product, our practices will be ‘transformed’ and the problems of the past will be long gone. We end up feeling like we can just buy a bit of tech and, as if by magic, we will be able to demonstrate how much ‘impact’ we’ve had on a team, department or service.
When I think about it properly, I fundamentally believe in the transformative and emancipatory power of education, particularly higher education, and I think the processes one must engage with through to study at that level is always going to be messy and nuanced. The robust critique you find in most discipline areas of UK HE is some of the best in the world. I find it astounding, and a little bit worrying, that many practitioners working at managerial level in FE and HE are so easily swayed by the language around EdTech and how it will fix everything, without putting forward much critique or skepticism to the vendors or towards reflecting on their own practices. The kind of attributes that we say we want our students to be cultivating throughout their degrees (critical thinking, high levels of information literacy and strong skills in analysing and synthesising information) often seem be absent from our decision-making. Learning Analytics is a prime example of something designed to make £££ for some venture capitalists, dressed up as a way to provide ‘excellent student support’. I’m willing to bet a lot of money that some institutions who roll out these systems don’t necessarily invest the same amount of money into hiring more staff to support the students that are ‘flagged up’ by these systems. It’ll solve the ‘problem’ of student well-being while working their staff twice as hard, but it’ll be INNOVATIVE because TECHNOLOGY!
We have all unwittingly become victims of a neoliberal, marketised education sector. We use the language and models of profit-making businesses that deal with monetary transactions and we think we can apply these same models to the processes of education. And by that I don’t mean business admin ‘processes’, I mean the actual processes of teaching and learning, which are complex, require effective human interaction, the time and space for deep thinking and cultivating a high tolerance for ambiguity. Everyone will engage with these processes differently, because everyone comes to their learning from a different place. Learning can be a very emotional and uncomfortable experience for some and I think we’ve all been duped at one point or another into thinking that an ‘off the peg’ VLE or Learning Analytics system will magically make everyone’s educational experience ‘better’. The neoliberal practices we are engaging in, ultimately, always leave us disappointed, but instead of stepping outside of ourselves and examining the systems we find ourselves in, we try to throw more tech at something. “This will solve the teaching and learning problem…” we think. “This will solve the student well being problem…”. Yet, half a decade and many £££s later, these same ‘problems’ still exist. In some cases, I actually believe that technology can exacerbate some of these issues, because they were never really ‘problems’ in the first place. I surprised myself with the internal narrative I had created around EdTech and how I was subconsciously looking to be ‘wowed’ by the tech and what people were doing with it. I also didn’t like how it made me feel impatient and uninspired by people who were working their butts off to teach their learners with the tools they had at their disposal. I ended up thinking that it was the teaching staff or learning technologists that weren’t doing a good enough job, because they weren’t able to demonstrate something flashy and new. I found my initial reaction of judgement and a lack of empathy towards these people quite surprising, and it wasn’t a very nice feeling. Neoliberalism is so ingrained in our psyches from decades of living under it that you have to expend a lot of energy to step outside of it and change your thinking and practices. I can understand the temptation to just give into it and stick with the status quo. Its language seems so certain and ‘correct’ when compared with the messy ambiguity and all of the uncomfortable feelings that can surface when working towards social justice. You can always try harder and do better, but it takes a hell of a lot of effort. The EdTech won’t save us, we can only save ourselves.
Shout out to Donna Lanclos for sending me the stickers and the EdTech unicorn badge!