Updated: Jun 23, 2022
This week, Audrey Watters, author of Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning and ed tech's self-appointed Cassandra, announced that she was retiring her blog, Hack Education, its associated social media arms, and, most shockingly, her focus on the industry itself. To be clear, she's not ceding the field. Other voices--the writing collected at Real Life Magazine is on my short list--provide intelligent criticism of ed tech and the larger digital technology industry, but the absence of Watters' relentless focus and clear voice will be a huge loss.
Watters' writing and speaking on ed tech penetrates the powerful manipulation with which the industry promotes the inevitability of an automated future for education. As Watters consistently reminds us, this vision is a new iteration of a very old idea traceable to the Lancasterian System in the early 19th century, through the 1960s with B.F. Skinner's teaching machines--the center of Watters' book--to today's Google Classroom. In each era, educational reformers imagined an eminently efficient, personalized, empirically assessable vision of education, free from, or at least strongly mitigating the human messiness of the traditional classroom. The computing power of digital technology and the way that it has permeated virtually every aspect of modern life has only amplified the fantasy. In her final Hack Education blog post, Watters delivers a vehement last word,
Folks will bend over backwards to justify the most fucked-up tools and the most oppressive educational practices and technologies. Some folks will say yes, the technology is bad — if we just had better technology then everything'd be okay. Others will say that it's our educational practices that suck — if we just had better pedagogies, then everything technological would fall into place. Both camps still insist that the future is "digital," and as such, are trapped in a story that will never get them to "better" because the foundations will always be rotten. And so few people in ed-tech, so fixated on their fantasies about the future, want to talk about that.
Much of the promotional obfuscation to be found in the ed tech industry relies on the relatively innocuous strategies advertisers have used for centuries to inflate the worth of frivolous products, but increasingly, ed tech's, really all of digital tech's strategies feel more sinister, like a vast Milgram experiment. The case of tech-driven gig economy services is a good example. In the June 17, 2022, edition of Real Life Magazine's newsletter, the editors describe how the digital services industry helps us sublimate our own debasement and that which we inflict on the gig worker and the social fabric of our cities and neighborhoods:
In other words, they know that people don't naturally or automatically want their kind of "convenience" and the socioeconomic distortions required to make it possible. Likewise, the mechanistic stimulus-response reflex of "need-order-get" is not necessarily all that is left of the possibility of freedom; we must be compelled to accept that consumerist parody of freedom as our horizon of possibility. It remains true that it's not "natural" to want to command servant labor. We must instead be repeatedly bribed to see ourselves as the center of the universe and fail to recognize that it is collapsing.
With education, we're talking about much higher stakes, the delivery of human self-worth and citizenship as opposed to sushi and toilet paper. Indeed, as Watters demonstrates at the very end of Teaching Machines, the automation of education historically winds up on the doorstep of the poor and oppressed. Frustrated with the effort to get wealthy school districts to purchase their teaching machines, Skinner and his corporate counterparts tried to convince the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Era to adopt them as beta testers. The fact that the machines then (and now) offered personalization only within the narrow confines of the program itself, in fact call into question just what (or who) is being programmed, was reason enough for Freedom School officials to turn down the offer. This is the rotten foundation to which Watters alludes in her farewell: most ed tech products disdain freedom and dignity.
We're there again as we emerge from the pandemic. Far from being the turning point that digital futurists had hoped for in education, the pandemic demonstrated that ed tech tools could provide an emergency, but not sustainable facsimile of school for children. We know now that the children who returned to in person schooling early on are prospering academically, socially and emotionally whereas those children whose remote schooling was extended are showing significant academic and social learning gaps. In this country, the children in the latter category are more often than not poor. If I were to take up Watters' mantle, I would posit that this is where the future of ed tech lies, that soon enough, the thing that will distinguish the educational experience of privileged children is people. The poor will get machines.