Our Fascination With (Not) Fixing Education

Our Fascination With (Not) Fixing Education

Reading:  Why Technology Will Never Fix Education (Kentaro Toyama), Bernie Sanders’ Ambitious Plan to Eliminate College Tuition (Alice Ollstein)

Why does an article placing the failures of technology at the base of a unequal socioeconomic structure get a much greater deal of my Twitter feed’s attention than a political plan by a Presidential candidate offering free college education at any four-year institution?  And how does this have anything to do with the final episode of Mad Men and Coca Cola products?

Regarding the failures of technology article as seen in the Chronicle of Higher Education:  I appreciate where Dr. Toyama wants to go with his argument, but in creating his Law of Amplification he perpetuates on the education field many of the same harms of which he blames Silicon Valley.  The Law of Amplification wants to say that tech projects existing success, provides little to the mean and harms the disadvantaged.  It sounds plausible, and the author points out examples where he can tie his Law to existing structures.  Evidence as provided does not establish the Law as ironclad by any means, for I see the foundation of the law as problematic — a few examples such as MOOC inequity do not make the Law correct, but rather make the Law not incorrect in these cases.

I take umbrage with the architecture of the Law of Amplification – it renders technology as a neutral entity, one where the sole impact on society is by amplifying existing situations.  This is false.  Technology is not neutral; the dominant paradigm of solutionism identifies a problem and offers technology as a solution; the result is a EdTech landscape void of history, theory, culture, and politics in part because its perpetuation is based on its space as the agnostic chameleon.  When our criticism of technological solutionism stops with technology is not the solution, we have perpetuated the paradigm of problem in need of fixing; we decry gadgets as a solution but still believe that there is a Solution.  Perhaps this is a problem with critical theory when extended directly from Marx – saying that the bourgeoise is in the way of the Progress still maintains that there is a Progress and the power is obscuring that pathway (rather than acknowledging we can progress but We cannot Progress).

The Law of Amplification also fails to engage existing learning theory around the application of technology in content and pedagogy.  Technology as a solution is considered as hollow an approach as Content as a solution:  Mishra & Kohler’s Technological, Pedagogical Applied Content Knowledge (TPACK) seeks to employ technology with purpose and praxis, as supplemental and augmented rather than infallible and omnibenevolent.  Rather than inventing a new Law, engaging the existing literature to ground his argument could have gone much further in creating a solution for the identified problem.

Dr. Toyama’s example of MOOCs providing well for those who are already provided for is spot-on, but it is not sufficiently axiomatic that technology will fail until we rectify inequality.  Technology is neither the base nor the superstructure; it’s both and it’s neither.  The history of distance and online education is certainly draped in Marx’s technological determinism (base), but there is an equal argument about the growth of social justice and equity beyond the Enlightenment and as such its effect on changes in educational access (superstructure).  The history of education and the present of education are more confluent and complex than fits our established and favored narratives, and this critically-based emancipation narrative is dependent on a dominant solutionistic narrative to provide it purpose and vitriol.

Do we live in a time of high inequality?  Yes.  Is current affordance of technology perpetuating inequality?  I would argue as much.  Are our efforts engaged in manners that can create actual change in discourse and policy?  Not nearly as much as we should be.  My prime example comes from US Senator Bernie Sanders (I – VT), a 2016 Presidential candidate who yesterday announced a plan to make four-year college or university free for all Americans.  This is counter to a recent trend of American politics that cut government subsidy to higher education, a situation so dire in Louisiana the flagship school system has a financial exigency plan in preparation of the worst.  Most people do not consider Senator Sanders a viable candidate for President but celebrate him as a champion of the people.  However, he has introduced this specific plan based on specific reasons some could venture to call pragmatic.  From Bloomberg:

“We live in a highly competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world,” [Sanders] said in a press release on Sunday. “That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.”

cv032458While my Twitter feed is not evidence of trends amongst educators, the failures of technology article has received much more interest than a political action to provide for more.  An ideological piece creating an enemy gains more traction than a practical piece by a progressive considered to be deserving of discussion and contemplation.  Dr. Toyama invents an educational term rather than engaging the basics of teaching/pedagogy/technology and it bounces around the ethereal water cooler; Senator Sanders provides a plan for reducing inequality and it is ignored or written off based on the Senator’s political likelihood of election.  The Chronicle’s failure piece is a variation on a failure/solution motif that has existed in education discourse in America since at least Sputnik, the Sanders policy a resistance not to solutionism but to the narrative of solutionism.  The one offering a solution, the solutionism rejector, is largely ignored amidst a din of not our narrative.

It’s important to challenge the assumptions we make in our lines of thought and ideology.  While I have never seen the show Mad Men, I exist in America and keep an eye on media and television studies, so the popularity of the show, its themes and its purpose are known.  And, like many of the postmortems of the show I read after its Sunday finale, I assumed Mad Men had played for a schmaltzy end by linking the journey and destination of Don Draper’s character to the 1971 I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke advert. That was challenged in two places, first by Jesse Walker of reason.com:

They made us sing that Coke song in elementary school. Our music teacher prefaced the lesson by explaining that the ’60s were a rough time but the song had brought everyone together. That’s what it was like to be a little kid in the ’70s: Grown-ups kept dropping hints that we’d just missed some sort of cataclysm. Nowadays, all I’m missing is Mad Men, and it’s streaming on Netflix anytime I want to go back and catch up. This is probably progress.

I had forgotten: I also sang this song in an assembly during elementary school as a celebration of the 1960s and peace and love.  The song was marketed to me from school teachers as a connection to a movement furnished with love, one that we had lost sight of but could get back to if we really tried (with the Coke ad as evidence).  Jesse’s grounding of the commercial (read his article; it’s great and short) set me up for a grounding of how we see the 1960s today via Molly Lambert of Grantland:

Don wears khakis, because you can’t do yoga in jeans. He opens his mind to the idea that there is no Don Draper, but there’s no Dick Whitman either. There doesn’t have to be just one you. There can be a million yous instead. He’s in the moment at last. And then, the punch line: the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” ad. Ain’t that a kick in the head?1Mad Men opens your chakras and then ends with one of the most cynical moments of the whole show. It’s a microcosm of the ’60s becoming the ’70s, mirroring how the counterculture was digested, depoliticized, and sold back to the kids. (The original jingle that became “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” was titled “Mom, True Love, and Apple Pie,” written by Billy Davis and Roger Greenaway.) The quest for the true self became just another way to sell new accessories. Instead of selling square ideals, the ads sell freedom from square ideals, but they’re still selling something, you know, man? Enlightenment is free, but Esalen sure as hell isn’t.

From one lens (the lens where we bemoan the ending of favorite TV shows such as Seinfeld and MASH and Friends), Mad Men is a swing-and-a-miss trying to be too cute.  But this other lens exists too, the lens that does not take the Apple Trees and Honeybees and Snow White Turtle Doves at face value but rather as the perpetuation of a power identity through shrewd appropriation (the 60s-as-motif celebrates rather than rejects capitalism).  And here, from this lens, Mad Men provides a brilliant read on the commodification of Modernism and Progress and Truth.

Can we make education better?  Absolutely.  Should we try?  Yes.  Is education broken/in crisis/failing?  I am not willing to say that, not because I do not believe there are problems and obstacles but because I believe such conversation is fashioned entirely to purport a societal progress and movement where we are all supposed to agree on the destination but there is no real destination.  If we are going to have any opportunity to engage change and what we believe is progress, it is going to happen by wrestling with policy and action that negotiates the dominance, not by blasting the dominant Solution because it is not the Right Solution.

Posted on: May 20, 2015admin

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