Not mere tools – A Response to Leon Botstein on Educational Technologies

Re-posted from The Fifth Floor

Two weeks ago, Dr. Leon Botstein (current president of Bard College and education reformer) gave an interesting and witty talk at UVa on the future of higher education. Much to my delight, he opened the speech with some candid opinions of the role of “technology” in higher education. There were a few points that I completely agreed with Botstein, but I was troubled by his underlying conception of technology and change.

While I’m always puzzled when people frame their opinions on the spread of massively open online courses (MOOCs), the “flipped classroom” model, and the general move away from an era of information scarcity into an age of information glut, as being about “technology” in general*, I’ll put aside this academic distinction and to my more general point…

Botstein advised that it was a waste of time and effort on the part of faculty to be against the above developments in teaching technologies and instead we should welcome their tendency to “put bad teaching out of business.” The “destructive competition” that MOOCS have thrown up to university faculty is our own fault. I agree! If educators can be scared by technologies that allow for video-taping and making those videos widely available, then we should re-consider the value of our professional contributions.

However, as much as much I agree with the need for educators to take responsibility for the changing demands of our profession, I felt like the underlying conception of technology that Botstein used to explain his position was lacking.  He put forward a layman’s theory of technological progress and social change stating that from a historical perspective “there’s no reason to be anxious about [technology]” because it’s a “net good, but one cannot make it a causal factor.” He likened the role of technology in learning to the role of technology in sex – it’s “enhancing, amusing, diversifying, but at the end of the day its not a replacement.”  In other words, tech might spice things up a bit, but it will never supplant the real deal.

This perspective, that technologies are tools for accomplishing our goals, is one that historians of technology are familiar with and have roundly de-bunked. Technologies are more than mere tools for accomplishing the things we’ve always done. Technology also shapes experience, and oftentimes encourages us to rethink previously settled questions.

Emerging educational technologies are interesting and exciting precisely because they’re encouraging educators at all stages of their careers, from the most staid lecturers to the newly minted Phd, to reconsider the learning experiences of their students. If something like electronic communications with students via e-mail and discussion boards were a mere tool, then faculty would be able to ignore them at will, without much consideration of their value.

Is the incredible diversity of information available to students online merely an amusing and diversifying side-bar to their educations? Absolutely not. It changes the way we’re (faculty and students) thinking about learning, the value of a college degree, and our role as facilitators of what’s supposed to be a transformative period in our students’ lives.

Botstein’s comments also seemed to minimize some very legitimate concerns about the free dissemination of lectures and course materials. Jaron Lanier, an early web evangelist turned web 2.0 skeptic, has critiqued the tendency of this kind of free dissemination to undercut the possibility of an intellectual middle-class. He points out that content-creators, whether they’re journalists, professors, or musicians, often get short-changed with innovations like MOOCs, while the companies proffering the software, or aggregating the search results, reap the benefits. The technology itself did not do this…we did, but it’s impossible to reduce tech’s effects to those of a mere “tool” in the face of such massive reorganizations of power and profit.

* when I hear people preface their opinions this way, a part of me hopes that they’ll start talking about how overhead projectors have ruined our ability to write on chalkboards, or how electric lights in large lecture halls impose impossible standards for beauty on faculty.