Digital technologies and education: beyond techno-utopianism

Sebastian Ansaldo

One of the few certainties that have emerged as a result of the current pandemic, is that formal educational is being profoundly changed by new technologies, in primary, secondary and tertiary education. For some, this would mean a new boost to eLearning, which could help in reducing inequities, empowering young generations, bridging gender gaps and facilitating integration in the workforce. This position, very characteristic of the 90s, has sometimes been called techno-utopianism or cyber-optimism and although it has less and less theoretical or empirical support, it still has weight and visibility in the public sphere. In countries like Chile, for example, we can still read analysts (generally linked to companies or institutions with economic interests in educational technology) who proclaim the necessary leap towards digital learning, transitioning from traditional teaching practices to “more active and collaborative educational practices, with the support of digital technologies ”.

Although these types of positions are generally well-intentioned, and related initiatives sometimes can have a real and important effect on learning, especially in emergent countries, they should be critically analysed and discussed, considering the current landscape of the educational technology industry.

The EdTech Market

One of the effects of the coronavirus crisis on education systems is that educational organizations and technology companies have significantly increased their marketing of products to support online learning. Many companies, including those that design video conferencing systems and providers of educational content, have offered free services for temporary periods, accompanied by marketing tools such as celebrities who publish content or question-and-answer sessions. This new provision of services has been fundamental in enabling educators to meet the high demand for delivering online instruction in difficult conditions and on tight deadlines. It has also served families to support their children’s remote education and keep children busy, active, and stimulated.

At the same time, agents in the technology education industry (EdTech) are treating the crisis as business opportunity, possibly bringing long-term effects on how education is perceived and practiced.

This new scenario could accelerate profound changes in the way we understand education, especially in those systems that already exhibit a high degree of decentralization, for example as the Chilean one, among others. In terms of school education, “Schooling by platform”, in a scenario of schools that are atomized, decentralized and marketized, is leading, according to some, to a situation with less and less state governance. Thus, global commercial platforms incorporated into public education could have the consequence of undermining the concept of education as a public good.

On a large scale, the pandemic is showing us how technology companies, with their applications, software, and systems, become essential to the order of social life. Thus, and as some argue, technology companies are walking the path from being providers of social media platforms, search engines or computer manufacturers to being, along with governments, articulators and even designers of policies for social welfare (what whatever that means to them). In other words, a power in policy making but without the democratic counterweights of representativeness and accountability of the traditional political system. The consequences for education, given this scenario, could be profound and radical.

Educational technology and its consequences

At a first level it is necessary to emphasize that digital technologies in education are not neutral. They are loaded with political assumptions, ideas about the world, and notions about the future and society. And most importantly: in its design, promotion and use, power struggles occur (ideological and economic) that conditions them.

In those struggles, a multi-million dollar market has been established, with an agenda and objectives. Thus, academics have spoken of the “educational-industrial complex” to refer to the technology education market build around technology giants (Google, Microsoft, etc.), foundations, think tanks and thousands of companies and startups that are inserted in formal institutions of education in various ways.

Given that context, the digital imperatives and the narrative of pedagogical innovation, are commonly accompanied by discourses and practices framed in neoliberal epistemologies, generally related to the emergence and maintenance of a market, the privatization of the educational experience, the search for profit, the decentralization of the production of knowledge and the prominent value of individual agency, among others. Some authors emphasize that “digital” is being used as a justification to redesign and reform the nature, form and values ​​of public education.

In this regard, it is interesting to observe how concepts such as collaboration, interaction, synergy, participation, etc. flourish in the discourse regarding technology in education. However, others claim that in a neoliberal social structure, digital technologies in education have served, in most cases, to prop up principles like performance, effectiveness and accountability. That is, rather contrary to participatory and collaborative ideals.

On a similar aspect, the digitalization of formal education and its associated datafication, has led to the increased of technology- based governance at the educational sphere, whereas at the level of school, districts, ministry or universities.

For example, authors have argued that the decisions that occur in a school, from the curricular content to the selection of teachers, are increasingly dependent on some type of algorithmic modelling, data calculations and recommendation systems. Some warn that schools and districts are becoming data farms, providing diverse systems (from government to commercial) with information rich in profiling indicators, which entails deep ethical and political consequences.

In a similar sense, the techno-utopian vision in education tends to make invisible the recent evidence and approaches that warn about problems related to the ownership and concentration of digital infrastructures, the inappropriate use of data, the consequences associated with control and surveillance, issues of privacy and digital rights and algorithmic discrimination or exclusions, among others.

The vision of techno-utopian discourses assigns software systems a central importance for education. This legitimizes a new environment of dataveillance and also naturalizes a regulatory environment in which teachers and students must fulfil new roles and responsibilities. In the process, the possibilities of commercial access and distribution of personal educational data are presented as part of a virtuous circle of knowledge production. Thus, teachers and even students are subjected to new types of demands and scrutiny of which many times they are not even informed. This article points out, for example, how large amounts of “natural” data are generated from the daily use of virtual learning environments and other teaching technologies, which are then processed for a variety of purposes, including internal administration of school, goal setting, performance management and student monitoring.

The former description now has been amplified and made visible by today’s pandemic scenario. Teachers and educators face now complex situations, such as: which is the right platform to use in order protect their own data and privacy, how to protect the privacy of the children and students they teach, what will happen to the digital material and educational resources that they themselves have manufactured, how their classes are being assessed, what does the digitization of their own image and classes entails, etc. And all this, without counting all the pedagogical and communication challenges with their students that have arisen. In my opinion the challenge is to move from the discussion about individual decisions of each teacher to a systemic reflection that enables a discussion about not only the advantages of online education (which there are) but also its dangers and consequences

Thus, the new conditions that the pandemic requires for educational work, imply emerging problems that must be addressed beyond the unconditional acceptance of technologies, as a neutral given ready-to-use. Obviously, it is important to attend the emergency in which we find right now, but not forgetting or postponing the necessary discussion that must take place around the adoption and use of different technologies. Furthermore, precisely given the vertiginous nature of change, it must be discussed more than ever.

More than ever, it is time to reflect on how technology can be useful for education and development, but without forgetting that technology by itself will not be the solution to inequities, because as Jesús Martin-Barbero points out, technology is the materialization of a certain culture and a reflection of a global model for organizing power.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Sebastian Ansaldo is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge. He is part of the CPGJ cluster and interested in communications, media, schooling and education. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: