Jan 02 2015

Q&A: Author Audrey Watters on Education Technology’s ‘Monsters’

One of EdTech's Top 50 bloggers has a vision for the future.

In the fast-paced industry of educational technology, it’s easy to get caught up in “now,” but Audrey Watters says it’s important to consider where the industry has been and where it’s going.

Watters, whose Hack Education blog has been nominated to EdTech: Focus on K–12’s Top 50 IT Blogs three times since 2012, is a freelance writer covering educational technology trends. But over the past year, she spent much of her time touring, delivering 14 talks and keynote speeches.

Watters’ latest book, The Monsters of Education Technology, was inspired by these talks and her passion for the industry's past, present and future. EdTech caught up with Watters recently to discuss her book and her thoughts on the pulse of the industry.

EDTECH: In your own words, could you explain what the “monsters of education technology” in the book’s title are?

I think there are a number of things about education technology that are "monstrous" or that threaten to become so. Some of that has to do with the influx of venture capital that is, at the end of the day, interested in making money. I don't mean to suggest that ed-tech entrepreneurs don't care about education; it's that the goals of profit and the goals of learning don't necessarily coincide. Technologists tend to look at certain metrics (page views, clicks, sign-ups) that don't really get to the heart of whether or not a particular piece of software is "effective" (and what we mean by "effective" is, of course, up for debate in education).

Furthermore, I fear that our fixation on education data and learning analytics works hand-in-hand with a growing surveillance culture — tracking every click, every website, every tweet, every video that a student makes. What does predictive modeling look like in schools? Does it ameliorate, or does it actually reinscribe socioeconomic and racial inequalities?

EDTECH: In the book's namesake chapter, you posit that technology shouldn't be left to run rampant without careful guidance by people. What areas of education technology do you see that kind of rampant, unchecked growth happening in today?

My favorite novel is Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, which is often read as a cautionary tale about science and technology gone awry. But Bruno Latour argues that Frankenstein's crime was not to create the monster; it was that he failed to love it. Indeed, that's what made the creature monstrous — the rejection by his "father." Latour argues that this should be the lesson from the novel: not to stop pursuing technological innovations or scientific experimentation, but to "love our monsters."

Much of education technology seems to lack this ethics of care, particularly that which is designed as "labor-saving." What are we mechanizing and automating, and why? What happens to the human connections — arguably the most important element of teaching and learning?

EDTECH: The introduction to your book emphasizes the importance of knowing the history of educational technology to prevent us from effectively wearing horse blinders. Is there a particular anecdote from the past that you think people today could learn from?

Thomas Edison said in 1922 that "I believe that the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks. I should say that on the average we get about two percent efficiency out of schoolbooks as they are written today. The education of the future, as I see it, will be conducted through the medium of the motion picture … where it should be possible to obtain one hundred percent efficiency."

This (failed) prediction is pretty instructive, and it highlights how we have tried to introduce new technologies into the classroom for almost a century now. In doing so, we make these grandiose promises (often with regards to "efficiency") about what new technologies will do. And yet the motion picture didn't "revolutionize" education. Neither did radio, television, or computer-assisted instruction.

Lost in the amnesia and the hyperbole: any lessons learned from the past. Why is education resistant to change? Why are educators resistant to change? What changes are we demanding, and why?

EDTECH: You mention Kevin Kelly's book What Technology Wants, in which he describes technology having its own wants and hungers, and its intent on perpetuating itself. In your book, you call this monstrous. Do you see examples of this happening in educational technology today? Or were you referring to the big picture of humanity's dependence on technology?

I don't think that technology has "wants" as Kevin Kelly does. I think technology reflects the "wants" of its engineers, its investors, its marketers and sometimes its users. These "wants" aren't neutral, and they aren't some natural inclination that emanates from the technology itself. Rather, technologies reflect society — a stratified society, one with increasing socioeconomic inequality.

To suggest that technological change is what technology wants obscures the powerful influence of politics and money here. And it suggests too that people — regular folks, if you will — can do nothing but sit back and let the future happen to them. I want people to know they have agency (this is what I want for learners as well).

EDTECH: We're closing out the year. What trends in educational technology do you hope will take off in 2015?

I'm hopeful that we'll see more development of the "Indie Web." The Indie Web Movement is a response to some of corporatization of the Web, which was once hailed as being this open and participatory platform.

The Open Web has increasingly become the Corporate Web, with powerful monopolies controlling key features like "search" and "social," not to mention the underlying infrastructure that's always been theirs — telecommunications, the "series of tubes" themselves. We have poured our lives into Internet technologies — our status updates, our photos, our messages, our locations, our fitness regimes. We have poured our lives into data silos, where our personal information is now mined, the value extracted from it by companies for companies.

Education technologies are often silos as well — the learning management system is a great example of this.

The Indie Web promotes the idea of people owning their own domain online. It encourages people to become creators, not simply consumers, of Web technologies and in the process to think more carefully about what happens to their digital creations and to their digital public spaces — what happens to our content, what happens to our data.

This could have huge implications for education, I think, and I hope that more educators will consider what happens to their students' digital "work.” This isn’t simply about privacy. It’s about students' identity development and their free creative expression.