Educational Technology as Imperialism: Finding a middle ground between Papert and Freire

November 7, 2014 at 8:54 am 15 comments

Audrey Watters is an insightful writer who tackles hard issues in educational technology.  I’ve cited her work before in this blog.  The post linked below made me realize that I need to read more by Paulo Freire and Paulo Blikstein, and how important it is to avoid, “The latest in a long line of educational salvations that the Global North has imposed on the Global South.”

I deeply appreciate Freire’s emphasis on “school,” which Audrey emphasizes. The need for school can also be seen in the research findings of Yasmin Kafai and Deborah Fields (who found that kids who discover tools like Scratch tend to be even more privileged than those in undergrad CS classes) and Betsy DiSalvo (who found that immigrant families don’t even know what words to search for in order to find learning resources).  Open education efforts alone are unlikely to reach the underprivileged students who most need the resources.  We need school in order to reach everyone.

It isn’t simply that an XPRIZE would likely offer an imperialist curriculum — that it’s in English is only part of the problem here. What does it mean to teach “O is for Octopus” in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example? It’s that all of this will be delivered on an Android tablet, and with that comes a host of other technological imperialist overtures — telecommunications companies offering hardware and software and banking and schooling; Google’s special brand of data-mining; and more broadly the tech sector’s penchant for surveillance, for starters.What is the goal of the Global Learning XPRIZE when it comes to learning? Is it for children in the developing world to join the global economy, for example? If so how? On whose terms? To what end? In what role? Why? How? Under whose Terms of Service?

via Ed-Tech Imperialism and the XPRIZE for Global Learning.

Entry filed under: Uncategorized. Tags: , , .

Computing Teachers are Different from Software Developers: WIPSCE 2014 Keynote Open Access as IP Communism

15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. alanone1  |  November 7, 2014 at 9:53 am

    A disappointing screed. Yikes!

    To think about this clearly, let’s retreat to issues of health. And let’s ask whether we should save a dying child’s life if we can. (And since we are talking about comparative “rights”, let’s include religions and other belief systems in our own country that e.g. will deny transfusions, vaccinations, etc., to dying children.)

    We feel outrage and that we should do something about physical assaults of all kinds on children worldwide. What about the less obvious ones of malnutrition, deadly water, lack of heath understanding, standards and care?

    I say, we must save the lives of children if we can. (Read no further if you don’t also think this.)

    This means on the world stage that it doesn’t matter what a culture or belief system thinks if these thoughts are endangering children.

    It also means that in order not to go overboard from this start, that we have to look at universal human rights — including the rights of children — to the extent that we can.

    For example, should we extend our concerns about children everywhere beyond physical health? Should we decide that not only should children have the right to learn to read, but that we should teach them to read?

    In our culture shouldn’t we use some of the same notions of rights and reasoning to protect children’s minds from the assaults of over-and-mis-informing via media onslaughts and consumerism?

    Should we withhold the technology of writing (yes it is just that!) and the printing press (yep, this too) from illiterate cultures because we might change the culture if we introduced them?

    Questions like these are the ones that need to be asked and answered. They are not questions like “should we convert the world into Americans?”, they are questions about basic rights and duties in the one world that all human beings live in.

    If the children are our main concern, what should we do? And: many of these things need to be done quickly.

    Reply
    • 2. nickfalkner  |  November 8, 2014 at 7:17 pm

      I think that’s a very negative reading. Dropping in to a situation where cultural issues are not taken into account leads to problems – whether it is trying to enforce different governments on people or dropping in educational resources that are at odds with the local culture. We’re not talking about people enforcing illiteracy, we’re talking about making literacy work by working with a culture, rather than against it. How would you feel if an alien race dropped in strange devices that told you that “Yeshketsa is for Yisdpfnas” and then tested you on your understanding of “Basic Funetrairelism for Bipeds”?

      The standard defence for cultural imperialism is always placed in noble terms (“Won’t someone think of the children?”) but this ignores the many, many times that these attempts have failed. You have two choices as someone who is being colonised: you can resist or you can assimilate. If enough people resist, then colonisation has failed – and, no doubt, many people have died and the land is on fire. If assimilation occurs, then the original culture is gone. We know that this happens when cultures clash, it’s just that so many of us in safe and affluent countries are in the privileged caste that we have never had to give up our culture. We pride ourselves on being advanced and this makes us superior. Therefore, how could we not act in everyone’s best interests? Urm.

      There are, certainly, degenerate and anti-intellectual elements in cultures but that accusation can be levelled across many parts of the west at the moment, for many of the same reasons: racism, sexism, religious fanaticism, and corruption. If we are to point fingers at saving life, then let us talk of the incarceration rates of Western countries, the growing evidence of the increasing error rate in executions and the suicide rates. Our culture is literate but our social systems are not in any way a model of the Platonic ideal. We are Atlantis, advanced but collapsing, rather than the stable utopia of Plato’s Athens.

      We can work with people in a respectful way and this is far more likely to work. Dropping in tablets is a feel-good action that is unlikely to have any lasting results for exactly the reasons outlined in the post.

      We need solutions that will work in the long term and become part of the people that we are trying to help. I don’t think this approach does it.

      Reply
      • 3. alanone1  |  November 8, 2014 at 8:56 pm

        Where did I advocate “cultural imperialism”? I’m advocating not letting children die, regardless of what another belief system might think. As I said “Read no further if you don’t think this”. This is very far from trying to take over a culture. You seem to be replying to something other than was actually written.

        Reply
        • 4. alanone1  |  November 8, 2014 at 8:59 pm

          P.S. (too bad WordPress doesn’t allow editing post posto). The rest of my comment asks questions about human rights, and especially the rights of children. What are your answers?

          Reply
          • 5. nickfalkner  |  November 8, 2014 at 9:31 pm

            I thought that ‘We need solutions that will work in the long term: would have covered it but of course I support universal human rights and the rights of the child. However, I am fully aware that attempts to overlay a solution without taking into account the underlying culture basically doesn’t work. I am interested in saving all of the people and all of the children and that doesn’t work unless we carefully consider how we can bring people in through valid cultural pathways. Without that, people become disenfranchised, disconnected from the coloniser and it’s a tragic outcome. You cannot overlay one culture with another and not be trying to take it over.

            Arguing a technological support argument, even with the best intentions, ignores the realities of what happens when one culture overlays another. Native American men die 6 years younger than their white counterparts. Infant mortality rates are higher and have been increasing, when the rest of the US population has a falling rate. I’m not just picking on the US here as Australia has an equally bad record for Indigenous health, similar high mortality and high frequency of complications from usually manageable diseases such as diabetes, addiction and infections. Both of these groups had well-developed cultures but because of the nature of colonisation, often again to ‘take care of the children’, the long term outlook for these groups is far less positive than for the non-native culture. This is the reality of colonisation and it is an ugly one.

            Education is a vital part of constructing safe, equitable and stable societies, which is what will lead to children not dying in the long term (as clearly demonstrated by our own progress against infant mortality, childhood death and so on), but to assume that this can be done without considering the underlying culture is just not going to work.

            Of course I don’t want any children to die. I’m dedicated to life and I’ve had opportunities to save lives, invest in the future, step in and do some pretty good things. I’m happy with my dedication to life. But I am only one man. I cannot save everybody unless we get better systems in place.

            My long-term goal is that we have a society that can save everyone. But that requires us to look at history to discover what does and does not work. There are more than enough examples around right now to tell us that a careful, considered approach to cultural integration is far more likely to succeed.

            Nobody wants the children to die. It’s specious to make disagreement with you conditional on being a child murderer.

            Reply
            • 6. alanone1  |  November 8, 2014 at 9:50 pm

              Again with all due respect I think you are reaching beyond what I actually said into your own special set of interests. I asked questions about rights, and about the rights of children in the world right now regardless of the culture they might belong to.

              Reply
              • 7. nickfalkner  |  November 8, 2014 at 9:59 pm

                Then I think this discussion is closed, because you don’t appear to be seeing that I’m answering you. That’s just one of those things, I guess.

                Reply
                • 8. alanone1  |  November 8, 2014 at 10:38 pm

                  I understand what you are saying just fine — a difference in the discussion is that I don’t want to sacrifice children now to eventual solutions in the long term. I want the latter but deem it of much lower priority than lives lost now.

                  And I don’t think you answered the questions about rights. What rights do you think people, especially children, should have regardless of the belief system they live in? For example, are they property, or should there be a universal right that makes it a global crime to traffic in human beings.

                  Does this road take us to assert a universal right to learn and be taught how to read?

                  Reply
    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  November 9, 2014 at 2:41 am

      I completely agree that we must save the lives of children if we can. But it can’t be done quickly. That’s what I learned on the American Indian project with Yasmin Kafai. You taught me that “You can fix a clock. You have to negotiate with a system.” Children live in a system, and you have to negotiate with it, not just drop in. It’s the difference between the Peace Corps and the US Army. Audrey and Nick are arguing against developing MOOCs for Stanford students, announcing them for the developing world, and then being surprised when few students succeed with that technology.

      I heard a great talk by Carl DiSalvo lately on technical solutionism. We have to design technology, which means understanding the problem and negotiating with the users. We shouldn’t just be delivering it.

      Reply
      • 10. alanone1  |  November 9, 2014 at 8:12 am

        This is why I said at the beginning “Let’s -retreat- to issues of health”, and brought up the questions of global rights. I wanted to -first- discuss issues that are both clear cut and matters of immediate life and death.

        I don’t know where to draw many of the lines between individual rights and the customs of society — this is why I’m asking -questions-, and why I started with the clearer issues of physical health and prospects of immediate deaths that could be prevented.

        Your first line “We must save the lives of children if we can” really implies “especially if it can be done quickly if required”, and not at all your second sentence.

        Let’s take the problem of drinkable water (and no water). Suppose we could parachute drinkable water into villages. Should we? Should we make sure that children get the water? Etc. Regardless of whether this disturbs the local culture?

        Suppose we can inoculate everyone against the worst diseases. Should we? Can we bring into these questions that for better or worse cultures and the ramifications of their beliefs are no longer isolated from the rest of the world? Can we extend the discussions to include not just “eventually” but the idea of preventing needless deaths now?

        Mark, you know I’m completely aware of anthropology and dealing with cultures, etc. Here I’m bringing up quite a different set of issues, time-frames, and ethics.

        I’m using the “Children First!” idea to help both myself and others think more clearly, and especially in terms of processes rather than abstract terms.

        Princeton says ” ‘Cultural imperialism’ is the practice of promoting a more powerful culture over a weaker one”. That is not what I’m advocating here, and why I have not used this phrase. I think it quite misses the larger points. I don’t think making sure children get nutrition, water, inoculations, and are not sold into slavery is cultural imperialism. And I don’t think children should be sacrificed to hand wringing for the sake of “eventually we will do something gently”.

        If a religious group in the US objects to transfusions and a child’s life is in danger, then the child should get the needed transfusion regardless. This is not the same as trying to put the religion out of business. But not everyone thinks this way.

        This is why the discussion I started is about rights pure and simple.

        To me, an issue near the borderlines between clear and murky is that of literacy. This is why I asked the question about whether children should have a universal right to learn to read and write, and whether the world as a whole (that’s what we actually live in) should have the duty to help them learn (regardless of the culture they happened to be born into).

        I don’t think it is remotely “cultural imperialism” to teach reading and writing, even though these are technologies, and even though they have been among the most revolutionary of human inventions.

        The real question here is should we consider all children in the world to have rights that may transcend their cultures (including our own), and if so, what should we be doing about it?

        Reply
        • 11. Mark Guzdial  |  November 9, 2014 at 8:22 am

          I get it. You’re asking us to consider issues like health as a way of defining the boundary. You’re not making a claim about where educational technology sits wrt that boundary. Is that right?

          Reply
          • 12. alanone1  |  November 9, 2014 at 8:55 am

            Yes, exactly (and I thought pretty clearly in carefully written English).

            The reason I did this is that the argument and assertions in the original essay were poorly posed and murky at best, in part because at the bottom of many of these questions are issues of rights, and these are not easy to think about. Discussions quickly become forums for personal opinions — mostly unsupported — and even though this is the “way of the web” these days, it’s really counterproductive.

            I happen not to be a big fan of “American culture” and have no interest in spreading it, but that is not at all the point here. Much powerful knowledge in the 21st century quite transcends anthropological cultures, and important educational processes can be built for — and via using — this knowledge.

            The founders of the US understood the differences between an ideal and the difficulties, compromises and negotiations necessary in processes set up to approach the ideal. (This is why a civilization is not a state of being but a group of people trying to become more civilized. It’s a process not a thing.)

            And this is why the idea of “rights” is so important. It’s why George Mason, perhaps the major architect of the Constitution (via his being the main writer of the Virginia Constitution and its Bill of Rights), refused to sign the US Constitution as a protest because they did not include a Bill of Rights (this was soon formed and added).

            “Education” is a murky area in cultures. A way to approach thinking about interventions is to start with those that are clear cut enough — like health — to decide for or against children’s rights in that area (and if for rights, to decide that children do have rights that transcend their cultures).

            I think this step is crucial for dealing with more complex issues of children’s rights, and especially the reading and writing questions.

            (I have not mentioned my pet issue — should children have a universal right (and the world a duty) to learn science? — because it is much much murkier than health, and to me out of this discussion at this point.)

            For now, reading and writing are good ground to consider once we can settle on simpler “inalienable” rights world wide.

            Reply
            • 13. Mark Guzdial  |  November 10, 2014 at 10:48 am

              You did say exactly that, Alan. I misinterpreted you as using “health” as a proxy for “educational technology.” Since you started with your post saying how much you disliked Audrey’s post, I assumed that the rest of it was critiquing the post, when you were really raising the question that Audrey was implicitly posing.

              I don’t think anybody would disagree with food and water for children as a right. Is health care a right of children? I would agree that it is, but there are people who disagree strongly. I live in a state that has actively resisted expanding healthcare coverage (even to children), and the voters just rewarded that position.

              Reading is even more complicated. The American Indian group I worked with in Arizona believed that some knowledge was reserved for those who was ready for it, and some songs and readings were not to be shared until the elders felt the singer/reader was ready. There is a cultural element in the decision about whether reading is a right.

              When we talk about someone having a right to read, do we mean that everyone should be taught to interpret letters as words? At what level does everyone have a right to be able to read? When I was a kid, I had access to a pretty good suburban library, but I was often stymied in that the things I wanted to learn were only available in books that were more advanced than I was ready to read, and I didn’t have a teacher who could bridge for me. I could read, but I couldn’t read that. I had a similar problem when I got to graduate school and started taking Education classes after an MS in CS. I had no idea what they were saying, though I could read the words. When a cognitive scientist says the word “goal,” it’s laden with meaning and research findings that I couldn’t fathom given my everyday notion of the word “goal.” Does every child have a right to a pathway to every piece of knowledge?

              This gets at a concern with goals of the open access community (see other thread). That other thread is about costs and ownership. The ultimate goal of open access is to provide access to knowledge for everyone, which is laudable and worthwhile. But simply opening up the research literature doesn’t achieve that goal. It’s not enough to be able to read. There is a role for teachers and librarians. We also need people to interpret, to guide and navigate, to fill in the gaps for the reader. And that’s expensive, which gets back to the issues of costs and ownership.

              I strongly agree with volunteering effort to make those connections. That is one of my goals with this blog (five years old this summer). I try to explain computing education research and related issues to a broader computing community. The blog is not enough to achieve this goal, though. At WIPSCE last week, I got asked by various attendees to write no fewer than three books: On “how to teach CS,” on how to teach MediaComp at the high school level (a public request at my keynote), and on computing education research at a level that might convince CS departments that it’s an important area in which to invest. I agree that those are worthwhile goals and valuable books to write, but they’re more than blog-level efforts, and it’s hard to volunteer that much time.

              Finally, to return to the issue of “cultural imperialism.” I agree that Audrey’s language may be a bit stronger (about “rights” and “imperialism”) than is needed for the point. I like her writing and accept her use of rhetorical flourishes (which is how I read Moshe’s use of “communism,” too). I suspect that we might agree that effective use of educational technology involves negotiation with the system, which is the opposite of imperialism. You spent years and years in the Open School to figure out what works. I see that as the crux of Audrey’s point. Parachuting in technology is unlikely to have a desired effect. Participatory design of technology leads to something much more effective.

              Reply
              • 14. alanone1  |  November 10, 2014 at 11:42 am

                Good comments!

                Yep, I used the word “retreat” because the ground and context needed to be discussed first.

                There is nothing cosmic or “scientific” about rights. Ethics and morality is more like math than science, in that there’s nothing in nature that tells us how we should try to behave, but we -can- come up with principles that we want to stand by, and then spin out what they entail as a system of ethics. So “rights” and especially “universal rights” are decisions.

                In a pure theory of “to each culture its own choices” we should stand by if another culture kills children for reasons of its own. But I just don’t see that we should do that at all. This despite my not liking most coercions of others that humans have come up with. (I think Jehovah’s Witnesses have a right to their own beliefs, but they don’t have the right to withhold needed transfusions, etc.) This is muddled and contradictory, so I leave all of this as a process where we find out how children can prosper and try to make that happen.

                There’s a difference between learning to read and being allowed to read. Neil Postman has pointed this out. Again, drawing lines, I’d say that it is wrong for a culture to forbid learning to read, but that it has some rights (up to some point) to choose what children should be allowed to read when. I don’t think it has the right to choose what adults can read.

                I like the comment on the other thread about the current (I’d say “desperate”) need to have new workable principles for what “Fair Use” and “Libraries”, etc. used to do for physical media. This is the part that intersects with discussions of rights in the 21st century.

                I (personally) do not like “rhetorical flourishes” in serious discourse — and in fact, I think it is really poor (even bad) style.

                And to your last point: yep, up to a point. Seymour once groaned that he wished the US was still a “developing nation”, because the latter are often much more aware of their condition and needs. (Our condition and needs — aside from the industrial revolution — are closer to the 3rd world that most Americans would like to think or are aware.)

                In Nicholas’ contact with Ethiopia, they actually got the approval of the elders in the villages to try the experiment (the machines were not parachuted in — consider the setup for re-charging, etc.) And the children themselves opened the packages, had to discover how to turn the machines on, etc. They drove everything. The best result was not just the sustained engagement, but that about 10% of each group of children took on the continued role of teachers for the others (and much wonderful future progress could be made from this). The least part of this was that the software on the machines was woefully lacking in what was actually needed (this is not because it was omitted, but because this software doesn’t exist — AND IT SHOULD!)

                The XPrize that initiated the complaints in this blog is very far from how it should be structured. I don’t believe this is a good way to approach these goals. Part of the problem — and most don’t realize this — is that the X Prizes are set up as rather short term processes with a considerable aim to generate publicity. (So I agree with criticisms of it.)

                But if we turn to the part of the argument I didn’t venture into, we need something between hands-off and negotiation — for some of the same reasons we need an action oriented middle position for children’s health reasons, namely that adults have done a very poor job of caring for children in virtually all cultures including our own. It’s especially a problem that children are set up by nature to learn their surrounding culture, parts of which are embodied in adults, and to have those adults be lacking in knowledge and perspective in areas whereby the child is put at various kinds of risks.

                As a child, I found the local library to be one of the middle grounds between nothing and waiting for the adult system to come around (It hasn’t yet!) — but I was lucky to have learned how to read fluently at an early age. In many other cultures, there is nothing like a middle ground of many different perspectives to help children see that their own culture is rather arbitrary with some good and some terrible aspects. (My definition of “education” is contained in the previous sentence.)

                And to end with a less important point: Like you, I found that I could not read many of the books on subjects that I wanted to know about, and accidentally stumbled on a heuristic while trying to read something in the Encyclopedia Britannica: first read the articles in chlldren’s encyclopedias (and World Book) to get the gist and this will allow more difficult writings to be deciphered. (Still a good ploy, and one picks up a few more points of view on the way!)

                Reply
  • […] I got an email from CodersTrust, asking me to help promote this idea of developing grants to help students in the developing world learn to code. But the education materials they’re offering is the same CodeAcademy, Coursera MOOCs, and similar developed-world materials. Should they be? Should we just be sending the educational materials developed for US and Europe to the developing world? I thought that that was one of the complaints about existing MOOCs, that they’re a form of educational imperialism. […]

    Reply

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