Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, May 27, 2020

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"We have no wish to denigrate or criticize online distance education," write the authors of Pandemic politics, pedagogies and practice,

"but rather, the aim of this brief editorial is twofold:

First, we want to raise a series of critical cautions, based on previous papers and special issues published in the journal, against simplistic and opportunistic claims that educational technologies are a ready-made remedy for the current crisis.

Second, we want to issue a call for future research to examine, in up-close detail, the effects and consequences of the expansion and embedding of digital technologies and media in education systems, institutions and practices across the world."

We will look at their arguments in more detail below, but as an overview let me respond that:

First, nobody is saying this. Nobody thinks that educational technologies will by themselves act as a remedy. That said, it is definitely arguably that they are a necessary response to the crisis, and more, probably also a necessary response to some of the wider issues in education.

And second, to begin, what do they think we have all been doing over the last 20 years, twiddling our thumbs? There have been billions of words spilled on journal pages, technical reports, blog posts, email discussions, and even on Twitter and Facebook, about this very subject.

What we will see is that the authors of this editorial have some some new and different concerns to investigate. And that may be fair enough. Bring it on. But let's subject the traditional system to the same scrutiny.

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OK then. The authors offer "four significant issues in education and technology for reinvigorated exploration." Let's have a look at them.

1. The authors argue that "it appears clear that certain actors in the edtech industry are treating the crisis as a business opportunity, with potentially long-term consequences for how public education is perceived and practised long after the coronavirus has been brought under control."

2. The crisis has revealed a digital inequality in society, and while efforts to address it are well-meaning, they face a range of issues. "Technology cannot fix social inequality. Though access schemes will help (if done well) it is important to think more holistically and in the longer term." Even more, we should "see this time as an important moment to support, regulate and design an inclusive digital future for us all, that is part of a society that is more socially just."

3. You can't do online what we do offline. "There is no simple mapping of offline onto online that can escape the essential disjuncture between what is possible and what is impossible under these circumstances." The effect is exaggerated when online learning becomes something we do in the home. "This is anything but remote learning. It is up close and personal and with the customary territorial trade-offs of colonization."

4. The pandemic is being treated as "the world’s biggest educational technology (edtech) experiment in history." And, the authors argue, "This idea of experimentation makes remote learning students, teachers and parents into laboratory subjects." And this has long-term implications, as "efforts to datafy the student experience of education during the pandemic need to be understood as an extreme manifestation of longer-term aspirations to render education legible as numbers through increasingly pervasive technologies and techniques of surveillance."

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There is no doubt that the pandemic is being treated as a business opportunity for education technology. It would be surprising if it weren't. There is a reasonable degree of belief that many of the changes created during the quarantine period will linger after the pandemic has passed.

But we should state at the outset that there is nothing new about this. Online education has been touted as a business opportunity for decades. Efforts like the University of Phoenix and Universitas 21 long predate the current crisis. Industry reports have consistently touted a significant compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for educational technology, as in for example this Campus Technology report from 2011.

But more, education as a whole has been treated as a significant business opportunity for decades, with every slight variation in the political and economic climate seized upon for marginal advantage. Consider the test prep market, charter schools, tuition policies in the Russell Group, the growth of international student enrollments - all these speak of companies and institutions seeking business opportunities. It would be irrational to expect anything different during the pandemic.

The authors point to a specific concern raised by Hillman, Bergviken Rensfeldt, and Ivarsson (2020) to the effect that "education systems may become increasingly platform-based, especially those systems that already exhibit a high degree of decentralization." The concern is that as schooling is decentralized into the home, it is decoupled from learning institutions, and there is little state governance, which creates a risk to education as a public good.

This isn't a new concern. People have been concerned about the privatization of education for a long time. They have been concerned about the role technology plays, and in particular, how platforms can centralize control in private hands, as it already has been done by companies like Facebook with things like news media. But it is not new to education, nor even necessarily connected to technology. We see, for example, the same phenomenon at play with charter school management companies.

The authors indicate their concern about projects such as a £300,000 grant to Oak National Academy and the Wide Open Schools established by CommonSense Media and Salesforce to provide "a free collection of the best online learning experiences for kids". Perhaps they may also express concern about my own Quick Tech Guide, which links to dozens of free online services for educators.

But one wonders where these same concerns were before the pandemic. Their own article, for example, is written and published in Learning, Media and Technology, a journal published by Taylor & Francis, a company known more for its subscription fees and paywalls than for its dedication to the public interest. Normally this article would not be accessible to someone like me. Publishers have, in general, established a stranglehold on academic discourse, to the point where they are widely considered harmful to the public interest.

The lead author, Ben Williamson, is affiliated with the University of Edinburgh. His own institution is affiliated with the previously-mentioned Universitas 21 and Russell Group. The university accepts fewer than 10% of the students who apply, and tuition is GBP 9,250 domestically and 23,200 for international students. The second author, Rebecca Eynon, is affiliated with the University of Oxford, where admissions data show "a handful of schools, mostly private, disproportionately dominating the number of places awarded."

The intent here isn't to indulge in ad hominem criticism. Rather, it is to argue that the problems of privatization, exclusive access, and failure to support the public interest are problems that predate the pandemic, can be found outside the realm of educational technology, and can be found in the institutions supported by the authors themselves. Indeed, one could argue that the privatization and platforming of education is business as usual for the educational sector.

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It is hard to believe that after two decades of widespread internet technology that "there is significant variety in the ways that young people can access, navigate and use the internet and other new technologies, with an important minority who are excluded entirely," but it is no doubt true, and this reflects poorly on the management of the traditional school system, which has failed to equip or prepare young people for the technological age.

The authors, though, focus mostly on issues related to current efforts to address this inquality, saying "it is extremely hard to get such schemes right." They raise three issues, which I will address in turn:

First, they ask, "what is an adequate level of digital access?" This question has been well-studied. The Canadian CRTC says, for example, "you should have an Internet connection with access to broadband speeds of at least 50 Mbps download and 10 Mbps upload and access to unlimited data." It is also widely understood that a mobile phone is insufficient for online learning; the University of Toronto has defined minimum technology specifications. The major issue here isn't the definition of adequate levels of digital access, it is rather the reluctance of governments and institutions to provide them.

They also ask, "how can young people and their families be supported to technology in the home?" Again, it's not like the field of technical support needs to be invented overnight. In a similar vein, issues like digital skills training, access controls on student devices, and learning support, have all been addressed before. Again, the problem isn't definition, it is rather the reluctance of governments and institutions to provide them.

And third, they ask, "how can longevity of the scheme be assured?" They suggest that "uncertainty over ownership and responsibilities stymies use and often causes a great deal of stress as families feel under pressure to begin paying for the internet once the initial‘free’ period is over." Assuming that this is true, resolving such questions by ensuring affordable access and support seems like an obvious response; the question essentially answers itself. 

The authors' main concern, though, is that access to technology will not, by itself, address issues of equity.  Assumptions are made, they argue, "about the ‘inevitable’ positive benefits the scheme has brought to the young person and their family." But there are negatives that may harm families: payday loan companies, gambling companies, illicit content and data brokers, to name a few.

This form of argument will be familiar to anyone who has worked on poverty issues. It's like saying "if we just give them money, they might not spend it on the right things," and "money alone does not guarantee they will escape poverty." To quote Bernie Sanders, "oh my God, the universe is collapsing." To deny access to something that is necessary on the ground that it might not be sufficient is the height of folly.

Here's the real problem, in the authors' own words: "Social, educational, health and digital inequalities have never been clearer." Yes! True! These problems have existed in the traditional system for as long as the traditional system has existed. It is arguable - and I would argue - that educational technology, including the measures being taken during the current crisis to provide access and support, are a necessary part of a broader strategy.

The authors say, "Perhaps now is a time to make a more decisive set of significant social and digital changes." Indeed. But what would be more decisive than using technology to support people who currently have no access to education? Especially when a return to the traditional system seems guaranteed to entrench inequality into place for another generation.

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The authors say "There is no simple mapping of offline onto online" as if that's a bad thing. They write, "As you know by now, if you are currently working at distance with students, you won’t be doing the same things. If you are also, perhaps, a parent or carer, simultaneously in receipt of‘online learning’ to ‘deliver’, you will know the additional attention and cognitive overload only too well." The danger here lies in a reallocation of roles, of a "colonization" of the home space by the needs of educational technology companies and providers, of a renegotiation of roles "under terms and conditions no one thought would ever apply."

A cynic would say that the authors' response is the demand that control be returned to the previous colonizers. After all, they write that "the locus of control of pedagogy needs to be questioned and even relocated, away from remote, unaccountable, unethical systems and into the hands of educators and communities." 

One wonders how this 'questioning and relocation' was being handled in the days before technology. The authors look for a 'third space' where "testing and performativity measures are relaxed through circumstances beyond the control of the neoliberal imaginary," but as a graduate of a pre-technological school system, I can attest that testing and performativity are the hallmarks of the traditional system.

Let me be clear: private enterprise is delivering "testing and performativity measures" because that's what traditional institutions want

Consider how the following mandate would be received in the traditional systems of lower and higher education: "addressing, not glossing over, the inequalities we see around us; and with paying attention to how we can better identify the practices which flatten hierarchies and generate a productive pedagogy for the times in which we live and work."

This is an endeavour I certainly support; it would be a delight to render obsolete the advantages of a private school education, unequal access to resources and support, and a disruption of the privileges and special supports enjoyed by elite colleges and universities. My belief, however, is that this will be accomplished only with educational technology, and never without it.

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The authors write, "The global edtech experiment is also an opportunity to produce very large quantities of student data, as students are forced online into data-intensive digital learning environments at unprecedented scale."

Quite right. Before that we had to rely on first-year classes of psychology students from a Midwestern university in order to conduct all of our research. I exaggerate, of course. Yes, it's true that education technology "makes remote learning students, teachers and parents into laboratory subjects whose contingent experiences and activities are being observed for insights about the future of edtech itself." But that's what education researchers have been doing for decades. What they have been doing manually. Inaccurately. Unprofessionally.

There have certainly been questions raised about the representativeness of data used in studies of education technology and education generally. Selecting for 'students' alone, instead of the general population, already biases the sample. Cultural groups, people with lower income demographics, rural residents, children of uneducated parents - all of these are underrepresented in traditional education research. Representation matters.

If we are not going to use electronic means to conduct research in education, then we are left with two choices: continue with research methods that fail to adequately represent humans in general, or stop conducting research. I would submit (though more argumentation may be required) that ultimately, if we want reliable research data, we want to use data generated electronically. To fail to do so would be like requiring that people testing for the coronovirus rely on manual methods only.

A cynic might suggest that the real concern is not that the data collected during the pandemic might be useless, but rather, that it might say some things educators don't want to hear. The authors cite Zimmerman (2020): "‘if students showed more gains from online instruction, professors who teach face-to-face classes–like I do–might find their own jobs in peril... lead to a consolidation of online instruction and, as a consequence, exacerbate worker precarity for educators." Well, what if it does?

Yes, there are questions to be asked about privacy and surveillance, and the use of analytics for the purposes of manipulation and social control. These concerns have always existed, and were generated from a history of societies that depend on secret police, wiretapping, propaganda, and worse. There is an important role for public and social institutions that stand up against these, that bring abuses into the light, and for the establishment and maintenance of an economic and legal system that protects both individuals and the community. But it's not clear that existing educational institutions have any interest in doing that.

After all, the existing education system tests and records the academic achievement of every single student from the elementary level to graduate scholarship. It treats this information as proprietary, assigns itself as the final arbiter of how such information is to be collected, and shows no hesitation to use it to advance or deny individuals access to learning and employment.
 

Moreover, such systems are known to be unjust - that's why, for example, the University of California has decided to end the use of the SAT and ACT in admissions. The argument against the collection of data by educational technology is equally - if not more so - an argument against the collection of data by educators.


Against that, though, is this: learning about ourselves, our society, and our education system is not wrong. Assuming privacy and trust can be maintained (and there are some very diligent efforts being made in that direction) and assuming open access to such data, there is a great deal of good that can be done, and remarkably few objections to pursuing that good.


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In fairness, as the authors say, "these are not all necessarily new issues or problems." And they note, "Contributors to Learning, Media and Technology have for many years been confronting questions and challenges of the political economy of edtech, digital inequalities, spaces and futures of learning, and datafication of education" (nothwithstanding the fact that many of these contributions have been closed to access behind subscription barriers).

They call for "a reinvigorated approach to research on educational technologies and media that is driven by critical and theoretically informed analysis." I certainly agree with the need for more work on the subject, though perhaps the research could be replaced with action, and perhaps the "critical and theoretically informed analysis" could be one that is less forgiving of theory and criticism that are so supportive of traditional institutions.

From my perspective, criticizing the employment of online learning for failing to be perfect during a global pandemic, and using this as an opportunity to reinforce and reinvigorate the imperatives of existing institutions, is pernicious and unjustified. The criticisms of educational technology to be found in this article serve only to mask the glaring inadequacies of the traditional system.

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p.s. I tried to read the remaining articles in the special issue being introduced by the authors, but found that most of it was closed access behind a subscription barrier. I would have expected that authors who consider equity to be of such concern would have taken care to ensure access to those people on behalf of whom they purport to speak.

The editors of Learning, Media and Technology are free to publish this response in their journal whenever they would like. 

Cover image: The Guardian 
 

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Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada
stephen@downes.ca

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Last Updated: Nov 27, 2020 09:19 a.m.