The cruel optimism of educational technology

My notes on Macgilchrist, F. (2019). Cruel optimism in edtech: when the digital data practices of educational technology providers inadvertently hinder educational equityLearning, Media and Technology44(1), 77-86.

It is now widely affirmed that overcoming the ‘digital divide’ is crucial to ameliorating inequality, providing everyone with the digital skills and access they need to fully participate in an increasingly digitalised society. However the constant reproduction of that divide, with such a wide range of well document implications for inequality, suggests something is seriously amiss in how we think about tech and politics. This paper uses qualitative interviews to explore how those working within educational technology (12 participants, including CEOs and CTOs of startups and managers at major educational publishing houses) talk about data practices, as well as their understanding and orientation towards the ethical and political dimensions of them. It explores these through the notion of cruel optimism. From pg 78:

To analyse the interviews, the concept of ‘cruel optimism’ became relevant. Berlant describes ‘cruel optimism’ as those moments in which something we desire is actually hindering our ability to attain it (Berlant 2011, 1): Optimistic is the animating, sustaining, energising belief in ‘the good life’, and in the struggles and change required to reach this good life: in the case of educational technology, the good life would be the equity and social justice enabled through the use of digital technology. This optimism is cruel when it is tied to fraying fantasies of the good life, e.g., when people remain attached to the fantasies of romantic love, upward mobility or the solidarity of political systems despite their fragility (Berlant 2011, 21).

It uses three ‘data stories’ to explore the complexity of data practices and how actors orientate themselves to them. I wasn’t convinced this was a particularly useful analytical framework. Effectively, it identifies ways in which ed tech products are invested with optimism as well as how they fail to live up to these (self-interested?) expectations. Its findings are about the rhetorical structure of ed tech optimism and how they get in the way of unpacking the political economy. What’s interesting in this paper and why I will refer back to it is the first-hand accounts from senior figures in the ed tech world of that rhetorical structure and how they orientate themselves to it. But the framing gets in the way of the findings and makes it oddly hard to read. In many ways I think this is an interesting example of an over-theorised piece of qualitative research.

It nonetheless does a good job of explaining how this optimism is depoliticising. From pg 84:

They also show how the fantasy of equality is projected onto a socio-technical mediator (a personalised literacy platform, data privacy practices, an active parent armed with data visualisations) which enables a small interruption in inequality, but also blocks attention to the weakening of the fantasy of an equitable life in today’s increasingly post-democratic world.

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