HEWN, No. 345

"I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" -- The Mountain Goats

Shortly after the inauguration in January 2017, I gave a talk titled “Ed-Tech in a Time of Trump.” I anticipated that education technology — the impulse for pervasive data collection and analysis — would be wielded by the new administration to extend surveillance in dangerous ways. It would be used to identify and punish undocumented students and their families. I worried too about transgender students and how identities get hard-coded into student information systems. I worried about students the algorithms deemed “at risk” (or “a risk”). I worried about the ways in which the power of counting and compelling students via technology was now not only in the hands of unscrupulous companies but in the hands of an unscruplous President and his cronies.

And here we are. On top of all that I predicted (was I wrong?), we now face this new crisis, another new disaster involving Trump and ed-tech.

I understand that many people want to be able to maintain the continuity of their lives and just shift everything online. I am telling you right now: that is not going to be possible. It is not going to be possible for teachers. It is not going to be possible for students. I don’t say this to minimize the work — the very, very hard work — that many teachers, instructional designers, and support staff are putting into their preparations. And I deeply appreciate the generosity I’ve seen this week as those with experience teaching online have shared advice and resources.

I am much less impressed, I admit, with the “generosity” of ed-tech companies who are making their products free to schools, who are inundating our inboxes with their marketing pitches. I am much less impressed with the sharing of long lists of educational software, with little concern for student privacy and security, with little concern for accessibility, with little concern for digital equity — who has access to a laptop, to high-speed broadband at home. I’m worried about students eating. I’m worried about families making ends meet, paying the bills, maintaining a roof over everyone’s heads. I really don’t want to hear about your company's offers of “virtual solutions, including pre-designed digital assessments.” I don’t want to hear about your company’s proctoring tools and how you can make sure students aren’t cheating. Ed-tech in a time of Trump indeed.

It’s easy, I think — particularly for those who work in, with, and around a lot of technology — to believe that this moment calls for a technological solution. But what we are facing isn’t solvable through a “pivot” to the cloud. You might have all the equipment — all the licenses to all the products and all the content lined up. Your students might have all the equipment to watch, listen, chat back. But we are in the middle of a global health crisis, a global economic crisis; we are in the middle of millions of individual health crises, millions of individual economic crises. This is not going to be a great time for teaching and learning, no matter how carefully you’ve orchestrated your online courses. (And with the lead-up time a lot of folks are getting? Things aren’t really going to be carefully orchestrated. Let's be realistic.)

I know that there are lots of people — many readers of this newsletter, I imagine — who will insist that online education can be done well. And yes, there are plenty of online educators who do do right by their students. They create a digital community where students can learn and thrive. But research suggests that’s typically not what happens. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that's particularly true for the most vulnerable students — for Black and Latino students, for those with lower GPAs, for low-income students, for younger students. Most students do worse online than they do in face-to-face classes; and that’s under “normal” circumstances. These are not normal circumstances.

I don’t think it's right or fair to ask parents to replicate school at home. I don’t think it’s right or fair to ask teachers or students to replicate school online either. Not replicate. Not right now. Yes, I understand that the kids need to have something to do. They need routines. They need whatever normalcy we can provide. We all do. But I think it’s asking too much to expect too much structured teaching and learning to happen in the coming months.

This school year? Folks, it’s gonna be a wash.

It seems unlikely that this is going to be a short interruption, and frankly I don’t know that we can expect schools to re-open this academic year. There won’t be senior prom. There won’t be commencement. And that sucks. There won’t be AP exams or SATs. (There better not be, you vultures over at the College Board.) There won’t be standardized testing — I mean, come on — but there are going to be some gaps in what students learned. It’s possible there won’t be enough “seat time” for accreditation, enough “student-teacher interaction” for authorization. Sports eligibility could be in question. Scholarships could be in jeopardy. Financial aid might get screwy. Students will want refunds on their fees. Parents will want refunds on room-and-board. We’re going to have to be flexible with “the rules” here.

We are going to have to be patient and flexible with one another. I know that my anxiety over the past few weeks has been just barely contained, and I’ve broken down in a couple of loud crying jags (and some quieter ones in the shower). And I am used to working from home. Social distancing? Man, that’s my life. But I am finding it very, very hard to get anything done with this sense of impending doom. Once the doom hits? Damn. So please, you can stop already with your clever idea that fourth graders are going to log in to a webinar every day for class.

The question right now for educators should not be “what technology do I need to move my class online?” The question should be “what am I doing to support my students (and my colleagues and my family)?” Start there — not with tech but with compassion.

So much of good teaching is about caring, and yet the labor of caring is often invisible or at least unacknowledged — particularly in higher education. The burden of caring in this current crisis is going to fall particularly hard on a precarious, exhausted workforce. This a time for solidarity. Be kind to one another. Check in with one another. And good grief, wash your hands. But really. Shut up about Zoom already.

This week’s Columbidae is the Ducula goliath — the giant imperial pigeon, which at about 20 inches in length, is one of the largest tree-dwelling pigeons. (Image credits)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 344

"Never allow a good crisis to go to waste" -- Rahm Emanuel

The final draft (I hope) of the manuscript of Teaching Machines is now in the hands of my editor. That’s my excuse for not putting out a newsletter for the past few weeks: I was out of words.

Well, that’s mostly true. I’ve had plenty to say — something about Elizabeth Warren and my profound sadness that she’s dropped out of the Presidential race; something about my concern with where the Democratic Party primary is now headed; and of course something about the coronavirus and its effect on schools. But I can’t quite distinguish deep exhaustion from deep depression these days, and I haven’t had the energy to say much.

I currently live in Seattle, which has been the epicenter of the US coronavirus outbreak. In many ways, the city doesn’t feel all that different, although I suppose the gray gloom feels a bit more suffocating than usual when you tell me we’re on the brink of pandemic. I work at home, so my routine hasn’t been interrupted yet (that said, if my upcoming speaking gigs keep getting canceled, I will be hurting financially). I typically go to the grocery every day when I’ve run out-of-steam with my reading/writing/researching/editing. I’m a walker, and I can only carry so much in one trip, so my ability to panic-shop is pretty limited. That said, for the past few weeks, I’ve slowly stocked up on some basics: dried beans, rice, flour. (I’ve tried to stock up on red wine, but it’s been challenging not to drink my supply each night.) I keep realizing the additional items that I’m going to run out of if things turn south (and stay south): contact solution, chicken stock, toothpaste, the nice loose-leaf Earl Grey tea I usually buy at Pike Place Market. (Do I dare venture to Pike Place Market? Do I fear tourists more than Seattlites?)

Some schools in the Seattle area — both K-12 and colleges — have closed, and there has been intense pressure on administrators to shut everything down and move instruction online. (Governor Inslee has just announced the state is considering “mandatory measures” to combat the spread of the illness, so we shall see what exactly that means.) I’ve heard lots of local tech workers complain angrily that, in a region that’s home to Microsoft and Amazon, there is really no excuse for schools staying open. Digital learning, they argue, is already preferable. And now, they say, it’s necessary.

But that just strikes me as wildly uninformed — although that’s never stopped the tech industry from intervening in education before. It’s an assertion that rests on the assumption that ed-tech is good, that it can replicate at home what happens in the classroom. “This may be our moment,” ed-tech folks exclaim, giddily sharing lists of their favorite digital learning tools (with little concern, it seems for questions of accessibility, privacy, or security) and tips for quickly moving “to the cloud.” Of course, education technology — as a field, an industry, a discipline, a solution, what have you — has had decades and decades and decades to get this right. It still hasn’t. So when you hear “this is our moment,” you should recall perhaps the thesis of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. What we’re poised to see in response to the coronavirus — and not just in education, to be fair — is more disaster capitalism, and “disaster capitalists share this same inability to distinguish between creation and destruction, between hurting and healing.”

People are hurting and people are frightened right now. And thanks to the utter incompetence of the Trump Administration, there’s surely still more to worry about; still more people are going to suffer. This isn’t the time to be triumphant about ed-tech’s possibilities. This isn’t the time to prove anything about ed-tech, quite frankly. This an emergency response to a crisis.

Do all students have access to high-speed broadband at home? K-12 or otherwise? Nope. Do all students have access to laptops at home? Nope. Schools know this, and it’s part of the calculation they make whether or not to move everything online. But closure isn’t just about classes. The function of schools extends well beyond instruction. This is particularly true in K-12 schools, which also serve for many students and families as childcare, community centers, health care providers, disability support services, and places to eat breakfast and lunch. To close the doors to a school shifts the burden of all these services onto individual families.

Spare me the techno-solutionism. Let’s talk about big structural change. (But let’s not act like we’re gonna implement that tomorrow morning, k?)

(Once upon a time, I gave a talk on a future with only ten universities — a response to prediction made by the then-CEO of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun that, within forty years time, higher education will be replaced by MOOCs. To the contrary, I said, as long as there are college sports, this college-less future will never come to pass. And indeed, it’s worth noting that Stanford and the University of Washington, for example, have closed their doors and moved their classes online in response to the coronavirus. But they haven’t canceled the sportsball.)

This week’s Columbidae is the feral rock dove — better known as your common, everyday city pigeon. (Image credits) These birds are often feared as disease-carriers and denigrated as "rats with wings," but let’s be honest. Some of y’all only just started washing your hands regularly with this coronavirus news. Leave the pigeons be.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 343

"Charity is no substitute for justice withheld" -- Saint Augustine

People who take money from that powerful education foundation — you know the one, the one that turns 20 years old this year — always insist to me that they’ve never been compelled to change their policies or practices. Of course, it doesn’t have to coerce its grantees to say and do things. People self-censor. They shape their initiatives to suit the foundation’s philosophy and its goals. They value the things the foundation says it values; they measure the way the foundation says it measures. Because if they rely on the foundation for funding, they know to fall in line. They needn’t be told. That’s how the power of philanthropy works. It sets the agenda. Personalized learning. The Common Core. Charter schools. Measures of Effective Teaching. It didn’t push for these ideas because that’s what people wanted. It helped convince politicians that these were the ideas that education needed. That is to say, education policy has not been shaped by democratic forces as much as it has been by philanthropic ones — by the billionaires who wield immense political power through their “charity.”

Rather than reject this plutocracy — a plutocracy that has corrupted so many of our democratic institutions long before President Trump ever came into office — Michael Bloomberg is asking Democrats to embrace it. Actually, he doesn’t even have to ask, does he. Organizations and politicians that have received money from him — and as The New York Times shows, he has built a massive empire of political influence — know what they must do: endorse the billionaire. It is, I think, one of the most depressing responses to racist authoritarianism that I have ever seen: endorse a different racist authoritarian and pretend like his charitable giving is not, in the end, as self-serving as the other’s. Public education has paid the price for letting philanthropy stipulate the terms of the debate. Now some folks want the whole damn country to be bought and sold this way.

This week’s Columbidae is the Mindanao bleeding-heart. Native to the Philippines, the habitat for this bird is rapidly decreasing, and it is listed as “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List. (Image credits)

A few things to read on ed and tech: Ben Williamson writes about the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative. Dana Goldstein writes about phonics. Greg Miller writes about “The Intelligence Coup of the Century.” That’s all I got.

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 342

"Do not worry. I will be fine for telling the truth" -- Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman

This week’s Columbidae is the brown cuckoo-dove. (Image credits) The bird — another lovely Australian pigeon — makes a “whoop-a-whoop” call, which is definitely not the mood I’ve been in these past few days. What a year this week has been.

The push for facial recognition technology in schools is getting more and more attention, this week with a story in The New York Times on the Lockport public schools’ decision to adopt the technology. It’s done in the name of “safety,” of course, even though facial recognition technology makes us all decidedly less safe — particularly the Black students in Lockport who are already disproportionately disciplined. Facial recognition technology — and body cameras WTF — will simply make the school-to-prison pipeline function more efficiently.

The promise of “greater efficiency” underlies so much of tech adoption, even though we should know by now that it never turns out easier / faster / cheaper / better. Take a look at the debacle in Iowa, for example, and the app that was supposed to facilitate reporting the results of the caucuses. There's an ed-tech angle to this story: apparently the team that built the app were recent code school graduates. There are a number of reasons why the app was, according to multiple reports, poorly designed. The team had very little time, for starters — not nearly enough for adequate development, let alone testing. But I think the coding bootcamp connection is worth thinking about. Something is wrong when one comes out of a short-term training program like that with a ton of confidence and a very limited skill-set — and not just a lack of knowledge, in general, about the intricacies of software development, but a lack of understanding of the side-effects of software.

One of the problems, broadly speaking, of the tech industry is that it is bound up in a narrative about disruption and displacement. It has little respect for expertise. Indeed, it sees expertise as an obstacle to change. Although we now know that the software was terrible — dangerously so — the precinct workers, many of whom probably had decades of experience running caucuses and elections, were initially blamed for the delay in results. It’s always “user error,” isn’t it. This faith that digitization is necessary, that technology will improve things, that technologist know WTF they’re doing is shown to be utterly misplaced again and again and again. And yet here we are. The Democratic Party, looking back on Obama's victory, still believes that technology will be what helps it win, even if this one app was a set-back. (The GOP believes tech is its ace too and is investing in a “billion-dollar disinformation campaign to re-elect the President.”) But tech is not what won the election in 2008; people did. The grassroots campaign was built on top of organizing and activism that existed before and outside of text messaging.

Welcome to the Bullshit Economy,” as David Dayen describes it: “Your mind doesn’t have to travel to the nether regions of conspiracy, but you can hardly blame people for doing so. This is reflective of the rolling incompetence covered by confidence within the modern economy, especially when you sprinkle on the labor-saving promise of techtopia. When the bullshit economy fails, it robs people’s belief in the basic bargain of commerce, the idea that you get what you pay for, that companies operate in good faith to provide quality service. But when placed in contact with politics, it just demolishes faith in the system. The bullshit economy spurs distrust.” (And in fairness to coding bootcamps, let’s just admit that CS programs and highly technical colleges also participate heavily in this bullshit. Case in point: this. And related perhaps, do read Malcolm Harris’s review of Anna Wiener’s new memoir about her time as a tech worker in Silicon Valley.)

Yours in struggle,

HEWN, No. 341

"The lamps are going out.... We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime" -- Sir Edward Grey

This week’s Columbidae is the Victoria crowned pigeon — a magnificent bird named after a monarch of a very small, lonely island. (Image credits) Incidentally, one of my pet peeves: the use of the phrase “bird brain” to describe pigeons’ accomplishments.

And bonus superb owl content: the northern spotted owl, Strix occidentalis caurina, a bird that, when added to the Endangered Species List, made men lose their goddamn minds. (Image credits)

I have a bunch of reading recommendations this week — a good indication that I paid more attention to social media than I should have. I blame the end of democracy. I’m working on a the rewrites to a particularly tough chapter right now, the penultimate chapter of Teaching Machines, and I'm trying to weave together thoughts on Skinner, Chomsky, Suppes, Bruner, and Kubrick. It’s a mess. The list below is also a mishmash of ideas. Important ideas. So there you go:

Yours in struggle,

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