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The failures of educational technologists to recognise the social context of educational technology

An interesting aside in Teaching Machines by Audrey Watters talks about the teaching machine originally invented by the psychology professor Sidney Leavitt Pressey. He pointed to the mundane features of teacher’s labour, in keeping with today’s advocates of educational technology, arguing his invention could free them from this drudgery and give them more time and energy to devote to teaching. In doing so, as Watters points out, “[w]hat Pressey seemed to overlook, of course, was how much his own work and his own profession, by promoting practices like standardized testing, had contributed to these mundane working conditions in the first place” (pg 44-45).

This is an interesting example of what it means to think sociologically about educational technology in the sense of recognising how entrepreneurs, technologists and advocates are themselves parts of educational systems. Their pronouncements originate from within systems which have already been shaped by their activity, in spite of their rhetorical tendency to externalise those systems and position themselves as disrupters entering from outside in order to address their claimed pathologies. This involves thinking about the social context of educational technology, in the sense of the environment which educational agents operate within and which is reproduced and transformed through their activities within that environment.

This is what tends to be obscured by educational technology in a solutionist mode. Another example of this which I’ve thought of in the past is the tendency of commercial MOOCs to foreground superstar professors. There’s a promise here that it will enable everyone to be taught by the best people in a field, as opposed to those who were able to gain access to the elite spaces which these rarified professors inhabit. The problem is that if superstar professors dominate teaching in this way, it’s hard to see where the next generation of superstar professors would come from because their dominance will obliterate the ecosystem in which teachers train, practice and develop.

Categories: Digital learning in higher education

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