A decade of living in the gift shop

In the last few years, I have been far more interested in cultures which have emerged from “educational technology” than the phenomenon itself. In fact, when I think about it, I’ve been around this topic for over a decade and rather than see any improvement.

I’m left feeling that very few are actually interested a possible decline.

To set this up, let me start by saying that for every single online #EduChat, of which there is no shortage of topic or competition, the concluding tweet should be “please exit via the gift shop”. From this stance, I want to talk about personalisation and what that might actually mean.


Should we keep the lights on or blow up the store?

The level of commercial bias, leveraged personalities (EduCelebs and Influencers) and manufactured social-ideological in-breeding is a never-ending isle of novelty and fetishes based on marketing promises, upgrade-culture and individual ambition/competition. These are all key socio-cultural factors which were omitted from the visions of the future but have emerged from decades of EdTech Culture.

Recently, I watched “The Last Jedi”. The thrust of the story is not to improve the present or reclaim the past, but to kill it all and start over.

Educational technology is being ‘framed’ as offering students a new-future of unprecedented personalisation. We are told is going to be best achieved through EdTech’s on-going blundering into ‘gaming’ where it will be more fun, more personalised and shaped by the learner as a neo-avatar. The learner will be in more control of what they learn, how they learn it, and their own credentials.

A point to note here is that personalisation is being conceptualised as ‘data’ and ‘skills’ – which is repeated and amplified to the masses who latch onto it as being true.

Within these new gamified experiences (the tiles of which are not obvious to me – but are already in play apparently), students will embark on a new era of personalised learning: interest and passion-driven, where are offered choices which the machine decodes into various modular ‘fun’ activities under the trending veneer of gamification.

At various points, the machine determines their ‘skill’ based on the data it has collected. Rather than a future trend, I’d argue this is a throwback to behaviorist machine learning – now re-birthed as ‘gamification’. The worst offender here is Microsoft’s Minecraft Education Edition whereby students are routinely presented to us as learning and creating in wonderful new ways – despite no tangible data to support the ‘new skills’ that they are acquiring in almost a decade of the game. Outside this creepy treehouse, the culture of Minecraft via Streamers is far from PG or positive – and clearly few teachers spend any time at all thinking about the media culture that they introduced kids to – as they built some crap model of a Roman fort or ‘learn to code’.

On that point, academics are increasingly questioning the value of ‘learning to code’ as a short encounter within the mysterious realms of ‘design thinking’. They are questioning the validity of claims these are ‘skills of the future’. Meanwhile, media-technology education in K12 remain stuck on ‘stranger danger’ and handing out “hour of code” certificates in response to curriculum demands and individual schools using such things to differentiate themselves as better than other schools. So much for the last decades relentless progress towards personalised learning and empowering the global classroom.

Audrey Waters posted a great piece on the vagueness of ‘personalised learning‘ and the thin research upon which so many people appear to be making some BIG decisions. It is well worth reading as you exit through the gift shop.

To me, this is the dangerous culture of EdTech. The culture of online discussions (especially those being directed by individuals (they call themselves ‘founders’) is to repeat the most popular ‘trend’ statements, rather than make any real effort to evaluate claims. As these online events (which are a form of media entertainment) are also socially-driven, few seem to question the validity of claims and ignore their own behaviour. For example, in Australia, I’d argue teachers will demand kids use technology (the Internet and device) for around 900 hours this year. There are no hash-tag chats about the ramifications and effects of this, nor the lack of responsibility and recourse if it turns out kids are not getting the ‘bright new personalised future learning thingy’ that presumably emerges from hashtagged answers to moot questions on a Sunday night.

Is learning personal? – yes. Can teachers bend their course outlines to allow students to follow personal interest pathways? – Yes, sometimes and within boundaries, they do not control, such as timetables, resources, directives – and technologies they use.

As presented by EdTech, Personalised Learning is not a concept, but a product. We can take a generic product then add a monogram or greeting, but it’s no more personalised than that. Technology is a mass media product, which is both mass produced and has mass-produced meanings for each individual. It’s impossible to show ‘skills and data’ are going to somehow make this clear.

The narrative of EdTech remains the same. Personalised learning has not (so far) liberated students from narrow-minded teachers (who probably can’t use the Internet). This again being touted in support of personalised learning. It’s reinforced by the Twitteristi who have proved effective at repeating this headline and are seemingly here to “save students” once again from crap experiences – aka teachers.

Meanwhile, what little research there is, continues to show families are struggling to cope with media and its effects and educational research show EdTech makes no significant changes to student attainment.

To my mind, I’ve been in the EdTech gift shop for a decade.  I’m still not buying.

I’ve seen a shift from an institutional and academic focus on what “quality education” looks like (and optimism for that to change to include media education) to one where global brands and select individuals (often endorsed/sponsored) use the same technology to de-focus attention away from research and scholarship.

EdTech has succeeded in enlisting students (and families) inside well maintained ‘product cycles’ – which are apparently better because they are being increasingly ‘personalised’ – but as yet, can’t show any data to support claims of improvement. So we are back in the damn gift-shop.

New for 2018 will be Block Chain. Now your Uncle Alan has managed to get $200 f Bitcoin using an app, it’s going to be easy to sell this idea will change Education.

Now we also believe that personalised learning is real, we are likely to also believe it will be made robust and safe by Block Chain technology. Forget Mozilla Badges, they were rubbish. We now have ‘the blockchain’.

Not surprisingly, the online pundits have been busy writing about the Edu-Blockchain – as of course, education has to have its own personalised edition.

They suggest a blockchain transcript could evolve to provide a thorough record of achievement, one that might include writing samples, images of projects completed, reflections or recommendations from faculty, or links to resources that chronicle a student’s progress. Such a ledger could provide evidence of a lifetime of experience, growth, and learning. Access to such a record of achievement might play a role in getting a job of the future of course … but the question is … how well have governments and academic institutions faired against the corporate brands so far – who is more likely own, share and decide on this irreversible, un-breakable transcript of individual skills and their data – your government or Facebook. When you walk into a job interview – who’s data will be used in face-recognition to thin the lines of opportunity and decide who will be successful – and who won’t.

Having a personalised monogram when you sign into this dystopia won’t make it any less of a dystopia for those who are already marginalised or at risk. But gamification is a great way of handing out winner and loser badges.

So yeah, after a couple quiet years, I think 2018 is a year that will be very interesting – and there are plenty of dumb novelty items that I’m going to throw rocks at in the EdTech giftshop.