The Primary Problem with Educational Technology

There is much that’s wrong with the educational technology (“edtech”) market. However, the title of an essay I read last week sums up the biggest problem as succinctly as possible: Caring Doesn’t Scale.

This three-word sentence captures so much. First, it clearly communicates that “scale” has become a virtue. More importantly, it implies that old-fashioned virtues – things like caring about people – simply can’t compare in importance to modern values like scale. It would be an interesting thought exercise to re-examine the traditional seven virtues (prudence, justice, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and charity) and decide what each of their edtech replacements would be. However, I’m positive that in the updated version of the EdTech Bible, Corinthians 13:13 ends “the greatest of these is charity scale.”

Nobel-prize winning economist Thomas Schelling once made the distinction between an “identified life” and a “statistical life.” Identified lives belong to people we know and care about. Statistical lives belong to future imagined people who are nameless, faceless, and unknowable. Schelling argued that we think about – and even value – these two kinds of lives differently:

Let a six-year-old girl with brown hair need thousands of dollars for an operation that will prolong her life until Christmas, and the post office will be swamped with nickels and dimes to save her. But let it be reported that without a sales tax the hospital facilities of Massachusetts will deteriorate and cause a barely perceptible increase in preventable deaths—not many will drop a tear or reach for their checkbooks.

Edtech companies are primarily focused on what we might call “statistical students.” How could they not be? Their veneration of scale necessarily piles up students until they become tiny dots in a distribution, converts them into a billion small contributors to Big Data.

Why are we hell-bent on taking the greatest communications technology ever known and making sure that no one communicates with it? Why must we replace opportunities to interact with teachers and tutors with artificial intelligence and adaptive systems? Why are we so excited by the prospect of care, encouragement, and support giving way to a “Next” button that algorithmically chooses what a student should see next? The answer is that caring doesn’t scale – and given the choice between the two, mainstream edtech chooses to scale. (For sake of completeness, we should explicitly state the corollary to ‘caring doesn’t scale,’ which is ‘scaling doesn’t care.’)

If I could shout something from the rooftops, perhaps it would be this: edtech doesn’t have to be this way – there are other ways to imagine the use of technology in education.

In my talk at TEDxNYED in 2010, I argued that the proper role for technology in education is “to increase our capacity to be generous.” I still believe this is true. The affordances of digital, networked technologies make it incredibly easy – so easy almost as to create a moral imperative – to be generous with educational materials that cost almost nothing to duplicate and transmit around the globe. Open Educational Resources (OER) are one way in which technology allows us to be more generous.

Digital, networked technologies can also be leveraged to design tools and pedagogies that augment, extend, and improve a teacher or faculty’s capacity to care. That is, educational technology can help us be more generous with our care, encouragement, passion, and support. Educational technology can help us come to know, care about, and genuinely support a much larger number of “identified students” than we ever could without its help. But precious little of the activity in the edtech market is focused on achieving this goal.

The good news is that, like soylent green, the edtech market is made of people. We are the ones who design the tools and services that are available. But we must find the willpower to reject the “caring doesn’t scale” narrative and chart a better, more generous path forward.

4 thoughts on “The Primary Problem with Educational Technology”

  1. WOW! Yes yes yes. What a great post to start my week. What I love about teaching online is not only that I can show students that I care (working with them one on one, connecting them with things that are really meaningful, maintaining a persistent presence that goes far beyond the 150 hours of what would be our classroom time), but students can also connect with each other more than in a regular classroom (because for the students, too, connecting online extends beyond the 150 minutes per week, as they develop their own online presences and interact with each other).

    If you want a boost, just check out the comment stream for my online classes. The students are so good to each other… and I am glad for the technology that makes it so easy for them to connect with each other:

  2. Very few institutions see caring as a competitive advantage. They see money as value. They prioritize short term return-on-investment over long term brand reputation. They do what makes sense to them. One example: The PACE program at UF.

    When the time comes and higher ed institutions start really getting scrutinized to demonstrate their value to the public, many of them will fumble, because they have acted out of greed instead of focusing on their teaching mission. My 2 cents.

  3. Thank you for this post.

    Scale has become another quantifier for “success” and “winning” ~ as in the good old boy saying, “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Or in this case, “the most scale” = winning “educator”

  4. In the world of “Learning Analytics”, the “statistical student” is a way to focus on

    scale, perceive the education sphere as one big blog of Big Data. A loss of empathy may be a result, despite the fact that people do care about identified students in the mix. We rarely hear them, unless it’s in a testimonial claiming that failure was prevented by the detection algorithm. As with Zuckerberg’s (in)famous “squirrel on the front yard”, we care about individual stories when they fit a grander narrative.

    There’s another dimension, coming from Gilbert Daniels’s anthropometry work. As TEDx presentations by both Kathleen Robinette and Todd Rose have explained, there is no such thing as an “average individual”.

    The lesson is in part about Universal Design (for Learning). But it’s also about the importance of diversity. As work in postdevelopment makes clear, people are quick to help others become more like themselves. What’s much more difficult is understanding that values, norms, and beliefs may vary in complex ways.

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