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Confronting Ed Tech's 'Monsters': Q&A With Blogger Audrey Watters

Popular blogger Audrey Watters says she is "furious and curious" about the state of ed tech. That energy is on full display in The Monsters of Education Technology, a self-published collection of talks and addresses the Hack Education founder gave during 2014.

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I caught up with Watters this week via phone to talk about the often-biting views encapsulated in Monsters. Our discussion focused on six quotes from the book, which are in bold type below. The transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

1. "We are still designing ed-tech for the past and not for the present and certainly not for the future."

Education Week: Tell me what you mean by this.

Audrey Watters: One of the things I find so fascinating about much of the ed-tech sector is that it has very little sense of history. Education technology has the potential to be quite transformative. But often we see it designed to make traditional classroom and administrative practices more efficient. Instead of really rethinking what teaching and learning look like in world of information abundance...we're interested in making the worksheet or the textbook digital.

EW: To what do you attribute this lack of historical awareness?

AW: I think a lot of it comes from the hubris of the people involved in the tech sector right now. [Education] isn't something they have a background in. I don't think it's something they are particularly interested in.

2. "While building new technologies is easy (or easy-ish), changing behaviors and cultures is much, much harder." 

AW: 2015 will be the 25th anniversary of the first time a school went 1-to-1 with laptops. And yet you look at what happened in [Los Angeles], with the iPads, and man, we still can't get the procurement process right, let alone do something interesting and innovative with the pedagogy. 

EW: Do you think the problem is with the technology that is going into schools, or with how schools are using it?

AW: I think its mostly a failure of the imagination...We're under this new pressure now with the common core that computers will be used for assessment. That changes what computers mean. Are they in classrooms because they are going to empower students, or because they are going to be used to test them?

3. "So much B.F. Skinner. So little Seymour Papert. So little Alan Kay."

AW: I think that Skinner's model of behaviorism is really what dictates a lot of education technology...It's this idea that technology is about rewarding good behavior, [providing] behavioral feedback. Papert and Alan Kay both thought putting a computer in the hands of a child is about [encouraging] individual exploration, connecting ideas, building and constructing knowledge.

EW: Can you provide an example of an ed-tech tool that you see as behaviorist, and thus problematic?

AW: [Classroom-management app] ClassDojo, for sure. It is very much is about behaviorism, how you reward and identify certain behaviors and give immediate feedback in order to correct a student. 

EW: And an ed-tech tool you see as more in line with Papert's philosophy?

AW: I think we see a lot of it in the maker movement. Instead of doing math for the sake of doing math homework, [students are] using mathematical concepts because they're interested in solving a particular problem. You're learning through building and making. 

4. "That's why it doesn't matter to proponents of the 'disruptive innovation' framework that Khan Academy or MOOCs suck, for example."

AW: Somewhere along the way certain individuals have come to represent the technological salvation for education. Sal Khan in particular was really hailed as the "messiah of math."  But it's really hard when someone is a "messiah" to say, "Well, actually there are serious pedagogical flaws with the videos."

EW: Khan Academy has its critics, but do you really think it "sucks"? Many, many teachers, parents, and students use it and are big fans.

AW: I think there are some really great things about Khan Academy.  But I don't think that it's as wonderful a tool as some people have hyped it to be...It's not this magical silver bullet that if we could just give kids more 10-minute YouTube videos and adaptive exercises, that would somehow be the missing piece [to raising] our PISA scores...

Online learning objects that are digitally delivered [can be] great resources, particularly when they're openly licensed. But I think that without context, without meaningful work, without peers to get feedback from, without mentors to guide you through it...most of us are just not that autodidactic.

5. "To tell a brighter story about the future of ed-tech, I do think we will need to talk about student data in a different way."

AW: My background is in literature and folklore. So I think that language and the stories we tell really matter. To talk about "data-mining," that conjures up certain images. There's something buried beneath the surface, and if we just drill down and extract it and refine it, we'll have something valuable to sell. I would prefer to see students have more of a say, to be more in control of their learning and of their data....[But] what we have in the form of [a company like] Knewton are these wild, ludicrous claims about what the data they're collecting is actually able to tell us.

EW: When I interviewed Knewton CEO Jose Ferriera recently, he talked about the data-mining tools and algorithms and adaptive technologies his company develops not as silver bullets to solve all of education's problems, but as tools that can provide two key functions: Freeing teachers from much of the menial work they currently have to do, and providing them with better information more quickly so they can do the real work of teaching more effectively.

AW: That's the story that we're hearing. I'm just not convinced it's true. This is what Skinner argued...It's a long-running fantasy, and I'm skeptical that's the really the direction we need to be going.

6. "When people ask me what I'm excited about in ed-tech, Minecraft is one of my go-to answers."

AW: I like Minecraft a lot.  Although now that's it been acquired by Microsoft, I should probably put an asterisk after that...To me, it's really powerful because it is open-ended and allows for a lot of exploration and imagination.  It's about the child programming the computer, not the computer programming the child. 

Photo courtesy Audrey Watters.


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