Undiscovered Summer Reading: The Puzzles of Information and Educational Technologies

(This is part two of posts of my summer reading thus far: see parts one  and three.

Another article in found in my strange cleaning mania is not so very old: George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe's The Rise of Educational Technology as a Sociocultural and Ideological Phenomenon. Published by (upper-case obligatory) EDUCAUSE, it argues that "the rise of educational technology is part of a larger shift in political thought" that favors (so-called) free-market principles to government oversight, and is also a response to the increasing costs of higher education.  Edtech proponents have (always? often?) "assumed positive impacts, promoting an optimistic rhetoric despite little empirical evidence of results –and ample documentation of failures."  In other words, we are in the presence of a powerful ideology, and an ideology of the powerful: the neoliberal state and its allies in higher education.

The authors frame their argument through assertions:  The edtech phenomenon is a response to the increasing price of higher education: seen as a way of slow, stop, or reverse prices.  The popular press questions the viability of college degrees, higher education, sometimes with familiar "bubble" language borrowed from market analyses.  Second: The edtech phenomenon reflects a shift in political thought from government to free-market oversight of education: reducing governmental involvement and funding along with increasing emphases on market forces "has provided a space and an opportunity for the edtech industry to flourish." Although set vastly to accelerate under Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos, funding reductions and a turn to "private sector" responses have long been in evidence, associated with the "perspective" (the authors eschew "ideology") of neoliberalism: the ideology that the free, market competition invariably results in improved services at lower costs.  Outsourcing numerous campus services supposedly leads to lower costs, but also "will relegate power and control to non-institutional actors" (and that is what neoliberalism is all about).

The authors (thirdly) assert "the edtech phenomenon is symptomatic of a view of education as product to be package, automated, and delivered" –in other words, neoliberal service and production assumptions transferred to education.  This ideology is enabled by a "curious amnesia, forgetfulness, or even willful ignorance" (remember: we are in the presence of an ideology) "of past phases of technology development and implementation in schools."  When I was in elementary schools (late 1950s and 1960s), the phase was filmstrips, movies, and "the new math," and worked hand-in-glove with Robert McNamara's Ford Corporation, and subsequent Department of Defense, to "scale" productivity-oriented education for obedient workers and soldiers (the results of New Math, were in my case disastrous, and I am hardly alone).  The educational objectivism implicit in much of edtech sits simultaneously and oddly with tributes to professed educational constructivism –"learning by doing," which tends then to be reserved for those who can afford it in the neoliberal state.  I have bristled when hearing the cliché that the new pedagogy aims for "the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage" –when my life and outlook have been changed by carefully crafted, deeply engaging lectures (but remember: we are in the presence of an ideology).

Finally, the authors assert "the edtech phenomenon is symptomatic of the technocentric belief that technology is the most efficient solution to the problems of higher education."  There is an ideological solutionism afoot here. Despite a plethora of evidence to the contrary, techno-determinism (technology shapes its emerging society autonomously) and techno-solutionism (technology will solve societal problems) assumes the power of "naturally given," a sure sign of ideology.  Ignorance of its history and impact "is illustrated by public comments arguing that the education system has remained unchanged for hundreds of years" (by edX CEO Anant Agarwal, among others), when the reality is that of academia's constant development and change of course.  Anyone who thinks otherwise should visit a really old institution such as Oxford University: older instances of architecture meant to serve medieval educational practices, retro-fitted to 19th- and early 20th-century uses, and now sometimes awkwardly retro-fitted yet again to the needs of a modern research university.  The rise and swift fall of MOOCs is another illustration of the remarkable ignorance that ideological techno-solutionism mandates in order to appear "smart" (or at least in line with Gartner's hype cycle).

The authors conclude, "unless greater collaborative efforts take place between edtech developers and the greater academic community, as well as more informed deep understandings of how learning and teaching actually occur, any efforts to make edtech education's silver bullet are doomed to fail."  They recommend that edtech developers and implementers commit to support their claims with empirical evidence "resulting from transparent and rigorous evaluation processes" (!–no "proprietary data" here); invite independent expertise; attend to discourse (at conferences and elsewhere) critical of edtech rather than merely promotional, and undertake reflection that is more than personal, situational, or reflective of one particular institutional location.  Edtech as a scholarly field and community of practice could in this was continue efforts to improve teaching and learning that will bear fruit for educators, not just for corporate technology collaborators.

How many points of their article are relevant by extension to library information technology, its implementation, and reflections on its use!  Commendably, ACRL and other professional venues have subjected library technologies to critical review and discourse (although LITA's Top Technology Trends Committee too often reverts to techno-solutionism and boosterism from the same old same old).  Veletsianos' and Moe's points are regarding the neoliberal ideological suppositions of the library information technology market, however, are well-taken –just attend a conference presentation on the exhibition floor from numerous vendors for a full demonstration.  At the recent conference of the Association of College & Research Libraries, the critical language of the Information Literacy was sometimes turned on librarianship and library technology itself ("authority is constructed and contextual"), such as critique of the term "resilient" (.pdf) and the growing usage of the term "wicked challenges" for those times we don't know what we don't know or even know how to ask what that would be.

Nevertheless, it would be equally historically ignorant to deny the considerable contributions made by information technology to contemporary librarianship, even when such contributions should be regarded cautiously.   There are still intereting new technologies which can contribute a great deal even when they are neither disruptive nor revolutionary.  The most interesting (by far) new kind of technology or process I saw at ACRL is Yewno, and I will discuss that in my third blog post.

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