Welcome to the first post of our TRU Digital Detox 2020. As I’ve been promising, it is my intention that you will finish out this month with a sense of hopefulness about the possibilities of a relationship to technology that is, at its core, deeply ethical. We’ll talk about some difficult stuff this month, but my goal in these twice-weekly missives is to inspire and empower you — to give you information you need so you can have a realistic approach to using technology and to help you make appropriate choices around tech in your life and work.
And I mean that. But sometimes it’s hard.
For example, today’s post is about equity and educational technologies. This conversation is not for the faint of heart, because at its core inequity is baked into many aspects of the way we traditionally approach both technology and education. Put them together, and it’s like… well, you know how KFC doesn’t suddenly become health food just because you chase it with tequila?
Stick with me. We’re going to earn that empowerment.
This Digital Detox is open to everyone, and I know that not all of you are joining us from a university or college setting. If you’re approaching this conversation from a perspective of general interest in technology and our relationships to it, I hope you’ll still find the posts that are more EdTech (educational technologies) oriented — and this is definitely one — illuminating. If you are a parent or friend of a student or teacher, or if you want to spend some time thinking about how education uses technology as a way of thinking through larger social issues, this will be a space for you, too. And I hope you’ll feel welcome to join in the discussion and engage in the comment section.
(The next two instalments, on data privacy and algorithms, respectfully, certainly have a broader application to the way we all use technology. So stay tuned for that.)
And also a note on, shall we say, tone? before we get started. There’s a notion that is emergent in many circles lately, educational technology among them, of cruel optimism. I don’t love it, but I can see where it comes from. The idea of cruel optimism, originally conceived of by Lauren Berlant, is that sometimes the thing we want most is the thing that stops us from achieving what we need, and holding up the concept of hope can in fact be used to stifle or silence dissent or as a way of conceiving of how hoping for change or progress (and even working towards it!) within the confines of the institution is always ultimately fruitless. In one particularly bleak recent article, Falicitas Macgilchrist demonstrates how, in spite of honestly good intentions, people working within EdTech companies kid themselves about their ability operate equitably: the system, as we’ll see this month, is rigged. I fear this view is not wrong. But I’m also not sure it’s helpful.
There’s another way of thinking about resistance and institutional change, and it’s a way of thinking that will shape a lot of these posts this month: centring hope. In Naomi Hodgson, Joris Vlieghe, and Piotr Zamojski’s Manifesto for a Post-Critical Pedagogy, they assert that there is no point in resisting systems unless we hold at our centre the things we want to protect. To be less vague and to connect more concretely to today’s topic: we can’t just condemn the inequities inherent in technology and education, because if we don’t keep our focus on what the end result should be — what’s worth protecting — then there’s nothing to fight for.
It’s the latter approach I want to take in these posts, not least because you can’t make change if you’ve given up in despair.
But whew, even I will admit that today’s post is kind of a bummer.
Education and Technologies: The Aforementioned KFC with a Tequila Chaser
I want to talk to you today about technology — especially educational technology — and equity. Technology was supposed to be something of a great equalizer when it came to education. I remember when we got encyclopedias on CD-ROMs at my elementary school, and the idea that we in rural Ontario could all get as close to the Mona Lisa as we wanted, 90s image resolution notwithstanding, felt like a revelation in equity and access. Some seed of those early experiences fording the Oregon Trail and programming my own Logo turtle buried themselves deeply in my psyche, and I think I’ve always had a romantic notion about the possibilities of educational technologies.
And there are many ways that a more open approach to technology can offer more equitable situations for learners. I’m not the first in the EdTech space to suggest, for example, that blanket policies like classroom laptop bans have unintended ableist outcomes (making it so students with documented disabilities are de facto self-identifying to classmates or skipping their accommodations, and limiting how students without documentation for their disabilities can manage their own learning). Allowing students space to tailor their own learning environment — which, indeed, sometimes involves the freedom to play World of Warcraft in class and the freedom to learn that that is a bad idea, which, full disclosure, is a lesson from personal experience — is one way that educational technologies can be leveraged to allow for more equitable learning experiences within a classroom.
But there’s a distinction between the way individual instructors may choose to enable students to use technology to frame their own learning experiences, and the ways in which large-scale thinking about technology fails to account for difference. Indeed, we’re all probably aware of issues like the Digital Divide — the thankfully shrinking but still very present gap between who does and does not have access to technology, but importantly in an educational context, to enriched training involving technology — but I’m not sure when always see when we are making choices that underscore these differences. For example, 10% of Americans only have internet access via a smartphone data plan. What does that mean, as Audrey Watters asks us to consider, for that person when they find themselves in a flipped classroom where they are expected to watch or engage with rich digital content in order to prepare for class every week? We’re going to talk about these issues more next post, when we talk about ethics and privacy, and next week, when we tackle how algorithms function. Today, though, I want to introduce our thinking about equity by thinking about the big picture, and then drilling down on one example (the increasingly popular homework system) to think about how our individual choices can help or hinder student learning experiences.
Using Technology to Reify Existing Inequities
Here’s the hard truth: often, when introduced to a new tool, we just use it to do the old stuff over again. (That’s an old article, but there’s no data to support the idea that this trend has changed, unfortunately.) Did you become a more savvy investor because you could see your RRSP balance on a smartphone screen? I definitely didn’t. It’s a lesson that holds with technology, too. We switch from overheads to digital projectors without actually changing the handout we slap on it; we transfer the same content to a never-ending march of PowerPoint alternatives; we download our Blackboard content and upload it to Moodle. This isn’t the fault of individual instructors. Integrating technologies into classroom in pedagogically responsible and responsive ways takes well-designed professional development opportunities, and it takes time and resources that are woefully limited. The problem is that the institutions into which we are piping even the most equitably derived tools are not, themselves, equitable.
We know that the postsecondary education system is not an equal playing field. (This data comes from Ontario, but it mimics the numbers I’ve seen across Canada, and is on average on the more generous side of North American data.) If neither of your parents attended postsecondary, you’re 33% less likely to consider it for yourself. Indigenous people in Canada are 26% less likely to pursue postsecondary than their settler peers. And 1/3 of students whose families are in the bottom two socioeconomic quintiles complete only a high school credential. In all of these cases, students from these backgrounds who do attend higher education are far less likely to consider four-year credentials or graduate education than others in their age cohort. Technology does not erase these issues, but dangerously, it sometimes pretends to — Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs), for example, were supposed to be a panacea for income-related access issues, because they were freely offered so that anyone could join and the barriers for entry were low. But so, too, were the supports. We know now that most students simply didn’t complete their MOOCs, and those who were successful by-and-large already had college degrees, suggesting that the missing ingredient was practical knowledge of how to navigate post-secondary. In other words, you cannot wave a technological wand to solve the deepest problems of inequity, and it’s dangerous to pretend otherwise.
Accessibility issues — beyond financial issues of access — can be rampant with emergent technologies, adding an additional layer of distress for students already trying to manage an institution that is, in its DNA, ableist. Does a new innovation play well with screen readers used by students with visual and cognitive impairments, for example? Does your campus push-to-video include robust support for captioning? We have also seen this play out when institutions do not have clear policies on student names, whether for transgender students in transition or students who use a non-legal name for all kinds of reasons including domestic violence. If the learning management system pulls data from a registration system that is not prepared for this difference, it can only reinforce harm. I am reminded of a few years back, when a somewhat austerity-minded Canadian government decided to close Veterans Affairs offices and put all the forms and information online instead, which had the impact (bug? or feature?) of fewer veterans being able to access the programs they were entitled to. Technology cannot fix what is already broken, and where inequities exist, they will persist and be magnified if the application of new tools doesn’t start from a position of equity and inclusion.
Homework Systems and Stacked Costs for Students
The open education movement has done a phenomenal job of encouraging students and faculty to challenge the use of high-cost textbooks; unfortunately, the same companies that once developed proprietary textbooks and the predatory practice of “updating” their texts frequently to limit the resale value of older texts now have a new arrow in their quivers: the homework system (sometimes called CourseWare). You’re probably familiar with some iteration of this idea, where students buy a code to access an online system of practice questions, assignment banks, or other interactive learning material. Instructors can then build assignments (which are then submitted through the homework system) and quizzes and extract data from these systems. There are good arguments for their utility, and many instructors with heavy course loads find they make managing huge amounts of student interaction possible. But they also amplify costs for students and exacerbate inequities.
For one thing, you cannot reuse or resell these codes, so there is no used market for homework systems; they’re also unique to individual students. I was lucky enough to have help with my textbook costs, so while I had access to my astonishingly expensive (even used!) Art History 1000 textbook, none of my study mates did; instead, for the low cost of buying my study snacks, they all shared mine. You can’t do that with homework systems, and thoughtful instructors can’t place a homework system on reserve at the library. Because they are so integrated into the learning experience of the classroom, you also end up in a situation where students are effectively paying money over and above their tuition costs to be allowed the opportunity to turn in their assignments. A delayed loan payment might mean a student foregoes submission of assignments until they can purchase a code. For already-disadvantaged students these unavoidable costs — $80 – $155 a pop, on average, with some courses requiring multiple homework systems — can be crippling. And there’s some question about where all that student data ends up, anyway, but that’s a post for another day.
It’s big money, and this is what I mean when I say inequity is baked in to these tools: access is not top-of-mind for most for-profit companies working in the EdTech sector. In 2015, McGraw-Hill (which controls 21% of the textbook market) reported that 45% of its $140 million in profits came from digital-only products like homework systems, alongside an admission that “the era of the textbook is over.” And the pressures that drive faculty to choose these corporate homework systems over more manually managed systems — large classes, and lots of them — aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon. But perhaps awareness about how the most vulnerable students are the most harmed, either because the added cost makes it impossible to take a class, or because they forfeit grades because they cannot submit assignments, will encourage faculty to look elsewhere, or perhaps encourage robust discussions in departments that mandate their use. Some hope on the horizon: BCCampus is in the process of investigating an open homework system alternative, and if you’re joining the detox from TRU know that your friendly neighbourhood Learning Technology folks (that’s me and the rest of the team!) can help you build some interesting alternatives directly into Moodle using technologies like H5P (hey, there’s a workshop for that!).
But it won’t be as robust or as slick as what Pearson offers you. And that’s the trade.
So perhaps the question we’re left with, if we circle back to the idea of a post-critical pedagogy that keeps its focus on what we want to protect, is this: how do we use technologies in a way that centres equity and inclusion? Issues like cost and access need to be top-of-mind for anyone in a decision-making position, from individual courses to programs to the institution as a whole. When we introduce a new technology at any level, we’re responsible for understanding the equity impacts of the tool, and we’re responsible for asking questions and pushing back when we don’t like the answers.
Each post this month, I’m going to leave you with some questions to think about — you can share your thoughts in the comments and engage with other detoxers, or if you prefer you can email me your response and I’ll anonymize it and share it in comment round-ups as needed.
- In your experience, where have you seen technology have an impact (positive or negative) on equity and access?
- How do we address the problems tools like homework systems purport to solve — lots of large classrooms with lots of content to manage and not enough time for teaching faculty — without downloading these costs on to students?
- Think about the tools you use in your own work. Is there something you can change in your practice to make the classroom a more equitable space?
And of course, if something else in this post got you thinking, share that in the comments, too.