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We Don't Need Your Algorithm: A Failure of Educational Technology


"We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time."

—from Little Gidding by T.S. Eliot

bell hooks warns how computers could become more important than people. In my post You Say You Want a Revolution? Okay, But It Won’t Happen Overnight, I wrote:

She raised a tangential issue in “A Revolution of Values'' that interested me. The relationship between people and technology. She quotes Martin Luther King (bold face mine):

When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered. 

Why is that highlight significant? Digital platforms and productivity apps could overrun the practice of teaching. We don’t need to adapt to computers; we need to adapt computers to us. Blackboard is a tool, an extension of our pedagogy. It must serve our needs.


You may be an early adapter to a current hardware or app. You may be curious. Either way, it’s easy to get caught up in technological zeal, educational and otherwise. Such zeal is not new. In 1933, psychologist Sidney Pressey created one of the first teaching machines. It looked like this:

Pressey teaching machine

By today’s standards, it wasn’t much. A clunky way to take multiple choice exams. They claim to relieve teachers of mechanical grading. They claim to make education more efficient, cheaper, and faster. Not to mention more responsive and engaging. I could see the benefit in one instance. If it did free up teachers so they could focus on responding to and engaging with their students.

Was Pressey's machine successful? If we gauge success by the quantity of work students did, then yes, it was. If quality is your measure, though, not so much. Especially his machines' promised responsiveness and engagement. Making rote learning easier doesn’t mean that rote learning is appropriate. There's his appalling excuse for this scientific and objective (read: male) technology. The ranks of subjective, emotional, and untrained (read: female) teachers. Don't. Get. Me. Started.

Fast forward 88 years. EdTech is in full throttle, long before the Coronavirus pandemic mandated virtual learning. The problem of responsiveness and engagement remains. Clicking is not the same thing as engaging. Clicking creates data; it doesn’t correlate to learning.

Audrey Watters warns us of EdTech’s misguided priorities. A focus on scores (grades), not on playing the game well (a student’s minds, bodies, and lives). She reminds us that educational technology is not a neutral, ahistorical, apolitical utility. It’s also a system and a practice; it’s a mindset embedded in schools.

If we’re not careful, such algorithms could dominate students’ lives. Machines, not teachers, could set parameters. Educational efficiency, compliance, and control could trump human dignity, agency, and freedom. The solution? Awareness. The tool? Critical pedagogy. The process? Human centering, or, to use bell hooks’ phrase, a coming to voice.


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Glenn DeVoogd

Awesome James! We need more student voice in our lessons. After they get to me they are already trained not to talk. No voice. Or as you would say it...don't. get. me. started!

Annemarie Perez

Great post!
Even thought I've taught with digital tools for more than a decade, it wasn't until I started reading Watters' work in 2016 that I began to think of the implications of what I was asking my students to do and the tools I was asking them to use.

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