On the Historical Amnesia of Ed Tech #25YearsOfEdTech

5 min read

Today marks the start of the audio podcast version of 25 Years of Ed Tech, a project I have been working on for the past 6 months or so. If you are interested in the origin story behind the podcast & accompanying series Between the Chapters, there is a show coming later this week where I talk about the project with Laura Pasquini and Martin Weller. I’ll link to it here when it’s released. What I am hoping to do with this post is to encourage you to contribute your voice to the conversation by blogging or tweeting your own observations about the chapters as we progress using the hashtag is #25YearsOfEdTech.

The historical amnesia of ed tech is a timely title for the introduction of the book given that it feels like we are experiencing that amnesia again. During the COVID spring pivot, education technologists with a specialization in online learning were struggling to make their experienced voices heard as the move to emergency remote learning happened. A good example was the rush to immediately procure services like virtual proctoring without critical considerations of Pandora’s box of privacy these platforms unleashed. Or the rush to embrace synchronous platforms and turn all learning into high bandwidth chomping virtual lecture sessions without consideration for the types of digital divide inequities this would introduce for learners. Educational technologists have seen these issues before, albeit perhaps not at the scale or pace of the spring, and were well-positioned to help for those who listened.

Education technology (as a professional field or academic sub-discipline take your pick) is a relatively new field. You can map the rise of ed tech with the rise of networked technologies in general. As networked technologies have moved from the fringes of society to the mainstream they have become more commonplace in teaching & learning practice. Indeed, the field is so new that Martin notes many of the experienced practitioners in the field have arrived in ed tech from other disciplines (pg. 4) and, as a result, we may lack the “shared set of concepts or history” (pg. 4) that acts as the historical grounding for most fields, which forms part of his rationale for writing a book on the history of ed tech (and Martin is quick to caveat that this is “a” and not “the” definitive history).

That said, while we are a relatively new field, you can easily argue that there have been educational technology thinkers going back to the earliest days of education. Whomever first saw the affordances of slate and chalk as a learning tool was thinking like an educational technologist. I sometimes wonder if that person was put into a position of a change agent for slate and chalk-based educational reform, like their digital ed tech counterparts decades later were. Although I imagine they were lucky enough to avoid getting tagged with job titles like Lead Slate Evangelist and Top Chaulk Guru for the Wonderful Chalk Company and writing puff pieces in One Room Schoolhouse Daily on how their new chalk and slate system increased learning engagement among students by 48% through exciting new chalkification pedagogy.

Which brings me to one of the changes I have witnessed in our field that Martin touches on in his introduction. Many of the ed tech’s I know who have worked in the field for the past 25 years have seen their role change from being that technology evangelist (I still wear the emotional scars after going on about blogs to a colleague who effectively shut me up with a loud and dismissive “BLAH, BLAH, BLAHGS!”) to being much less enthusiastic and far more critical about the role of technology in education. We may have begun as technology enthusiasts embracing much of the early ethos of the web (OPENNESS AND TRANSPARENCY FTW! THE INTERNET IS A DEMOCRATIZING FORCE FOR GOOD! KNOWLEDGE WILL NOW BE FREE AND ACCESSIBLE TO EVERYONE! DISRUPTION! TED TALKS! KAHN ACADEMY!) but who now understand that things are not that simple and….good. That technology is, in the words of Neil Postman, “…both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that.”

My own journey on the ed tech history path reflects this shift from evangelist to critic and maps closely to Martin’s experiences so the book does resonate with me. But I am also aware that, like Martin, I am a person of a certain type; a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male, educated, employed, and a product of all that privilege has brought with it. And when I first began embracing the web ethos of openness and transparency in the early 2000’s, I did so unaware of just how much that privilege allowed me to do so. Today, I’m not quite as evangelical.

That said, there are still reasons to be optimistic about technologies’ role in education. My optimism is mostly rooted in small, human-scale ed tech as opposed to massive at scale ed tech these days. Technologies that amplify human qualities and place human beings at the centre of the learning process, not remove or obfuscate humanity through scale. For example, last week a group of students in my RRU course brought a guest speaker into class via Collaborate for a robust Q&A session on privacy, data and ed tech ethics, something that would have been virtually impossible for students to do 25 years ago. There is still good to be found in ed tech in 2020.

Here’s the book intro, read by Martin.

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