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,