Select Page

Maybe we're not afraid:

on Edtech’s inability to imagine the future

Edtech caught in industrial capitalism’s narrative

 

One of the most common tropes in Edtech portrays teachers as fearful of technology and out of touch with the new 21st Century reality. When educators have concerns about technology, they are are dismissed as being “primarily emotional, not logical.”

And when teachers do use technology, they are criticised for encouraging ‘passive consumption’ rather than ‘active creation’. Clay Shirky has popularised this dichotomy: “The stupidest possible creative act is still a creative act… The gap is between doing anything and doing nothing.” For Shirky, the phrase “‘powerful consumer’ is an oxymoron”.1 For just some examples of the creating vs. consuming dichotomy in action, see the NCM report which I critiqued here, Scott McLeod, and Lee Araoz Even creating LOLcats produces communal (though not civic) value for Shirky, which puts it on completely different ground from a ‘passive’ act such as listening or reading.2As someone who teaches reading, I can tell you there’s nothing passive about it at all. Most of my family are social workers, and listening ...continue

Both of these lines of thought have their roots in industrial capitalism, although they have been re-tooled for the knowledge economy through Shirky’s focus on creating ‘content’ rather than building machines. In either case, the idea of technology is defined from the point of view of the ‘creators’ and ‘producers’ which leads Ruth Oldenziel to argue that, “Rather than a neutral term, technology is itself part of a narrative production or plot of modernism, in which men are the protagonists and women have been denied their part.” And when they do enter the scene, women are depicted as suffering from the “truest stage fright of all: technophobia.”3 See Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine, pages 14 and 18

While scrutinizing the relationship between gender and technology has a relatively well-developed history, the more recent scholarship about the co-construction of race and technology points to a similarly biased meaning of ‘technology’. As Bruce Sinclar argues, “defining African-Americans as technically incompetent and then—in a kind of double curse—denying them access to education, control over complex machinery, or the power of patent rights lay at the heart of the distinctions drawn between black and white people in this country.”4 Sinclair, Page 2. In her work on whiteness and technology, Carolyn de la Peña argues that “We cannot rely on the archives or methods that ...continue

 

Given that our ideas about technology are not neutral, consider how teachers are depicted as fearful of technology in several memes:

I’m sure it’s no accident that these memes feature women. Try naming a highly masculinzed profession that’s criticized as fearing technology (or imagine these same memes featuring male surgeons). As Michael Apple points out, “Any occupation that is feminized, that is seen as women’s paid work, as most teaching is, gets less respect, less authority, and less pay and is blamed constitutively and continually when there is an economic crisis.”5 Michael Apple in his 2013 lecture at Newcastle, Australia at (9:10)

Before I can continue my argument about why we need to challenge the dominant narratives of Edtech, and more importantly, what we should replace them with, I need to unravel part of the human capital narrative that both assigns value to ‘creation’ and shifts blame onto educators.

The Human Capital Turn

 

As Michael Apple argues, we live in times of crisis, times where the neoliberal consulting giant McKinsey beats into us the fear that we live in a “skills-scarce” world. Without what Gary Becker calls ‘human capital’, McKinsey views people as “strains on the market”, or, not humans at all. With his characteristic linguistic ‘secret sauce’, Thomas Friedman argues that America has gone “skinny dipping” when it comes to producing human capital: “educationally, we are not a nation at risk. We are a nation in decline, and our nakedness is really showing.” In complete rapture after reading a study published by McKinsey, Friedman writes: “If America had closed the international achievement gap between 1983 and 1998 and had raised its performance to the level of such nations as Finland and South Korea, United States G.D.P. in 2008 would have been between $1.3 trillion and $2.3 trillion higher.”6 Angela F. Kern argues that while Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’ (2007) did not explicitly use the term ‘human capital’, “His ...continue

If our narrative about technology came into being alongside industrial capitalism, it is being re-shaped through Friedman’s narrative about America’s human capital and comparative advantage in the ‘flat’ world of globalization. That’s the context in which we are told that teachers are too afraid to teach kids the skills to be creators of content.

Yet, neither the present nor future of paid labor is as ‘flat’ as Friedman make it out to be.

If we work within the ‘human capital’ metaphor, then how do we make sense of the GDP and compensation gap, the gender pay gap, or the 138% wage growth of the top 1%? Either we blame those who are paid poorly for not being creative enough, or, as Thomas Piketty writes, “another explanation, which to me seems more plausible and turns out to be much more consistent with the evidence, is that these top managers by and large have the power to set their own remuneration, in some cases without limit and in many cases without any clear relation to their individual productivity…”7 Capital in the 21st Century, page 24 Just to be clear, it’s these same CEOs and top managers that Friedman regurgitates in his writing, making him a “mouthpiece for empire and capital” in Belén Fernández’s analysis.

Much like how over the last century corporations helped to define both producers and consumers, the elite, through their mouthpieces like the WeF and Thomas Friedman, have crafted a story that puts pressure on the education system to produce creators, perhaps the next Mark Zuckerberg, while assigning no value to unpaid care work.

A look into the future of paid work shows persistent gaps and cracks rather than a ‘flat’ world. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections for numeric job growth from 2014-2024 indicate that four out of the top five growing jobs pay salaries that are less than $21,400 per annum. With the exception of Registered Nurses (#2), who on average earn $66,640 and require a Bachelor Degree, the other top five growing jobs require no formal credentials. While most of the jobs on the top 20 list fall into the service sector, there is a sharp divide between the kind of feminized underpaid care work, and male-dominated professions like software developer, accountant, and computer systems analysts which pay substantially more money. Thus, as we push for gender equity in those professions, we must also push for better pay for the number one growing job, personal care aides, which will see more employment gains than all of those three high paying jobs, but only pay a 1/3 to 1/5 of the wage.

As people who argue for ‘de-growth’ know, we will end up in serious trouble if we mindlessly argue for creation and production as we imagine the future of paid labor and the unpaid work of reproduction.8See for example Nick Talyor: “Foster is right that we mustn’t abandon the project of pursuing non-alienating work, nor simply see work as a ...continueThere are serious environmental and equity issues at stake. While we have seen a huge push for equity through the movements to include girls in the STEM subjects (which is crucial work that we need to continue), Debbie Chachra points out a shortcoming to the one-sided emphasis behind getting “everyone access to the traditionally male domain of making”.

“I want to see us recognize the work of the educators, those that analyze and characterize and critique, everyone who fixes things, all the other people who do valuable work with and for others—above all, the caregivers—whose work isn’t about something you can put in a box and sell.”

Chachra’s concern comes to life in The World Economic Forum’s ‘Future of Jobs‘ report, which has almost nothing to say about care work, and as Helen Hester argues in her talk at the LSE, the “relative absence of care still registers as quite conspicuous in a study seeking to address something as encompassing as the ‘Future of Jobs’.”9Just after 30:00

We should reject the whole ‘human capital’ metaphor and with it the racist and sexist legacy that defines technology along with productive value in the narrowest terms. In her conceptual critique of Becker’s human capital theory, Antonia Kupfer asks, “how could ‘productivity’ be measured in the increasing service sector such as care of elderly, counselling or management? In fact, productivity is highly culturally conceptualised and impacted.” Elevating all ‘creating’ above everything else, as Shirky does, damages our ability to think through our future.10 Antonia Kupfer argues that power relations become invisible because the human capital “concept abolishes the difference between labour and ...continue

Maybe We’re Not Afraid: Technology in the Classroom

 

In his study of computer use in schools, Larry Cuban (2001) “found no evidence of teacher resistance” contrary to the popular mythology.11Cuban continues, “…in fact, we noted repeatedly, both in word and deed, enthusiasm for home and school use for class preparation, ...continue Counter to Edtech’s idea that teachers fear technology, I propose a somewhat radical thesis: Perhaps it’s Edtech, not teachers, that lags far behind in its narrow discussion of technology. Rather than leading the way forward, Edtech is stuck in the past and irrelevant, especially to those of us who care about the intersection of technology and power.

 

Many of the top Edtech bloggers and tweeters, as ranked by onalytica.com, focus on products and branding, rather than pedagogy and power. In their praise, onlyanalytica.com writes that, “We discovered a very engaged community, with much discussion between individuals and brands, joining together in conversations looking to improve their quality of service.” It’s true, there’s an excellent relationship between individuals and brands like Apple and Google, which could be the exact reason that teachers find Edtech to be irrelevant.

Aside from the few who have consciously adopted a critical approach, most notably Audrey Watters, Neil Selwyn and the Digital Pedagogy group, the official Edtech journals and popular blogs almost never discuss the intersection of technology and power.  Recently, both The British Journal of Educational Technology and Learning, Media, and Technology have featured editorials that acknowledge the shortcomings of Edtech and call for a new approaches.

So, what issues should Edtech be talking about instead of scared teachers and content creators? I would start with this short list:

digital redlining

the extent to which our ‘open’ society is really black boxed

online harassment, especially as this relates to race and gender

– privacy in a world of Big Data

digital labor

– media and propaganda

– profits and corporate agendas

the supply chains that lie underneath ‘knowledge work’

the increasing precarity of workers

climate justice

–  the ways that technology embodies ideologies, again, especially as this relates to race, class, and gender

– critical pedagogy

If we are really going to move education forward, then our philosophy of educational technology needs to keep pace with what people outside of the elite circles that worship the human capital ideology have been talking about for the last few decades. If we continue to praise creating and making, while undervaluing caring and repairing, we certainly won’t prepare kids for either the jobs or civic life of tomorrow.

 

header image by Pavan Trikutam

References   [ + ]

1. For just some examples of the creating vs. consuming dichotomy in action, see the NCM report which I critiqued here, Scott McLeod, and Lee Araoz
2. As someone who teaches reading, I can tell you there’s nothing passive about it at all. Most of my family are social workers, and listening isn’t passive either.
3. See Ruth Oldenziel, Making Technology Masculine, pages 14 and 18
4. Sinclair, Page 2. In her work on whiteness and technology, Carolyn de la Peña argues that “We cannot rely on the archives or methods that have well served many others engaged in the history of technology to serve the study of race and technology.” While there are similarities in how technology and oppression intersect with gender, we need to recognize the unique problems and forms of oppression that occur with race.
5. Michael Apple in his 2013 lecture at Newcastle, Australia at (9:10)
6. Angela F. Kern argues that while Friedman’s book ‘The World is Flat’ (2007) did not explicitly use the term ‘human capital’, “His popular book has exposed millions of people to human capital theory.”
7. Capital in the 21st Century, page 24
8. See for example Nick Talyor: “Foster is right that we mustn’t abandon the project of pursuing non-alienating work, nor simply see work as a disutility. Yet, there is clearly space for articulating the importance of reduced, reproductive and redistributed work, and systems of social security that support these circumstances, as part of efforts to deliver democratic control over meaningful work.”
9. Just after 30:00
10. Antonia Kupfer argues that power relations become invisible because the human capital “concept abolishes the difference between labour and capital by conceptualising all people as capitalists through their capitalised work force.” Rather than education operating to produce human capital in a linear relation where the output is more workers, unpaid care work is also “a precondition of education taking place.” In Capital in the 21st Century. Thomas Piketty outright rejects the ‘human capital’ metaphor. For Piketty, “capital is defined as the sum total of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market.” In contrast, “human capital cannot be owned by another person or traded on a market (not permanently, at any rate)… In slave societies, of course, this is obviously not true.” Capital in the 21st Century p. 46. We would do well to think of what the human capital metaphor means in its most literal sense especially because slavery has a very real and ongoing impact on African-Americans. See Edward E. Baptist’s The Half has Never Been Told.
11. Cuban continues, “…in fact, we noted repeatedly, both in word and deed, enthusiasm for home and school use for class preparation, communication, and administrative tasks. We also noted that female and male teachers owned computers in roughly equal proportions and that many older teachers in the schools were both serious and occasional users.” page 219
I footnotes