Can Silicon Valley reinvent education?
The music man. Willy Loman. Jay Gatsby. PT Barnum. Adam Neumann then; Elizabeth Holmes now.
The huckster is an American archetype. Originally the word referred to anyone who sold small items door-to-door, but has come to describe someone who aggressively and dishonestly promotes or sells products of questionable value.
What is particularly striking is that popular culture’s view of the peddler is highly equivocal. We admire the nerve of the peddlers. Their sass, sass, brashness, audacity and brilliance strike many of us as commendable and worthy of imitation.
According to Dale Carnegie and other proponents of the art of selling and self-improvement (beginning with Benjamin Franklin’s The Way to Wealth in 1758), the key to success is self-confidence and ability to project a positive attitude.
The backslapper, the glad-hander, the trickster and the confidant embody traits that amaze us. Although we pretend to be repelled by their bravado, we are impressed by their audacity, audacity and courage.
Also, peddlers tend to appear sincere. Peddlers rarely consider themselves deceivers. No one believes their hyperboles, promises, exaggerations or lies more than they do. The most effective tricksters, after all, are those with messianic pride and a savior complex.
Of course, edtech has proven to be fertile ground for tech evangelists. Smart robots in the sky. Personalized adaptive learning. Autograders.
Peddlers don’t just prey on the vulnerable or the naive. We are all sensitive to the lure of the three-card shooter and dealer. We are all gullible. We are all gullible. We are all vulnerable to the hype and the futuristic. We all have the will to believe.
This is especially true now. Ours is a historical moment where the unimaginable strikes us as possible. After all, Silicon Valley companies have reinvented transportation – with Uber, Lyft and the electric car; bank — with Paypal, Venmo and bitcoin; retail sales – with Amazon; and even friendship, with Facebook.
Who can say then that it was not possible to reinvent teaching and learning?
If we can call a car at any time or have food and groceries delivered within two hours, digital technologies, learning algorithms, machine learning, predictive analytics and artificial intelligence Shouldn’t they allow us to accelerate learning, accelerate graduation, and close the achievement and equity gaps?
Audrey Watters, who has been instrumental in exposing false claims by edtech entrepreneurs on her Hack Education website, recently posted Teaching machinerya history of automated teaching tools and the chimera of personalized learning from Sidney Pressey’s mechanized tester to BF Skinner’s behavioral operant conditioning chamber that would allow students to learn at their own pace.
His is a cautionary tale of field men who over-promised and under-delivered. His book not only demonstrates that the history of educational technology is a forgotten history of failed experiments and faulty thinking, but that edtech is more than software or devices, it is a system of assumptions, outdated psychological beliefs, language, practices and theories. which is based on certain premises:
- that learning can be done alone and in isolation and without teachers;
- that learning outcomes can and should be standardized;
- that education is reducible to content and skills and that learning is sequential, made up of consecutive “atomic” stages that can be programmed in advance;
- that audio-visual material, interleaved questions and positive reinforcement are sufficient to make learning immersive and interactive;
- that digital technologies can accelerate and democratize access to quality education; and
- that critical thinking and higher-order thinking skills are irrelevant for teaching precisely because they are difficult to measure.
Its main argument is that despite its vows of personalization and personalization of learning, educational technology tends to “deprive the student of his autonomy and autonomy” – the autonomy necessary to pursue his interests and his way.
As Watters shows with vivid prose and vivid anecdotes, as early as 1866, when a device for teaching spelling was patented, inventors touted the teaching devices as “magic wands” that could teach “the arithmetic, reading, spelling, foreign languages, history, geography, literature or any other subject in which questions may be asked in such a way as to require a definite form of words…letters… or symbols” (as a claimed 1911 patent).
Watters points out that edtech continues to bear the imprint of behaviorism and functionalism. Our current notions of nudges and nurturing as assessable skills are, she argues, updated versions of earlier ideas that contrast sharply with constructivist and inquiry ideas and the emphasis on creativity and individual expression embraced by many educators today,
Watters’ book also carries a powerful political message: that edtech entrepreneurs have always been strong critics of the school as it is. Their attacks on the “factory model” of education must, she says, be understood as thinly veiled criticisms of recalcitrant unions, Luddite teachers, unimaginative school bureaucrats and short-sighted legislators. They may talk about supporting teachers, schools and universities, but their goal is to profit at their expense. As for their discourse on improving learning outcomes, their products tend to emphasize rapid technological solutions that greatly simplify the complexities of teaching and learning.
But before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we need to recognize that technology can actually improve education. Most parents know firsthand the value of Khan Academy and BrainPOP tutorials or Wikipedia.
Undoubtedly, students benefit from immediate and specific feedback and content tailored to their individual needs and interests, and instructors would benefit from offloading their more mundane tasks. And, as my colleague George Siemens argues, education involves trade-offs: with cost, efficiency, and scalability on one side of the equation and truly personalized education on the other.
In 1980, a decade before the introduction of the Internet browser and a year before the launch of IBM’s PC, South African-born MIT computer scientist Seymour A. Papert published Mindstorms: children, computers and powerful ideas, which argued that computers can completely transform the way we teach. According to Papert, computer literacy would combat math phobia, replace rote learning with inquiry and exploration, and teach logic, functions, problem solving, and conceptual understanding in a way that learners would find really engaging and fun.
Yes, digital technologies can indeed change teaching – for better and for worse. On the plus side of the ledger, edtech offers students exciting new ways to build and share ideas, practice skills, visualize data, annotate text, and deliver presentations. It can also extract data, monitor student engagement, and identify areas of confusion and misunderstanding, prompting timely intervention.
More negatively, as we have learned since March 2020, thanks to Zoom U, digital learning far too often undermines the social interactions which, as Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky insisted, are at the heart of engagement, motivation and perseverance, and learning.
As even the toughest (and most balanced) critics of edtech like Justin Reich, the author of Failure of disruption: why technology alone cannot transform education, recognize that educational technology has a valuable role to play in the future of education. But that’s only the case if it’s used as a creative teaching tool – to facilitate interaction, collaboration, analysis, access to resources and presentations – and as a way to free instructors from the lectures to dedicate their time to mentorship and scaffolding learning, and not as a replacement for the serendipity, improvisation, clash of interpretations and emphasis on human connection and growth that are at the core of a real education.
Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.