In Deep Water With Audrey and Tressie

As an educator there are plenty of reasons to be on Twitter or to engage on other social media platforms. I’m a PE teacher finishing up a year’s hiatus from the classroom and looking forward to getting back into the routine of working with real children.

That said, my intellectual excursions this year have taken me far beyond my classroom and the practice of teaching. Through extensive and very eclectic reading I’ve ventured into territories that may or may not have to do with education directly. What has happened is that my choices have become more political. In the opinions I seek, the analyses I read, the topics addressed reflect a deliberately more politicized interest. So when I do read about K-12 classroom practice or recent trends in ed-tech for instance, a filter I have added is political perspective – where is the author coming from? What factors may be contributing to this person’s take on the subject? How might this person’s perspective change and influence mine? What I have found is that reading in areas where I feel to some extent “out of my depth” has worked wonders in allowing me to zero in on what my core beliefs and concerns are when it comes to education.

Two authors who regularly challenge me to start treading in the deep end of my beliefs about education are Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottom. This week they appear to have double teamed on the intersecting topics of technology, education, markets and privacy.
First, Audrey goes to town with this talk given at a panel at the International Society of Technology and Education (ISTE) conference last week: Is It Time To Give Up On Computers in Schools?
Provocative? Yes, quite and by design. Her talk was published on hybridpedagogy.com. She says:

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 —

Further she suggests:

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.

It happens often when I read Audrey’s work that I am called to attention in a visceral way. Her tone is not alarmist, yet her message is alarming if you dare to sit with the implications of all that she is saying. She speaks to a much deeper question than “should I use Firefox instead of Chrome?” (Which is where many K-12 tech conversations are happening) Rather, she asserts that our homegrown brands of social and economic inequalities are not only baked into the tools we use but likely reinforce and exacerbate them.

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.

Then I came across Tressie McMillan Cottom’s remarks prepared for a recently held panel discussion: “New Topics in Social Computing: Data and Education.”
Tressie is a sociologist who, in my mind, has moved mountains in the area of public scholarship. Her high profile Twitter account has helped promote the visibility of accessible scholarly writing happening both within and outside the academy. Delving into the broad area of “Data and Education” she asks the reader to get clear with what we mean by “privacy” in this context:

What if privacy is euphemism for individualism, the politically correct cousin of rational actor theories that drive markets that is fundamentally at odds with even the idea of school as a public good? If that is possible (and, I of course, think it is not only possible but the case at hand), then how can we talk about students’ privacy while preserving the integrity of data to observe and measure inequality? I suppose that is where I am on current debates about privacy and data in K-12: are we talking about everyone’s privacy or are we talking about new ways to mask injustice? Do you get to a Brown v. Board when schools that are also businesses own school data? I suspect not, because the rules governing data are different in markets than they are in public trusts.

To grasp what we are dealing with means that we will have to unpack our firmly held beliefs about what is at stake:

I question the assumptions about privacy that seem to be the only way we currently have to talk about how deeply enmeshed schools are in markets. Can we talk about privacy in a way that is about justice rather than individualism? If we cannot then privacy may be as big a threat to students as data mining because they are two heads of the same beast.

In agreeing with Audrey’s call to rid our schools of computers she remarks:

I would add: give up on computers and get up on politics. Computers can be fine. Computers are politics. Personalized learning may be fine. Personalized learning is politics. Apps are fine. Apps are politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Tech is politics. Unless and until that is the conversation, then tech is most likely a politics at odds with my own.

So there’s that political thing: connecting the things I do, use, and promote to their effect on me, on others, our our collective existence and making decisions about my actions based on the outcomes I say I want. If I say I want a more just world, what am I doing to support and promote that? How does it show in my voting behavior, in my media consumption, in the way I choose to raise and educate my children, in the friends I keep, in the organizations I endorse and those I decry? Those are political questions, just as they can be deeply existential questions. The choices I make as an individual do not happen in a vacuum. They occur and have implications in and for my surroundings and also express views and beliefs that relate to those surroundings. This why reading Audrey Watters and Tressie McMillan Cottom has become so important for me. Both point to intersection after intersection where individual decisions collide or overlap with societal assumptions and outcomes.

It’s dizzying and disorienting to do this kind of reading on a regular basis. Feeling “out of my depth” comes at a price. I finally understand that smh is shorthand for ‘shaking my head’, but often I am too bewildered to do even that. Being confronted with how much I don’t know is not nearly as trying and uncomfortable as recognizing how little thought I have given to some very central facets of my daily existence. Tressie and Audrey take me there and what I choose to do with these fresh insights is entirely up to me. I feel like I may be getting a little wiser, gaining a bit more nuance in my political views, stretching my critical thinking muscles a little further.

Tressie’s concluding sentences trigger a peculiar response in me: I think about weightlifting:

 I believe education is a human right when education is broadly defined as the right to know and be. Period. I believe schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market. Information symmetry is at odds with most market relationships and schools have to be about information symmetrically produced, accessed and imagined. Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them. I believe there is such a thing as a social category that subsumes markets to societies. I believe those are political choices and only effected by social action.

“Schools can be valuable to markets without becoming them.” That feels to me as though a weight has been lifted – off of my shoulders, somehow. There’s that blessed moment of recognition: “yeah, that’s what I wanted to say.” So there’s some comfort.

At the same time, “schooling can still do education but it cannot do it and be a market” which is where so much neoliberal rhetoric and policy is leading us: to education systems as markets -There’s the weight bearing down on me, on us; the likelihood of freeing ourselves shrinking before our eyes. Unless of course we wake up and see that we in fact have choices. We can lift the weight. We needn’t simply succumb to it because it’s heavy and makes us incredibly drowsy.

Audrey and Tressie are here to wake us up. And K-12 educators, this is a conversation we need to be in on. Not only listening but dialoguing. This is how we build critical thinking into our curricula and lesson plans: we do it ourselves. Regularly. We wade into the deep waters and have our beliefs challenged. Readings like these provide necessary starting points.

Sales, Not Education

Recently an innocent tweet went down the wrong way. It provided a link to an article without further commentary. What I found was a post extolling the virtues of technology to “transform education” based on the freshly released NMC (New Media Consortium) Horizon Report – Higher Ed edition. So often have I heard such lofty and outsized claims which I fear miss the point. I retweeted the link with this comment:

Now having reread the article on Campus Technology more carefully, I realize that it is simply a tech friendly channel highlighting the big points from the researchers’ report at NMC. Nevertheless, my reaction also has its place. Although this article and the report at hand are addressing trends for higher education, the sweeping claims made are those most likely to show up in K-12 ed-tech discourse as well.
Two things are at issue for me:

  • The idea that technology will transform education needs to go. Rather it is and will continue to be people (students, parents, educators, community members) who will transform education. People have many tools at their disposal and certainly technology will play a role, but we need to stop abdicating our responsibility and power to devices, software and corporations to create just and equitable access to education for all students.
  • Too easily we in education seem to take such reports and their underlying assumptions as gospel, conveniently forgetting that technology is an industry with profit motives like other industries. Education is a vast and diverse market with multiple entry points to exploit. (Audrey Watters writes expertly about the corporate interest sides of ed-tech like here and here. Read these and be enlightened.)

I often worry that we (teachers, parents, policy makers) are absolutely complicit in selling the education of our kids to the teams with the best marketing strategies. We love new and shiny and all promises of time and effort saving – while at the same time we expect our kids to develop grit and become critical thinkers. We want to believe that we are equipping our children and students for a future which we can’t fathom and yet we fail to question our most basic assumptions about what school is good for and how it should function. (See this awesome post by @BlueCerealEduc about inquiry for grown folks.)

We also like to give people who claim to care deeply about education more of the benefit of the doubt than they perhaps deserve (i.e., politicians, education “reformers,” billionaire philanthropists). I urge you to keep up with the likes of @edushyster (Jennifer Berkshire) who has her eyes peeled for all of the nonsense, misinformation and outright lies which are perpetuated via the media and other channels to cloud our understanding of what’s actually at stake when we hand over public schools wholesale to charter organizations or create programs of school choice without actually creating viable options for the weakest recipients of such initiatives.  A recent post of hers unpacks an  unbelievable document full of highly refined PR talking points for reformers to use in addressing a number of major parental concerns with testing and other feature of ed reform. The document is both remarkable and sickening in its baldfaced illustration of how manipulation is a science that can and will be used against you unless you combat it directly.  (No, really, the document and the post are each extraordinary in their own right. Go read both carefully.)

Critical and higher order thinking, collaboration, cooperation, digital literacy – these are skills we claim we want our children to master, that we insist are critical to their success in the future.  And I ask, How skilled are we?  How well are we collaborating and cooperating to inform ourselves and bolster our critical thinking skills? In my own experience I am finding out how naive I have been in several areas. I am only now beginning to fully appreciate the extremely well informed minds in my personal learning network. I need their tireless investigations into the false claims and snake oil peddlers in order to better understand how I can contribute to conversations in a meaningful way.  For now my attempt is to curate, read, share and synthesize the great work that others are doing to keep us awake at the wheel of our own and our kids’ futures.

A Programmable Future

CC pixabay.com

CC pixabay.com

I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.

WHAT?

As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.

Boom!

We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.