Audrey Watters on the nature of educational technology

Audrey Watters, presenting to Pepperdine University:

Ed-tech works like this: you sign up for a service and you’re flagged as either “teacher” or “student” or “admin.” Depending on that role, you have different “privileges” — that’s an important word, because it doesn’t simply imply what you can and cannot do with the software. It’s a nod to political power, social power as well.

Many pieces of software, despite their invocation of “personalization,” present you with a very restricted, restrictive set of choices of who you “can be.”

This is gold. It gets to the very heart of the problem. And it’s not restricted to online learning (and online learning technologies) – see my last post on a prof who bans “technology” in the classroom, effectively enforcing the restrictive set of choices of who her students can be. This isn’t about the evils of restrictive Learning Management Systems – it’s about the evils of restricting learning.

And this, on the nature of education itself:

To transform education and education technology to make it “future-facing” means we do have to address what exactly we think education should look like now and in the future. Do we want programmed instruction? Do we want teaching machines? Do we want videotaped lectures? Do we want content delivery systems? Or do we want education that is more student-centered, more networked-focused. Are we ready to move beyond “content” and even beyond “competencies”? Can we address the ed-tech practices that look more and more like carceral education — surveillance, predictive policing, control?

We have choices to make – and we (collectively) are making choices – about what we think education is, and what it should be. If we don’t put some real thought into the reasoning behind, and the implications of these choices, we’ll wind up in some uncanny valley of education where all of the checkboxes are properly checked, but it’s not education as it could have been. As Gardner Campbell says, “That is not what I meant at all; That is not it, at all.”

on a world with only 10 universities

Reading the post/transcript of Audrey Watters’ presentation from the OpenVA pre-conference, and something struck me.

Compare the predictions of two experts in their fields, extrapolating their personal visions forward a few decades:

“I think there is a world market for maybe 5 computers.”
— Thomas Watson, 1943

“In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.”
Sebastian Thrun, 2012

I’m carrying 2 computers with me right now, and each one would have been considered high-end workstation-class devices only a few years go. I use several more, as does everyone else. Watson wasn’t wrong – his vision clearly led to giant computers run by governments and giant corporations. Time sharing systems meant monstrous computers would be tasked with jobs from many client organizations. In 1943, he couldn’t have possibly seen microprocessors and coprocessors and GPU-offloading and miniaturization of devices. Or the internet.

I think Thrun believes he is correct. But his forecast is interesting because it points out his utter disregard for anything beyond content dissemination and the entrenchment of control in the hands of the few who are worthy of such a task.

I think Thrun is on the wrong track, though.

In my mind, Thrun’s model positions The Giant MOOCs as toxic, and diametrically opposed to the real and essential goals of education.

Sure, there will be consolidation. There will be new institutions, different institutions, and institutions that wither and/or die. I think that the proliferation of connections and of the ability for individuals to publish content, connect with others, and to access information means that there will essentially be “universities” for every one of us. 7 billion universities controlled by individuals, rather than just 10 uber-universities controlled by governments and giant corporations. Open education, competency-based badging, and portfolio-based accreditation would naturally lead in that direction.

Does that mean that traditional universities will go away? Absolutely not. I think they will remain essential, perhaps even moreso, but that their roles will shift. To what? I have no idea. But we will need to adapt and respond, and be able to enable and support learning and research that grows well outside the traditional boundaries of post-secondary institutions.

the web is what we make it

Clint responds to Audrey’s decision to nuke comments from Hack Education. I agree – it’s unfortunate that douchebags on the internet1 feel that they can abuse people while hiding behind the anonymity of the internet.

It’s Audrey’s decision to nuke comments – and I fully support her in whatever she decides to do – but I hate that she was pushed to it by misogynistic assholes spewing vitriol and hate. That’s not OK. Nobody should feel threatened or devalued or hated for what they write. Nobody should feel like they need to withdraw because some vocal assholes throw bile at them.

I don’t stand for it in The Real World. I don’t stand for it online. It’s simply not OK to treat people that way.


I completely support Audrey in her decision to nuke comments. Her writing is some of the most important stuff in ed tech at the moment, and we need it. We need more of it. And we need Audrey to be able to do her work without having to waste cycles thinking about misogynistic asshole ranters in the comment threads.

She’s not silencing anyone, or crushing freedom of speech. If you have something to say, misogynistic asshole commenters, man the fuck up and create your own blog. Own what you say. Put your name on it. Don’t hide in the comment section of the blog of someone who is working hard to keep education from sliding into corporate solutioneering hell.

  1. they are also douchebags in The Real World, but don’t get to hide behind anonymous internet comments in meatspace []

reclaim open

Audrey Watters and Jim Groom were at the MIT Media Lab with Philipp Schmidt and others for a hackathon. Sounds like it was a pretty incredible couple of days.

The video below captures some of the discussion. So much goodness in it. We haven’t lost the open web. We can (continue to) choose to build it. Yes, there are silos and commodifcation and icky corporate stuff that would be easy to rail against, but what if we just let go of that and (continue to) build the web we want and need? Yeah. Let’s (continue to) do that… That’s what Boone’s Project Reclaim is all about. That’s what I do on a tiny, insignificant, human scale. That’s why I publish my own stuff here – I’ve built this site up exactly how I want it, to support my ability to be as open as I choose, without relying on others to enable (or decide not to) me.

It’s not about protesting against silos or corporate activity streams. Freedom means people get to choose how they manage their digital artifacts (including delegation of that responsibility to third parties). It’s about doing what I think is right, and feeling good about that. That’s all I can do.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what UMW does with their Domain of One’s Own project – and hoping to do more of that kind of thing here on our campus. Some pretty amazing things can happen if you enable and encourage individual students and instructors to build their own stuff…

Reclaim Open Learning – Not Anti-MOOC. But pro open. from Jöran und Konsorten on Vimeo.