HEWN, No. 339

"Don’t shove me into your pigeonhole, where I don’t fit, because I’m all over. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions" -- Ursula K. Le Guin

I know, I know. The later in the weekend I wait to write and send this newsletter, the more likely you’ve read everything I have to share. The good news, of course, is that HEWN is late again this week because the revision process for Teaching Machines is going very, very well. I can hardly think about much else.

But here are some of the things that I bookmarked to read later — to read, that is, after my brain gives out at the end of a day of fiddling with sentences and researching the minute but unanswered questions I still have for the book. (Like, whatever happened for the Center for Programed Instruction? Why did it close its doors? Can I find a copy of the programmed instruction materials John Blyth helped create for Robert Parris Moses? Should I write “programmed instruction” with two m’s or one?)

This week’s Columbidae is a New Zealand wood pigeon. (Image credits) In other pigeons news: the “Pigeonbot.” Stanford will try to ruin everything, if we let it, but it will never replicate the beauty of this very stout (and sometimes very drunk) little bird.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 338

For those of you who still insist that I give you a list of the “good ed-tech,” may I present to you: the classroom air filter, the installation of which, according to a study conducted in schools in Los Angeles, can “raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third.”

Elsewhere, I’m afraid, the news about ed-tech (and tech and education more broadly) remains grim:

The newsletter is short, and it is late this week. My apologies. I have been trying to stay away from the Internet in order to complete some writing projects.

This week’s Columbidae is the rose-crowned fruit dove. This photo was taken in New South Wales. It’s a common pigeon, but I worry a lot that even the birds with the widest range and largest habitat will soon be threatened. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 337

"Our house is on fire" -- Greta Thunberg

2020 doesn’t seem to be off to a particularly auspicious start, what with the fires and the threats of war. But here we are, nonetheless, facing a brand new year. A leap year, dammit, so it’s longer than usual. And in the US, an election year too. I don’t know about you, but I’m already ready for this one to be over.

This week’s Columbidae is the crested pigeon, which is native to Australia — a country whose leaders, according to one of its most well-known novelists, are “committing climate suicide.” (Image credits)

The response to my article “The 100 Worst Ed-Tech Debacles of the Decade” has been overwhelming, and I’ve spent the first few days of 2020 dealing with the influx of messages it’s prompted — mostly positive messages thankfully, although I haven’t looked at the comments on Reddit or Hacker News. (Good grief, why would I?!)

I want to respond briefly to one of the most frequent complaints I’ve heard: that I did not also write a list of “The 100 Best Ed-Tech Achievements of the Decade.” And that somehow that means my analysis is incomplete.

I’m not sure why folks want me to tell them what’s praiseworthy. As I said on Twitter: get your own moral compass. Look at your own practices, at the practices of those around you. And do better.

But more importantly, let’s be clear: the technology industry — education technology or otherwise — does not need my validation. It needs criticism. It needs criticism that refuses to come with sugar-coating and a few plaudits. There are not “two sides” to this issue that deserve equal time. There are not “two sides” — some good and some bad ed-tech — that exist in any sort of equal measure.

What if anything “good” about ed-tech this past decade was so overwhelmed by all the money funneled into the “bad” that the “good” didn’t matter one whit? What if all that “bad” meant any semblance of “good” was stifled, suffocated? What if, as David Kernohan has suggested, there wasn’t anything this past decade but technological disappointment? What if there wasn’t anything good about ed-tech?

I’m serious. Sit with that sentence a minute before you pipe up to defend your favorite app or social network or that cute robot your kids coded to move in a circle. What if there wasn’t anything good about ed-tech? What if ed-tech is totally inseparable from privatization, behavioral engineering, and surveillance? What if, by surrendering to the narrative that schools must be increasingly technological, we have neglected to support them in being be remotely human? What if we can never address the crises of our democracies, of our planet if we keep insisting on the benevolence of tech?

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 336

"By morning I had vanished at least a dozen times / Into something better." -- Mary Oliver

Here it is, the last HEWN Columbidae of the year: the green imperial pigeon. (Image credits)

And here it is, my list of the 100 worst ed-tech debacles of the decade:

(If you like my work, consider supporting it.)

Wishing everyone peace and justice in the new year.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 335

Ideas that aren't worth spreading

I’ve been thinking quite a bit this week about how bad ideas in ed-tech spread.

Obviously, a key way is via the media. Take this NYT story for example: “The Machines Are Learning, and So Are the Students.”

Ostensibly, it’s an article about how AI is “starting to take over repetitive tasks in classrooms, like grading, and is optimizing coursework and revolutionizing the preparation for college entrance exams.” And my god, it’s a glowing article at that — not a word of concern about algorithmic biases, heightened surveillance systems, or extractive business practices. Hell, there’s not even a consideration that computer-assisted instruction isn’t particularly effective — a pretty egregious omission considering much of the article focuses on Bakpax, the new startup of Jose Ferreira, the founder of Knewton. Yeah, the “mind-reading robo tutor in the sky” guy, whose history gets neatly laundered here. Knewton’s “financial difficulties” were not, we are told, because the technology simply didn’t work. (Indeed, the extent of those money troubles aren’t elucidated either: Knewton raised over $180 million in venture capital and was sold for just $17 million.) According to the article, the only hitch is “the system”: “The challenge for A.I.-aided learning, some people say, is not the technology, but bureaucratic barriers that protect the status quo.” “The gatekeepers.” The teachers. The schools themselves. These should be bypassed, the article concludes, and parents should let the Internet educate their children.

How utterly irresponsible. But there you go. And the bad ideas spread. (See also: “Schools are collecting new data in new ways about students with cutting-edge high-tech.” In this case, the article addresses some bad ideas that have already been spread around the Cambridge, Massachusetts area — spread through networks, I’d say: school networks, university networks, local business networks. Incidentally, I’m pretty fascinated how Montessori chains has become ground-zero for some of this new social-emotional-surveillance tech. Editors: I’ll be pitching you a story on this bad idea next year.)

Better things to read:

This week’s Columbidae is the Jambu fruit dove. The bird is found in Malaysia and Indonesia, but like many of the pigeons I highlight here, its habitat is shrinking due to deforestation, and it is listed as “near threatened.” (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

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