Outsourcing, EdTech, and 1986

Outsourcing education doesn't look like robots taking over our classes. It happens when we willingly turn over the tasks of teaching to machines without thinking through implications or repercussions thoroughly.


Computers are really good at a lot of things. Media companies are also really good at a lot of things. When the two really teamed up in the late 90's/early 2000's with the Internet becoming more consumer focused, there was a big shift in the way the Western world - in particular Americans - interacted with media. The move from producer to consumer started in the 50's with television becoming more ubiquitous and speed-of-light imagery took over our visual world. Information was available instantly through the telephone, captured on film and broadcast to us in the comfort of our homes.

These films ultimately made their way into the classroom and mixed media instruction, the precursor to "edutainment," became an expectation. With the computer revolution of the 1980's and the shift of entertainment into all areas of life (political and social, in particular) education was soon to follow suit with educational films and games that focused on the entertainment aspect and not so much on the educational component. The teacher was starting to be outsourced because content should be now, decontextualized, and consumable in a comfortable amount of time.

The growth of EdTech in the late 2000's has pushed this boundary even further. Teachers are no longer consumers - they're "ambassadors," focused on serving students with some perks on the side. Content can - and should - be outsourced because information is available in all of our pockets. Why should I, the teacher, be focused so much on the curriculum when I need to focus on the experience my students have?

Neil Postman paints the early days of edtech in Amusing Ourselves to Death. It's stark, reading this book 21 years after its original publication. Postman devotes an entire chapter to the trend of entertainment-as-king in education and his predictions ring true.

Yes, teachers are undervalued, scapegoated, undersupported and treated poorly all around today. Our classes are large, our schools and policies can be suffocating. We lack resources, time, and frankly, pay, to accomplish impossible tasks set before us. Yet we show up every morning to continue the work. (I won't raise teaching to the realm of nobility because that comes with it's own set of problems.)

Outsourcing is subtle and often overlooked. We want lessons to be memorable. We want to provide the best experience possible for our students. There is nothing wrong with that goal. The problems come when the means to achieve the goal sink to places which ultimately continue the cycle of devaluation of the profession.

Highlighted recently, the frequency of product "ambassador" programs which throw perks to teachers in exchange for recommendations (and even students as guinea pigs) has grown exponentially. Companies promising to revolutionize learning are taking advantage of a cultural bias against teachers and feel like they're providing a service.

We'd be well suited to remember that if software is free, you, and by extension, your students, are the product. The freemium model is dead and to stay open, these companies need customers. Arguing that providing a few, all-star, typically already privileged teachers with resources in exchange for "some feedback on a product" is an attempt to hide what is really happening - willing participants in corporate strategy and market gains. Why focus on perks? If the value a teacher ambassador brings is so great, pay them for their insight and time.

From Amusing Ourselves...

...We delude ourselves if we believe that most everything a teacher normally does can be replicated efficiently by a micro-computer. Perhaps some things can, but there is always the question, What is lost in the translation? The answer may even be: everything that was significant about education.

Outsourcing ourselves in the name of efficiency or engagement sells short the role of teacher. Focusing on the authentic "as-is" nature of learning is always a better option that the more efficient, computerize, compromised classroom. Recognizing that edtech companies and teachers have different goals is also important. Companies exist and function to make money. Period.

Teachers exist and function to make better people in the world.

Postman called this out in 1986. No one listened. 21 years later, are we ready to listen?


This post was written immediately after finished Amusing Ourselves to Death. I highly recommend picking up a copy to read.

Featured image is Improving Kids flickr photo by cogdogblog shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

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