TJ Interviews: OEB 2019 keynote Audrey Watters

TJ meets Audrey Watters, education writer at Hack Education, independent scholar and author.

Tell us about your keynote at OEB.

The conference is weeks away! I don’t know yet exactly what I’m going to talk about. But I have been thinking of the stories we tell about the history and the future of education and education technology.

I’m particularly interested in what I’ll call ‘the ed-tech imaginary’ – that is, how we base a lot of our decisions and opinions of technology based on fictions.

That includes science fiction – think of Neo in The Matrix being so amazed that he’s learned kung fu – but it also includes historical shorthand; phrases like ‘the factory model of education’ that aren’t particularly accurate but that seem to be terribly compelling.

OEB started as predominantly an ed-tech conference but has broadened its appeal over the last few years to include workplace learning. What lessons should workplace learning take from Ed-tech?

Education technology has long been concerned with workplace learning. I have just finished the manuscript of my book on teaching machines – mechanical devices that were developed in the mid-20th century that promised to automate and individualise education.

These were supposed to transform schools. But they were also sold to corporations. Hughes Aircraft, for example, used them to train employees to build planes.

The British cybernetician Gordon Pask designed a teaching machine that would train workers how to use Hollerith machine punch – that is, to make punch cards used for data processing.

It may well be that workplace technology and school-oriented technology have much in common

And teaching machines were also sold door-to-door by encyclopaedia salespeople and advertised in the back of magazines like Popular Science.

They were marketed to adults that wanted to learn some of the hot new 20th-century technology skills such as electronics.

If we consider the history then, it may well be that workplace technology and school-oriented technology have much in common.

And perhaps that should give us pause and ask whose interests these products serve. How might this connection shape how technology views skills and/or knowledge?

We often look to Silicon Valley for innovative ideas in industry but you have a different view on their model for education. Could you elaborate on this?

First off, I think it’s important to recognise that, while Silicon Valley has successfully branded itself as a site of innovation in technology, the history of technology is much more complicated than that.

It involves public, not just private, investments; it involves university and government research, not just industry invention; it involves places far from the Bay Area of California; it involves rare earth metals in Africa, manufacturing facilities in China, and so on.

In 1995, media theorists Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron published an essay called The California Ideology, and I think their insights remain relevant.

They argued that the emerging technology industry “promiscuously combines the free-wheeling spirit of the hippies and the entrepreneurial zeal of the yuppies. This amalgamation of opposites has been achieved through a profound faith in the emancipatory potential of the new information technologies. In the digital utopia, everybody will be both hip and rich.”

Baked into the new digital and media technologies, they argued, was both neoliberalism and techno-solutionism.

When applied to education, this ‘California ideology’ has unleashed a damaging set of beliefs: a firm faith that technology alone will fix things and that private industry knows better than public institutions in what those fixes should be.

It has steered education towards a sort of crass consumerism, where buying shiny objects becomes the imperative.

Indeed, as some of these latest objects are marketed, this is the only way to be ‘smart’ and ‘connected.’

The theme of this year’s event is ‘discovering learning’. What’s your advice for developing and maintaining curiosity around how we learn?

Step away from the internet; read a book.


About the interviewee

Audrey Watters is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s OEB conference in Berlin. Find out more about the agenda here.


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