Ed-Tech’s Inequalities (Hack Education)

Audrey Watters

08 Apr 2015

“Education is the civil rights issue of our time,” you’ll often hear politicians and education reform types say.

Here’s US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan back in 2010, for example:

Education is still the key to eliminating gender inequities, to reducing poverty, to creating a sustainable planet, and to fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity. …Closing the achievement gap and closing the opportunity gap is the civil rights issue of our generation.

To the contrary, I maintain that civil rights remain the civil rights issue of our generation. When we see, for example, the Supreme Court overturn part of the Voting Rights Act, when we see rampant police violence against marginalized groups, when we see backlash against affirmative action and against Title IX protections, when we see pervasive discrimination – institutionalized – in people’s daily lives, when we see widespread inequalities – socioeconomic stratification based on race, ethnicity, gender, geography – we need to admit: there are things that, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has argued, the “education gospel cannot fix.”

And yet the dominant narrative – the gospel, if you will – about education and, increasingly education technology, is that it absolutely is “the fix.”

Education technology will close the achievement gap; education technology will close the opportunity gap. Education technology will revolutionize; education technology will democratize. Or so we are told. That’s the big message at this week’s ASU-GSV Summit, where education technology investors and entrepreneurs and politicians have gathered (registration: $2995) to talk about “equity.” (Equity and civil rights, that is; not equity as investing in exchange for stock options and a seat on the Board of Directors, I should be clear. Although I’m guessing most of the conversations there were actually about the latter.)

Over the last few years, it’s been quite common to hear breathless pronouncements about ed-tech equity made about MOOCs – massive open online courses. Here’s an excerpt from a 2013 op-ed in The Guardian by edX CEO Anant Agarwal:

One way MOOCs have changed education is by increasing access. MOOCs make education borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind. Up to now, quality education – and in some cases, any higher education at all – has been the privilege of the few. MOOCs have changed that. Anyone with an internet connection can have access. We hear from thousands of students, many in under-served, developing countries, about how grateful they are for this education.

According to Agarwal and others, MOOCs – and more broadly, education technology, online education, the World Wide Web, and the Internet – serve to magically erase systemic inequalities. This is what technology critic Evgeny Morozov has described as “techno-solutionism,” the simplification of complex societal problems into apps and algorithms. That is to say, we have exchanged political activism, collectivity, debate, democracy, social change for (education) technology consumption and usage. The world is broken – schools are broken – the techno-solutionists say, but the ubiquity of mobile computing devices will somehow save us.

No doubt, the existence of the “digital divide” has long served to undermine the sweeping proclamations about technology as the great equalizer. And despite assumptions and claims that this divide has been mostly bridged as personal computer ownership has increased, access to new technologies still looks quite different for different demographics.

[full article here.]

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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