Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Problem with Education Technology

A follow-up to our discussion of technology last week. This came across the WPA listserv. I haven't read the book yet, but I'm looking forward to it.

"Likewise, alas, with the formal position statement from our colleagues at CCCC:

'Writing-to-a-machine violates the essentially social nature of writing: we write to others for social purposes. If a student’s first writing-experience at an institution is writing to a machine, for instance, this sends a message: writing at this institution is not valued as human communication.'

When we read this, even now for the umpteenth time, we find ourselves simultaneously wanting to cheer and cringe. Cheer, because we’re proud that our national organization is promoting the cause we’ve dedicated our lives to: teaching writing and literacy as something social, as a form of human communication, which brings people together and gives them a voice. Cringe, because it’s naive and wrongheaded. Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering, and we can’t blame that on the machine."

Ben Fink & Robin Brown, The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology), Utah State UP, 2016. E-book is just $5.00.


  1. The comment that you posted in relation to the CCCC statement is interesting, and it definitely makes me think about that text in a different way, though I'm still not sure if I agree. Originally, when I read the CCCC statement, it seemed like an obvious statement. On the heels of some of the reading I have been doing about assessment and all of the constraints with trying to assess student writing in ways that are valid and reliable, it seems obvious to me that a machine wouldn't be able to give a valid score for a person's writing because a machine can't discern context or the subtle nuances present. My understanding is that machines can look for key words and length of text, and possibly sentence-level construction, and those are the things used to measure a person's writing ability. When I read the CCCC statement, I found it as an obvious statement that a machine can't understand all of the other far more important aspects of writing that make it effective. Only a person can do that, particularly if we think about how writing is geared toward different audiences and is informed by different values. In those ways, I do think writing is a social process that only reaches its full potential when there are human readers who can react and respond.

    On the other hand, the quote provided from Fink and Brown seems to make the argument that our educational system is too bogged down in hierarchies and politics to be a space where students can find their voice and be heard. This seems like a very cynical view, at least initially... I'd be interested in hearing other thoughts.

  2. Cara, are you referring to the line, "Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering"? I certainly don't think that's always true but I do think Fink and Brown are right in many ways. Education in the United States is very individualistic. Students have individualized course planning, they focus on their own academic success, they take many classes where collaboration is not a key component, and even tutoring is often one-on-one and not in groups. Students usually only care about their own grades and their own projects. Even in peer review, many students care more about getting the credit for participating than they do about giving their peers real feedback to help them succeed. And I don't think it's entirely the students fault. I think it's the way our education system has been set up and the way students have been forced to focus on their own academic achievement in order to perform well on standardized tests. This sounds cynical but it also suggests that we know some of the problems and therefore, can try to institute change (although that seems like a daunting task).
    I think we can try to create classroom spaces where students do feel human and empowered. Smaller class sizes are helpful here because we can build relationships with students, acknowledge them as real people, and help them realize that they do have interesting and important things to say. I try to do this in my own classroom by encouraging students to write for "real" audiences (outside of the class) about topics with real exigency. But this would be easier to do if we could make some real changes to the education system.
    Does that still sound cynical? I wonder if the book will offer some strategies for turning things around.