There’s Nothing Personal About Big Tech and Education

“When we talk about change – when we tell stories about technological change – we must consider how technologies, particularly modern technologies like computers, emerged from a certain history, from certain institutions; how technologies are as likely to re-inscribe traditional practices as to alter them.” – Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters’ recent talk, “Education Technology as the ‘New Normal’”, is a cautionary tale about the forces behind digital technologies in education. While Watters apologises in advance for the darkness of her polemic, this is not your typical rant against the dystopian futures of technological disruption. The context here is thought-provoking and informed, laden not with fears of bogeymen lurking in the digital shadows, but of a wise focus on the need for a balanced perspective that is respectful of the evolution of education and societal culture against a backdrop of the growing bandwagon that is the corporate personalization of learning.

Watter’s contends that: “If technology is the force for change … those who do not use technology … schools and teachers, stereotypically – are viewed as resistant to or even obstacles to change.” This may be a perspective that depends largely on context and whether, for example, a district mandate is requiring a direction that is at variance with the genuine, professional instincts of teachers. I am adverse to the notion that technology should drive change and that teachers not using technology are resisters. The needs of learners should drive education. Not data. Not technology. We must strive to use the tools that provide learners with the most powerful and authentic learning experiences. In doing so, we should not, as Gary Stager recently remarked, feel the need to apologise for technology as long as we place students at the heart of learning:

“Computing is fundamental to solving problems. … In the very near future almost any career you choose will have a branch of it … that has ‘computational’ at the front of it. Computational Physicist, Computational Geneticist, Computational Historian, Musician, etc. And not enough kids are having access to those kinds of experiences. … Technology changes behaviour. It’s never neutral. It influences what’s possible … and gives kids agency over the world, to help them solve problems that the teacher never anticipated.”

Stager was speaking from the ISTE Conference and references his perceived sense of a dwindling learning and ideas culture at this event. Earlier this year I attended the BETT event in London, a similar EdTech showcase. I was dismayed by what I encountered. I had hoped to see a focus on modern learning and the exciting possibilities that technology could offer. Instead, I saw hundreds of vendor stands focused on canned approaches to bland content delivery, automated testing, control mechanisms, and facile data obsessions. The important consumers here were not educators, but “decision-makers” and policy makers. People who regard teachers as “deliverers”.

The central tenet of Watters’ perspective is unassailable. The engines of Silicon Valley are not interested in learners or educators. One does not need to look far to see the forces of individualism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, or imperialism at work. Schools need to be about much more than “technological solutionism”. This is not to say that technology does not play a critical role in education, or that educators can dismiss the obligation to be proficient in its appropriate use because they are intellectually opposed to the corporate drivers behind the industry. According to Watters: “We have to forgo “personalization.” We must do this through collective action, through community. We do this through action oriented around social and racial justice. We do this through democracy. (And through art.)” We should care primarily about what students need. Not what Pearson & Co want. Schools are in grave danger of replicating the 1980s using expensive technologies.

Personalized Learning is – on the surface – an attractive proposition that is, in an increasingly number of instances, ironically characterized by an absence of the “personal”. Many of the emerging “canned” approaches to Personalized Learning are predicated upon false assumptions about student engagement and motivation. Thomas Armstrong, writing for the American Institute For Learning and Human Development, articulates this concern in succinct terms: “I’m taken aback by some of the highly packaged ‘’personalized’’ learning systems now being developed ….  These edtech products often give the appearance of offering personalization, but in reality, they more often rate and process a student’s learning needs, wishes, strengths, and aspirations through impersonal algorithms, then generate a profile of the student that includes content ‘’deliverables’’…. Sounds kind of de-personalizing, doesn’t it?”

Computers should amplify and extend authentic, meaningful learning experiences, not be used to achieve rote learning and test preparation. The new disciples of Edtech are, ironically, advocating for content delivery systems that are no better than the traditional textbook that they proclaim disdain for in pseudo-enlightened voices. If we want learners to thrive, learning needs to be personal. Nothing makes learning more personal than an inspiring, caring teacher. It therefore follows that if we want teachers to be inspiring and caring, we also need to provide them with the context and culture in which they can thrive. Learners – both students and teachers – must be placed at the centre of any change agenda in education. Personalization is not personal. But a caring teacher and tech proficiency are not incompatible: in fact, they go hand-in-hand. Informed and intelligent arguments about the motivations of tech conglomerates are no justification to deny students the tools they need to become empowered learners.

While it is important to challenge the machinations of Big Tech, we should not allow that particular agenda to detract from the bigger questions that face schools today. Stager is right: it is about the technology, but is is not about the tech industry, about replicating the past with expensive tools, or blaming professional educators when an unthought, mandated agenda fails to produce “results”. So, what is it about, ultimately? Perhaps Will Richardson sums it up best:

“It’s not about the tools. It’s not about layering expensive technology on top of the traditional curriculum. It’s about addressing the new needs of modern learners in entirely new ways. And once we understand that it’s about learning, our questions reframe themselves in terms of the ecological shifts we need to make: What do we mean by learning? What does it mean to be literate in a networked, connected world? What does it mean to be educated? What do students need to know and be able to do to be successful in their futures? Educators must lead inclusive conversations in their communities around such questions to better inform decisions about technology and change.”

Learning is about the learner. It’s personal.

Watters, Audrey. Education Technology as the ‘New Normal’. Hack Education, May 24, 2017.

“Modern Learners Live with Gary Stager From ISTE 2017.” Modern Learners Facebook Page, June 26, 2017.

Armstrong, Thomas. “Personalized Learning Systems From Big Ed Are Depersonalizing”, American Institute For Learning and Human Development, September 14, 2016.

Richardson, Will. “Students First, Not Stuff”. Educational Leadership, March, 2013.

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