On Hope in Ed-Tech

‘‘People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.’’

– Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (21)

In my last post I wrote about what I called technological critiquism: the critique of technology for critique’s sake. Here I want to dig a little deeper into one particular tenet of that philosophical position, its technological determinism.

An unacknowledged deterministic view underlies one of the most compelling claims of critiquism: the argument that software platforms are never innocent. It’s true: when we adopt software, we are not adopting something that is valueless or, in an educational context, without its own pedagogical agenda. Technologies are always already moralized and politicized. This happens throughout the process of developing a new tool from its earliest imaginings to its design to its engineering to its marketing.

For example, in adopting learning management systems (LMSs), universities have chosen a particular way of relating to students, of viewing education as primarily “managerial.” Even if LMSs come with more seemingly innocent features like seamless content delivery, even if the gradebook features are perceived as an efficiency that creates time for other deeper activities and interactions, these platforms can also determine how we design and teach our courses and how students learn (or don’t) in them. (I’m far from the first to make this point.)

Human evolution as determined by technology

It is absolutely vital that educators and administrators, all users of technology anywhere really, are think critically about the tools they are adopting and using. At the same time, though, technological critiquism and its belief in the a priori guilt of platforms often ignores something equally important, and somewhat contradictory: just as our teaching can be affected by the technology that we integrate into our classrooms, so too are we never completely determined, never fully beholden to those technologies.

There’s an oft-quoted line from the great poet Audrey Lorde about resistance: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Early in grad school for literary criticism I recall making this argument quite a bit as I studied African American literature. By the end of my dissertation, though, I’d come to understand that the forms resistance takes are not and cannot be so limited. Above all, resistance is always contingent, and as such, often takes surprising, unexpected forms.

Power exerts itself with Orwellian boots to the face, but also in more subtle ways that might be experienced as love. So too does resistance sometimes take the form of Malatov cocktails and at others, something far more subtle, something that might look like conformity but ultimately carries the same force as a bomb.

Evil as an example of love and theft in American racial history

Twitter is a great example of this complexity of power and resistance at work in a technology platform. Clearly, like Facebook, the company and its microblogging service are complicit in the distortion of information and commodification of users on the Web. And yet Twitter is one of the most powerful stages for outspoken critics of Silicon Valley–not to mention any number of resistance movements in the political sphere. Even within one of tech’s most popular platforms, then, critics created have created a powerful back channel.

To bring it back to the education space, I support teachers and designers who completely reject the LMS as a platform for learning. But at the same time every student and teacher working within an LMS has not become a mindless drone, mechanically following the modules served to them by the system. In some cases, students who might not otherwise have found a pathway to success or a way to express themselves to classmates and instructors can do so within an LMS. Clearly there there are deeply problematic pedagogies embedded in LMSs and other learning platforms, but those humans using them are never fully subject to the logics and morals of those platforms. Both students and teachers can still navigate such systems consciously and even radically, hacking them to their own ends.

There has to be a critical ed-tech and a critical digital pedagogy informed by two seemingly contradictory beliefs at once: platforms can shape us in ways we may not be aware but we are never completely determined by the technologies we use. Ironically, I think when we don’t acknowledge that second piece, we do a disservice to instructional designers, teachers, and students. We’re arguing and fighting for their agency and denying them that at the very same time.

This post was largely inspired by a long walk and conversation with Nate Angell through Chinatown in San Francisco on a unusually hot day.

Also published on Medium.