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.