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Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?

Written by
Original State” by darkday; CC BY 2.0

On June 29, 2015 at the ISTE Conference in Philadelphia, Audrey Watters spoke on a panel called “Is it Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?”. The transcript of her speech can be found here. Below is the longer speech she prepared for the occasion, which she offered to Hybrid Pedagogy to publish.

Last year, Gary Stager joked that we should submit a proposal to ISTE for a panel titled “Is It Time to Give Up on Computers in Schools?” No surprise, it was rejected. But this year, he submitted again, and the very same proposal was accepted.

So here we are today, making the case for why this whole education technology thing has gone alarmingly off the rails and it’s time to scrap the entire effort.

ISTE is, of course, the perfect place to deliver this talk.

ISTE is the perfect place to question what the hell we’re doing in ed-tech in part because this has become a conference and an organization dominated by exhibitors. Ed-tech — in product and policy — is similarly dominated by brands. 60% of ISTE’s revenue comes from the conference exhibitors and corporate relations; touting itself as a membership organization, just 12% of its revenue comes from members. Take one step into that massive shit-show called the Expo Hall and it’s hard not to agree: “Yes, it is time to give up on computers in schools.”

A little history: The International Council for Computers in Education was founded in 1979, and a decade later it merged with the International Association for Computing Education to form ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education. While that new organization erased the words “computer” and “computing” from its new title, these were all entities — and most importantly, educators, in their early days at least — at the forefront of a push to use “microcomputers” — not just mainframes — in education.

Many of the earliest members — those who’ve attended the conference for decades now, back when it was still called NECC (the National Educational Computing Conference) — were still hard-pressed to make the arguments back in their schools and districts that computers could be educational in the face of a system that was skeptical of these expensive machines and that had yet to recognize personal computers’ ability to enhance the bureaucracy of schooling and the efficiency of standardized testing.

But as Seymour Papert noted in The Children’s Machine,

Little by little the subversive features of the computer were eroded away: Instead of cutting across and so challenging the very idea of subject boundaries, the computer now defined a new subject; instead of changing the emphasis from impersonal curriculum to excited live exploration by students, the computer was now used to reinforce School’s ways. What had started as a subversive instrument of change was neutralized by the system and converted into an instrument of consolidation.

I’m going to say something sacrilegious here. (I’m going to say a bunch of things that are sacrilegious — I mean, this is an ISTE panel on getting computers out of the classroom.) But I think Seymour was naive. All of us, really. I think that we were blinded in the early days of personal computing about the power and possibility of computers. I think we were similarly blinded in the early days of the World Wide Web.

Sure, there are subversive features of the computer; but I think the computer’s features also involve neoliberalism, late stage capitalism, imperialism, libertarianism, and environmental destruction. They now involve high stakes investment by the global 1% — it’s going to be a $60 billion market by 2018, we’re told. Computers involve the systematic de-funding and dismantling of a public school system and a devaluation of human labor. They involve the consolidation of corporate and governmental power. They are designed by white men for white men. They involve scientific management. They involve widespread surveillance and, for many students, a more efficient school-to-prison pipeline — let’s name this for what it is: despite our talk about meritocracy, it’s a racially segregated, class-based system of education, one that technology as easily entrenches as subverts.

And so I think it’s time now to recognize that if we want education that’s more just and more equitable and more sustainable, that we need to get the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom. “We become blind to the ideological meaning of our technologies,” Neil Postman once cautioned. We gaze glassy-eyed at the new features in the latest hardware and software — it’s always about the latest app, and yet we know there’s nothing new there; instead we must stare critically at the belief systems that are embedded in these tools.

In the early days of educational computing, it was often up to the individual, innovative teacher to put a personal computer in their classroom. Sometimes they paid for the computer out of their own pocket. These were days of experimentation, and as Seymour teaches us, re-imagining what these powerful machines could enable students to do. (That’s why the computer matters, Seymour argued — something you could tinker and think with. Not this other word that ISTE now invokes, “technology.”)

And then came the network.

You’ll often hear the Internet hailed as one of the greatest inventions of mankind — something that connects us all and that has, thanks to the World Wide Web, enabled the publishing and sharing of ideas at an unprecedented pace and scale. The Internet and the Web are supposed to be decentralized — “small pieces loosely joined.” Perhaps.

What “the network” introduced in educational technology was also a more centralized control of computers. No longer was it up to the individual, innovative teacher to have a computer in her classroom. It was up to the district, the Central Office. It was up to IT. The sorts of hardware and software that were purchased had to meet those needs — the needs and the desire of the administration, not the needs and the desires of innovative educators, and certainly not the needs and desires of students.

The mainframe never went away. And now, virtualized, we call it “the cloud.”

Computers and mainframes and networks are a point of control. Computers are a tool of surveillance. Databases and data are how we are disciplined and punished. Quite to the contrary of Seymour’s hopes that computers will liberate learners, this will be how all of us will increasingly be monitored and managed.

If we look at the history of computers, we shouldn’t be that surprised. The computers’ origins are as weapons of war: Alan Turing, Bletchley Park, code-breakers, and cryptography. IBM in Germany and its development of machines and databases that it sold to the Nazis in order to efficiently collect the identity and whereabouts of Jews.

The latter should give us pause as we tout programs and policies that collect massive amounts of data — “big data.” The algorithms that computers facilitate drive more and more of our lives. We live in what law professor Frank Pasquale calls “the black box society.” We are tracked by technology; we are tracked by companies; we are tracked by our employers; we are tracked by the government, and “we have no clear idea of just how far much of this information can travel, how it is used, or its consequences.”

Our access to information is constrained by these algorithms. Our choices, our students’ choices are constrained by these algorithms — and we do not even recognize it, let alone challenge it.

Plenty of educators here hail Google as a benevolent force, for example. (It’s not. It’s a corporation beholden to its shareholders.) Educators readily brand themselves as Google certified teachers. They have their students work with Google’s various tools, with nary a concern about the implications. There’s little thought about the Terms of Service, the privacy policy, the data mining. There’s little recognition that Google is, according to its revenue at least, an advertising company. It is also a massive system of data collection and analysis. As privacy researcher Chris Soghoian quipped on Twitter, Google has built the greatest global surveillance system. It’s no surprise that the NSA has sought to to use it too.

And the stakes are high here not simply because the NSA and Google are both watching to see what we click on. The stakes are high here not simply because Google now makes military drones and military robots. The stakes are high here not simply because Google has expanded beyond search and cloud-based software into Internet-connected devices in our homes.

The stakes are high here in part because all this highlights Google’s thirst for data — our data. The stakes are high here because we have convinced ourselves that we can trust Google with its mission: “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

Google is at the heart of two things that computer-using educators should care deeply and think critically about: the collection of massive amounts of our personal data and the control over our access to knowledge.

Neither of these are neutral. Again, these are driven by ideology and by algorithms.

Promoters of education technology describe this as “personalization.” More data collection and analysis will mean that the software bends to the student. To the contrary, as Seymour pointed out long ago, instead we find the computer programming the child. If we do not unpack the ideology, if the algorithms are all black-boxed, then “personalization” will be discriminatory. As Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued “a ‘personalized’ platform can never be democratizing when the platform operates in a society defined by inequalities.”

If we want schools to be democratizing, then we need to stop and consider how computers are likely to entrench the very opposite. Unless we stop them.

In the 1960s, the punchcard became a symbol of our dehumanization by computers and by a system — an educational system — that was inflexible, impersonal. We were being reduced to numbers. We were becoming alienated. These new machines were increasing the efficiency of a system that was setting us up for a life of drudgery and that were sending us off to war. We could not be trusted with our data or with our freedoms or with the machines themselves, we were told. The punchcards cautioned: “Do not fold, spindle, or mutilate.”

Students pushed back.

Let me quote here from Mario Savio, speaking on the stairs of Sproul Hall in 1964 — over fifty years ago, yes, but I think still one of the most relevant messages for us as we consider the state and the ideology of education technology:

We’re human beings!

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part; you can’t even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!

We’ve upgraded since then from punchcards to iPads. But underneath, the ideology — a reduction of humans to 1s and 0s, programmed and not programmable — remains. And we need to stop this ed-tech machine.

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16 Responses

  1. Margo

    I see a fundamental disconnect within this speech: one between “get[ting] the ideologies that are hardwired into computers out of the classroom” and “stop[ping] the ed-tech machine.” Which is it you really want to do? Many of the issues you highlighted are, as I’m sure you would acknowledge, much larger than just ed-tech itself so I want to assume that you mean the former but your speech seems to put more emphasis on removing computers themselves from the picture entirely.

    This seems to really be yet another discussion that boils down to much-needed administration and curriculum change within education itself. And who doesn’t already realize the issues there? Removing computers–and more importantly, computer education–from the classroom seems almost irresponsible at this point. Digital literacy is an extremely important skill for any person in the 20th century and removing that element of education from the picture would do our students a great disservice.

    Now, whether you have an issue with computers, technology, and their roles in our life in general is another issue. If, indeed, that is where you really find the problem is, then that needs to be the conversation we’re having, rather than specifically looking at computers in the classroom. Right now, the reality is that digital literacy is an essential life and work skill and students deserve to have it integrated into their education. Whether we decide to smash all our computers and “free” ourselves from technology in the future is a separate issue.

  2. Dear Audrey – and Hybrid Pedagogy, we were definitely suspicious of the massive investment in edtech when everything else of value to students as human beings was being cut (time with tutors, buildings, rooms, spaces to meet). So we did a critical analysis of the Government’s eLearning Policy document: Harnessing Technology (2005, 2008) and found no mention of ‘education’ – just reiterations of ICT skills for business. IT was bruited because it would give choice about when and where to access information – but there was no choice being given as to the what and why of education. And where students were not engaging with education itself – this was put down to individual special education needs – there was no analysis of how whole groups and communities are side-lined by traditional education – no challenge of exclusionary practice… And what of those education refusers? Oh – they could be plugged into ICT packages to be fixed. Similarly, time-poor, under-resourced staff were not given choice about their institution’s ICT packages or direction – just bullied into complying – and into getting material into the VLE… and having to now do all the additional administration that this involved – as well as completing online registers, building online components to their courses – of being considered a problem if they asked, ‘Where is the critical (e) pedagogy and practice?

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  4. Sometimes I stop to ponder the role technology has played in the ongoing commodification and systematizing of education, and I’m appalled. And let’s not even begin to discuss how all of this has impacted the bottom line — and the ever climbing costs of education. Computers gave us the opportunity to measure and gather and organize, and so we turned education into (nothing more) than measuring, gathering, and organizing — and then we decided that must be the thing that really mattered, so we should likely spend more money on it (and pass those costs on and on and on) and do it more and more and more.

    And then I think of this comic strip. and then I think that perhaps I need to find another line of work: http://craigcrawford.com/wp-content/uploads/Pogo-We-have-met-800wi.jpg

  5. Jennifer

    Before I start, no I have never been to ISTE, so perhaps this message should be disregarded as that of a wannabe. I do however work every day in schools with teachers and most importantly with students who have very different needs and wants based on the communities they live in.

    But like Twitter can be sometimes overwhelming, I can only imagine a weekend of well intended parables and pulpit thumping from gurus, consultants and corporate start ups, that as of late, seem to make up ISTE.

    It is like the Pinterest of Ed tech. It has the potential to steal creativity and innovation via mass curation, sound bites of knowledge and insecurities around grassroots principles of teaching and learning.

    A classroom teacher can sometimes feel lost in the sea of innovation when considering the whole spectrum of their students needs…everything he/she has and wants to accomplish tech or non-tech can sometimes be co-opted by emergent needs or structural decisions from above. Now this has me thinking I would love to know the stats of how many classroom teachers attend ISTE.

    I suppose it is best to follow people like @Audreywaters, @WillRichardson and @Garystager via Twitter to keep provocation and conversation alive among a varied audience where many can participate and weigh in.

    I do detect via Twitter feed a small yearning for days of old and a backlash against the commercialization of ISTE which is reminiscent of the grassroots beginnings of Comic Con.

    Perhaps next year Tom Cruise will fly in to ISTE as I did see a picture of a participant posing next to Wonder Woman.

    In the end, I suppose the message is a simple one: KISS

    But again I have never been, so this is all virtual and speculation.

  6. Sandy

    Thanks for a very timely perspective on this. I let my ISTE membership lapse after many years because it was becoming more of a lobby group than a thoughtful educational organization.

    I am reminded of Chet Bowers’ (1988) book, The Cultural Dimensions of Educational Computing, in which he states, “The cultural orientations that are strengthened generally relate to the technological consumer domain of society: attitudes toward technological innovation, the progressive nature of change, measurement and planning as sources of authority, a conceptual hierarchy that places abstract-theoretical thought at the highest, a competitive-remissive form of individualism, and the definintion of human needs in terms of what can be supplied by a commodity culture. The cultural orientations that are weakened in the classroom include the forms of authority and skills associated with the oral traditions: folk arts and technologies, substantive traditions of the community (excluding, of course, high school athletics), the fine arts, and the values related to what Wendell Berry (1970) referred to as care, competence, and frugality in the use of the world.” (p. 6) Networks and multi-modal connectivity have challenged his latter points with respect to the fine arts and oral traditions perhaps, but the tension is as evident now as it was then.

  7. cary bertoncini

    Well: yes and no. Computers are used for some of these negative things, sure. But online education alone and the opening up of educational opportunity afforded by it compensates sufficiently for the negatives, which makes all the other benefits, like for many of us the discovery of actual communities of like minded individuals, expanded discourse, social awareness affording Arab Spring and other mass consciousness movements, etc., all cream. Nothing human comes without human failings, but computers and the internet have opened far more doors and unfixed far more shackles than they have closed. It’s not even close.

  8. Kris Alman

    Thank you, Audrey!
    Please check out the June 2015 Patient Privacy Rights International Summit videos.

    The comments of psychotherapist and “Pogo Was Right” blogger “Dissent” are particularly concerning.

    1b — Somebody Call the Doctor! Stitching Up Student Privacy

    Khaliah Barnes, Director, EPIC Student Privacy Project | EPIC, http://www.epic.org
    Dissent | Pogo Was Right PogoWasRight.org, http://www.pogowasright.org/
    Bill Fitzgerald | Speaker, Founder FunnyMonkey, http://funnymonkey.com/
    Dale King, Speaker | Director, Family Policy Compliance Office | U.S. Department of Education http://www.ed.gov/
    Cameron Russell | Speaker, Executive Director, Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy | Fordham University School of Law http://www.fordham.edu/info/20346/school_of_law

  9. I don’t disagree, but would like to hear more about this: ‘Sure, there are subversive features of the computer.’ If I recognize myself in the practices rightly criticized here, how can I begin retreating from them? Also, at the systemic and memetic levels, I think this is true: ‘it’s always about the latest app….’ However, it can also be decidedly not about the app. When equitable access to technology is used for choice, voice, and participatory learning – as it is in Stager’s work (‘Inventing to Learn’, Constructing Modern Knowledge) and (from my perspective) in the work of a multitude of learners like the mentors and mentees of Black Girls Code or Sylvia (of the Super-Awesome Maker Show) – I find hope and direction.

    I’m entirely supportive of getting educators to think about the implications of their work – we are not a self-critical profession, which is by ongoing design, but also because we too often choose to consider our manufactured problems rather than our students’ needs. Like I said, I don’t disagree. I’m thankful for the opportunity to listen and discuss – and grateful also for the work of everyone challenging the dead-end status quo of schooling as it is today.

  10. Well, Papert (that you are quoting out of context) seems to have replied to you already from the past:

    “One might imagine that “technologists” would be most likely to fall into the technocentric trap and that “humanists” would have a better understanding of the role of culture in the so called “effects of the computer.” But things are not so simple. People from the humanities are often the most vulnerable to the technocentric trap. Insecurity sometimes makes a technical object loom too large in their thinking. Particularly in the case of computers, their intimidation and limited technical understanding often blind them to the fact that what they see as a property of “the computer” is often a cultural construct.

    I am not talking about simple misunderstandings that could be dispelled by a course on “how computers really work.” You should rather think of the way sexist or racist stereotypes are rooted in, and supported by, the cultures in which we grew up. Computer stereotypes are as much cultural constructs as are stereotypes of women or blacks, and will be as hard to extirpate.”


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