Why don’t we talk about structural issues in digital education?

This is a brief precis of my 5 min talk at QUT’s LCDM Forum held today. In it I address the designated question, but I wanted to get people to think past enthusiasm for digital literacy and tools to ask what are the dangers and challenges associated with the datfaication, and digitization of education.

My focus today, in my 5 mins, will be to address the question “What are the new challenges you see for education that are encountered in digital lives and societies?” with a particular interest in what may be called digital sociology. Digital sociology asks how the development and use of digital media, its proliferation and impact in everyday life (hi to all those with smartphones out here today) as well as how these various technologies contribute to the patterning of human behavior, social relationships and concepts of the self. Digital sociology concerns itself with who wins, who loses, who controls, what gest changed and what are the structural impacts of the digitisation of key semantic and institutional modes of subjectivity.

However, I also want to make clear that I am not arguing as a Luddite, advocating smashing the machines that are changing the social, economic and cultural landscapes in which we now move. Rather, I want to add a cautionary perspective, we need to step back from an enthusiasm for technology for its intrinsic appeal to ask questions about impacting structural change to institutions like public education. In short, we need to marry an enthusiasm for technology with a commitment to what may be called ‘technical democracy’, and I think that much of the utopian promise that characterised digital in the 80s and 90s is being replaced by a wariness regarding who controls the tools that we use, how they view the purpose of education and what it means for schools. While I don’t have time to go into this in detail, I’d like to briefly mention a couple of key examples:

  • The push for more automation in education. teaching machines have long been a desire for education reformists. Psychology professor Sidney Pressey received the first US patent for a “teaching machine” in 1928. B.F Skinner also patented a machine that used worked examples to correct student open answer questions. You can also read a lot more at Audrey Watters excellent blog Teaching Machines. I’ve also written about this here. Much digital innovation work is being spent on Intelligent Tutoring Systems, Interactive Learning Environments, Computer Adaptive Testing and Avatars as Instructors in order to improve the efficiency of knowledge transfer (through the removal of the inefficient mode of teacher-student interaction). I worry that the the notion of personalization has been overtaken by technical, rather than human, modes of interaction. (I have a paywalled paper on that here if you have access)
  • The ‘black-boxing’ of knowledge. What we know about teachers and assessment – the more complex and non-intuitive it is, the more likely it is to lead to misuse, and algorithmic approaches to assessment are difficult to understand statistically because many of the tools that we use to understand them don’t work in the ways that we have come to expect. Take the concept of validity and machine learning.
  • The ethics of public institutions providing student data to private companies that can be reused/repurposed for profits: i.e. ClassDojo as Ben Williamson sorts through here. ClassDojo which is estimated to be used by at least one teacher in about one out of three schools in the US. In a 2014 New York Times article “ClassDojo could make money from the information it collects in other ways. Another section of the privacy policy says the company may show users advertisements “based in part on your personally identifiable information.”” This position was defended by the company here.
  • What is interesting is that we are seeing a new arrangement of technology companies, venture capital and educational software that is forming a new apparatus (in Agamben’s terms) of education. Some of this is manifest in a new form of home schooling, as Ben Williamson again argues:

The role of Silicon Valley in and high-tech home schooling: A recent article in Wired has shown that many Silicon Valley coders, hackers and makers are now choosing to educate their own children at home. It profiles a new breed of homeschoolers—the techie parents who see public or state education as fundamentally broken, and have chosen instead to educate their children themselves. The Silicon Valley homeschooler is not the fundamentalist activist of liberal stereotyping. Instead, the high-tech homeschooler sees makerspaces and hackerspaces as ideal kinds of educational institutions, where children can learn directly through tinkering, hacking, coding and making, rather than through the prescriptive, standardized model of state schooling. These new Silicon Valley homeschoolers blend the approach of hackerspaces with a much longer lineage of progressivist education that includes such important ‘deschooling’ figures as Ivan Illich and ‘unschoolers’ such as John Holt. The deschooling and unschooling movements fundamentally saw schools as overly constrictive, and advocated instead for learners to engage in more self-directed education in real-life settings and social networks. This is an irresistible invitation for those with Silicon Valley ideology when it comes to rethinking education.

Now, what seems significant about this is that the infiltration of technological models and teaching machines appears to have moved beyond individual choice agendas to the level of systemic delivery. Educational technology apparatus’ are opening their own charter schools (I’ll leave you to decide on how charter schools are located in your moral/ethical code), and marketing themselves on their cutting edge digital tools:  a significant growth market in charter school enrolments in the US is online, sometimes for-profit, charter schools.

And so we return to the desire for personalisation and what it means for education…


And we could go on. The question it seems to me is how we think about the line of what is acceptable and non-acceptable at structural and systemic levels for digital service and providers in education. This is the role of digital sociology to lay bare. And to start designing strategies, setting limits etc to ensure technical democracy.