Why Audrey Watters Thinks Tech Is a Trojan Horse Set to ‘Dismantle’ the Academy (CHE)

MAY 18, 2016

This interview comes by request. We asked you, our readers, who we should bring on the podcast, and the top pick was someone a little different. We usually talk to people who are pushing for change in education, usually with technology. But when we tallied the votes, the winner was a critic of technology: Audrey Watters.

On her influential blog and in speeches she gives around the country, Audrey Watters warns that gadgets deserve more scrutiny, and that they often mask what she sees as a political attack on the academy. Watters has known higher education as an insider. She was an almost-Ph.D., having come just chapters away from finishing her dissertation, and she taught for years when she was a graduate student. But she now stands on the outside looking in on the academy and providing her analysis of where ed tech is going. She’s a fiercely independent voice who refuses to accept ads on her blog or do consulting. Her website describes her job description with one word: “troublemaker.”

Just a few weeks ago, she started a podcast called Tech Gypsies. Each week now, she and her partner, who is an advocate for open software standards called open APIs, riff on the latest ed-tech news, and, as always, she calls things as she sees them. After listening to the first few episodes, one thing struck me. She’s deconstructing what she calls a Silicon Valley narrative that she sees as pushing into higher education.

The Chronicle talked with Ms. Watters via Skype this week. Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

Q. What do you mean when you say there’s a “Silicon Valley narrative,” and what do you most want people to understand about it?

A. This certainly comes from my background of having spent a lot of time thinking about culture. My master’s degree was in folklore, and so that’s very much about ethnography, culture, people, and stories that we tell. I’m also really interested in systems and institutions. I want people to really think about, What is technology doing? I think we really like the story that technology is inevitable, that technology is wrapped up in our notions of progress, and that somehow progress is inevitable itself and is positive. I think that there are lots of ways in which we can scrutinize the way in which technology is changing the world, changing our culture, changing our institutions, that aren’t necessarily about progress. Or to put a political bent on it, about progressive change.

Q. You’ve called yourself the Cassandra of ed tech, and said that technology is a Trojan horse that threatens to bring down higher education. At the end of your latest book, you write, “As Cassandra, I must warn you that education technology’s monstrosity will bring about our doom. Education technology is the Trojan Horse poised to dismantle public education, to outsource and unbundle and disrupt and destroy.” Can you give a specific example of a technology these days that you see as one of these Trojan horses being dragged into the academic gates?

A. Gosh, where should I start? I think that one of the things that really interests me, and this is connected I would say to the Silicon Valley narrative, is the way in which we talk a lot about personalization through technology. And one of the values, I think, that Americans in particular tend to really privilege is individualism. There’s something really appealing, culturally, for us with this notion that we’re going to have software, and it isn’t just educational software, but we’re going to have software systems that are individualized and personalized to meet our needs. Amazon says it does this. Netflix says it does this. Facebook says it does this.

I think that we as Americans really like the idea that the world is about us as individuals. I think that it’s important to recognize that that’s a cultural value. Individualism is a cultural value. It’s not a natural way of being. But there’s something about the classroom that also involves a collective experience. We learn from one another. It isn’t simply just a matter of things being personalized or individualized to meet our needs. What happens when we decide that we’re going to all be on our individual computing devices working through lessons at our own individual pace? What happens to dialogue? What happens to discussion? What happens to debate? We sort of describe education as these polar opposites — that it’s either a math lecture or it’s this sort of individualized, personalized experience. I think those are sort of extremes on both ends.

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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