Technology as an Inherent Good
We see a similar reframing of the public narrative in neoliberal policy on educational technology. All over the globe, educational technology (EdTech) is being sold to schools as a central mechanism for improving access to quality learning for high poverty populations. Technocentrism (Papert 1987) in a general sense has been used to describe a worldview that values technology as an inherent good for solving complex social problems. Technocentrists believe that humankind has complete control over nature. They are confident in the use of technology (and in science) to solve complex social problems in ways that are “time efficient” and reduce public participation, particularly when the democratic process is expected to slow down science. In education, technocentrism takes the form of complete faith in the value of technology to solve enduring problems in education including improvement of outcomes with new technologies, supportive government action and a kind of careful economic management of technologies and data.
There are number of scholars who have conducted meaningful analyses of the intersection between neoliberalism, capitalism, and the push for more technology in education (c.f. Apple et al.; Picciano and Spring 2013; Williamson 2016). Some of these authors have examined how the EdTech “movement” has been informed and pushed by multinational social media companies and how the expansion of online education is contributing to new forms of teacher surveillance. This work is useful in informing understanding of how education is being conceived as a commodity in the education technology market, both in terms of something that schools should buy and as a product that
With collaborators, I have examined how technology policy is changing aspects of what it means to be a teacher, what a classroom or school looks like, the length of a school day and how these changes are perceived by school staff and by students—how teachers are buying into the changes under certain conditions, and in others, transforming and resisting them. A central theme of the work has been to put actual evidence up against claims that technology will make teachers work load easier, that it will help them to differentiate as their class sizes balloon to 30, that will help students learn from their mistakes. At the time of writing, there is some evidence that technology can contribute to some of these things, but only in the hands of a skilled teacher, who is physically present in classroom, at best, or the minimum available to the student in real time.
My research on teachers’ experiences with education technology (in India specifically) revealed HOW technology policy shapes the conditions for teachers’ work. In a study of a high-profile technology initiative in northern India (replicated in kind across the country in part with investments of U.S. media giants), we found that neoliberal education policy was attempting to change the nature of teachers workday—how teachers spent their lunch hour, what they did when they arrived in school, how they were evaluated. (Miglani and Burch, 2014). Teachers were given incentives to use the technology and rewarded financially for usage. Sheets were posted with “winners” in data usage that teachers were expected to check first thing in the morning. Lunch hour became a time for teachers to review data.
Simultaneously, schools that had been operating under an ethos of democratic education moved toward an ethos of competition. While this was happening, ironically, other aspects of teachers working conditions were being ignored (low pay, transportation challenges, health benefits, off-loading of extra responsibilities).
I am not one who argues that technology in education is inherently bad (I doubt anyone does any more), to do so, would be to commit the same error as technocentrists. However, with others, I have noticed how technocentrist ideals prop up investments in education markets, and do so in the absence of strong data that they deliver on their promises.
The New Normal
With the actions of new administration, his political supporters and “independent” media giants, we face a new normal in neoliberal policy in education in the United States. Specifically, the new education privatization is unfolding in a global political context that no one, including critics of neoliberalism, could have fully anticipated. In the United States, Donald Trump and supporters are controlling the public narrative around what constitutes presidential obstruction ofjustice, how modern democracies treat immigrants and where blame lies in sexual predatory behavior. In this narrative, scientific facts around climate change represent fake news. When natural disasters occur, they represent market opportunities, including in education.