As a teacher, I've been resistant to bringing more educational technology into our classrooms (in the form of a 1:1 iPad program). I have many reasons, from student distraction to the lack of quantitative research in how ed tech is supposed to improve student outcomes. I also disagree with the "student-centered" or "discovery learning" approach as being more effective in teaching than other approaches.
These are issues upon which reasonable people can disagree, and the views folks have may change as research into the use and effectiveness of ed tech catches up with the initial waves of optimism.
However, there is a darker, political side to the story that, for the first time I have seen, was recently made explicit by the Hoover Institution. Follow me below the squiggle-thing for more.
In an item by Dr. Terry Moe, a political scientist at Stanford and a fellow at the Hoover Institution entitled "Has Ed Reform Failed?" lays out the conservative wet dream for education. This is an important article for teachers to read, for this is where the combination of "accountability", "choice", and "ed tech" all come together into a rather sinister effort to destroy the teachers' unions, destroy the teaching profession and institute a privatized, corporate model of education in the US.
Moe starts off with that old Reagan bullshit study, A Nation at Risk, which saw American education as failing and needing reform:
Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling, and of the high expectations and disciplined effort needed to attain them. This report, the result of 18 months of study, seeks to generate reform of our educational system in fundamental ways and to renew the Nation's commitment to schools and colleges of high quality throughout the length and breadth of our land.Moe notes that all the efforts that have gone into educational reform since the 1980s have been weak tea, despite the money and effort put into them. And who is at fault for this failure of "reform"?
The reasons for this failure can be as complex as we want to make them. But the fact is, in American education—and most areas of public policy, for that matter—there are simple fundamentals at work that go a long way toward explaining the obstacles to major institutional change. The most important is the power of vested interests. In the American public school system, the key vested interests are the teachers unions: the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and their state and local affiliates—which represent the system’s key employees and are by far the most powerful groups in the politics of education. Major reform is threatening to their vested interests in the existing system, and they have used their formidable power to repel and weaken the efforts of reformers to bring real change. This is not the whole story of the modern reform era, needless to say. But it is at the heart of it.Evil Teachers and Their Unions! Moe specifically points to collective bargaining rights of teachers at the local level, which he sees as perverting the natural order of efficient organization (i.e., the corporate incentivization, performance evaluation and firing/firing procedures.
The modern era’s two great education reform movements, for school accountability and for school choice, attempt to bring major changes to the traditional structure of the American education system. Accountability seeks to put the spotlight on teacher performance, provide rigorous evaluations, link pay to performance, and move low-performers out of the classroom—all of which, from the unions’ standpoint, are threatening departures from a traditional system in which performance was never seriously evaluated and all jobs were secure. School choice is highly threatening to the unions too. For when families are allowed to leave the regular public schools for new options—charter schools or (via vouchers or tax credits) private schools—the regular public schools lose money and jobs, and so do the incumbent teachers in those schools. And the unions lose members.Moe lauds Race to the Top and the film Waiting for Superman as important indicators of the move to push for more school choice and create fewer union members. No Child Left Behind is seen as the unions' greatest defeat, bringing us those wonderful standardized tests, but laments its evisceration in the implementation process. Damned meddling teachers!
Yet, Conservative Hopes Remain Alive! First, he points to how Tea Party conservatives in Wisconsin, Tennessee and Indiana, challenged those evil unions and pushed them back. Alas, Moe acknowledges that these gains may be short lived and not uniform around the nation. But! Many Democrats, spurred by funding from the Gates Foundation and the Broad Foundation, are turning into reformers! Obama and Arne Duncan gave us Race to the Top, while there is a group calling itself Democrats for Education Reform, rooted in alumni of the Teach For Awhile program, continue to undermine the unions through their support of school choice and accountability.
But even more hope lies within the realm of educational technology. Moe writes:
Already, online curricula can be customized to the learning styles and life situations of individual students: giving them instant feedback on how well they are doing, providing them with remedial work when they need it, allowing them to move at their own pace, and giving them access—wherever they live, whatever their race or background—to a vast range of courses their own schools don’t offer, and ultimately to the best the world can provide. By strategically substituting technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive), moreover, schools can be far more cost-effective than they are now—which is crucial in a future of tight budgets.Yes, folks, the future truly is bleak for those teachers' unions!
Because technology stands to have enormous impacts on jobs and money, the teachers unions find it threatening. And throughout the 2000s, they have used their political power—in state legislatures, in the courts—to try to slow and stifle its advance. But they won’t succeed forever. Education technology is a tsunami that is only now beginning to swell, and it will hit the American public school system with full force over the next decade and those to follow. Long term, the teachers unions can’t stop it. It is much bigger and more powerful than they are.
The advance of technology—much like the advance of globalization—will then have dire consequences for established power. There will be a growing substitution of technology for labor, and thus a steep decline in the number of teachers (and union members) per student; a dispersion of the teaching labor force, which will no longer be so geographically concentrated in districts (because online teachers can be anywhere); and a proliferation of new online providers and choice options, attracting away students, money, and jobs. All of these developments will dramatically undermine the membership and financial resources of the teachers unions, and thus their political power. Increasingly, they will be unable to block, and the political gates will swing open—to yield a new era in American education.
And it may be, especially if unions, teachers, administrators and parents don't see the bigger picture for what is going on. The Common Core Curriculum that the Chicago Teachers Union just voted down is one piece of a reformist agenda that is actually being pushed by Randi Weingarten, who should know better. There are many politically progressive folks who have bought the tech innovation hook-line-and sinker. 34 Democrats sided with Republicansto pass the charter school bill yesterday in the House.
Moe is an ass, but he's making a point that is often not brought into the mix when discussing the implementation of technology in the classroom. I've heard many folks who see technology implementation as inevitable and buy into the 21st Century Skills movement, without understanding the political implications behind bringing tech into schools.
As Neil Selwyn writes in Distrusting Educational Technology, ed tech is laden with neo-liberal and libertarian concepts, fostering individualism, consumerism and commodification of the individual and the educational space. These efforts seek to prepare students for an entrance into the "New Economy" as laborers.
"All these digitally based forms of capitalism are seen as having created an alternate set of economic demands....the work skills of the new economy are based around skills and dispositions relating to multitasking, autonomy, creativity, 'innovation', and networked and cooperative forms of working, as well as the malleability of working practices." (pg. 30).Additionally, Selwyn writes:
Many forms of digital education can therefore be said to be built around a decreased obligation to others, an enhanced logic of competition, and a diminished sense of solidarity and togetherness. As such, when learning through digital technologies there is often more incentive for individuals to be primarily self-concerned, 'rationally selfish', and motivated by the drive to better their own condition rather than being primarily concerned with the condition of others. Thus...the primary locus of concern shifts from matters that affect us collectively to those that affect us differentially. Under these conditions, then, there is arguably little 'added value' in pursuing any sustained form of genuine solidarity with others who are worse off. At best, taking public action or contributing to a common good becomes an act of personal expression and recognition or self-validation, rather than a basic public duty or civic expectation. (pg. 132, citations removed).I have some hope, however, that the ed tech trend will fizzle out, because we have been here before:
Skinner's teaching machines from the 1950s were a response to what was seen (yet again) as a crisis in education. Technology would save the day! Interestingly, Hannah Arendt, the great philosopher who gave us the concept of the "banality of evil" wrote a short essay on this entitled"The Crisis of Education". She found the emphasis on practical education for employment purposes to be against the actual purpose of education, which is to help student learn how to think in the adult world. Arguing that Americans have a "pathos of the new", leading them not only to accept new techniques (she was pointing to "progressive" educational pedagogies, such as Dewey and Freire advocated), but to try to implement them on a large scale. However, she finds that education in America is (and rightly so) conservative in the sense that it has been resistant to such reforms:
This attitude has, of course, nothing to do with that revolutionary desire for a new order in the world –Novus Ordo Seclorum– which once animated America; it is rather a symptom of that modern estrangement from the world which can be seen everywhere but which presents itself in especially radical and desperate form under the conditions of a mass society. It is true that modem educational experiments, not in America alone, have struck very revolutionary poses, and this has, to a certain degree, increased the difficulty of clearly recognizing the situation and caused a certain degree of confusion in the discussion of the problem; for in contradiction to all such behavior stands the unquestionable fact that so long as America was really animated by that spirit she never dreamed of initiating the new order with education but, on the contrary, remained conservative in educational matters.In my my mind, this is where the real hope lies of preventing the privatization and corporatization of education. The unions and independent teachers, along with parents, can resist these movements provided that they are shown for what they are--opportunities for Republicans to undermine a Democratic base; opportunities for ed tech companies to make billions from schools, students and parents; and opportunities for ending public funding of schools.
It appears that many Americans get this. According to the 2013 Gallup/PDK poll: most Americans oppose standardized tests and tying them to teacher evals; 70% support their teachers; while they support charter schools, they are very opposed to vouchers; they identify the biggest problem with public schools as funding.
What worries me is that the big corporate interests, from Apple to the Gates Foundation to Pearson, in conjunction with the Republicans, "reform" Democrats, will use the media to push their agendas so that uncritical views end up being adopted, regardless of the evidence.