Dr. Doctorstein's Guest Post

A few questions about the Ed-Tech Establishment

March 19, 2014

Who is Dr. Docorstein?  He provided a bio that reads “Dr. Doctorstein teaches at a small, cash-starved state university where all the faculty are smart, all the administrators are good-looking, and all the IT staff are above average.”

Dr. Docorstein asked if I’d be willing to publish a guest post in response to my blog post on The Ed-Tech Establishment.

I thought this seemed like a fair request, particularly since Dr. Docorstein seems to have coined the term “ed-tech establishment”.

Perhaps it should go without saying, but by publishing Dr. Docorstein’s guest post I in no way implies that I endorse his viewpoints. 

Nor do I find Dr. Docorstein’s logic particularly compelling, and I think he is largely uninformed about the roles, tasks, methods, and costs associated with educational technology.  

So why publish Dr. Docorstein in this space? 

Mostly, because I’m curious to hear from you if his ideas resonate.  

Do you think he makes any sense?  

Is his critique of the “ed-tech establishment” shared by others in our IHE community?

I’m also confident enough that our ed-tech community’s work is all about creating shared value, and that we are an important and positive force in higher education, that we can afford to give the stage to (and maybe learn some things) from one of our critics.  

Just because I disagree with the good Dr. does not meet that I shouldn’t listen, engage, and try to find common ground. 

Building a dialogue with those that we disagree with is one of the core principles a worldview grounded in a liberal arts education.

(And I have a nagging suspicion that if we worked at the same institution that we’d be more allies than opponents – as I do believe that we both wants what is best for our schools and our students).

So without further adieu, here is Dr. Doctorstein’s guest post:

A Few Questions about the Ed-Tech Establishment by Dr. Docorstein:

If there is such a thing as an Ed Tech Establishment, then surely we saw it in action last year in Los Angeles.

For those unfamiliar with the Great Los Angeles iPad Fiasco, let me recap. The LA Unified School District, led by a superintendent who was also a former deputy education director for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, decided to spend $1 billion on iPads souped up with Pearson software. (The tablets thus loaded cost $678 apiece.)

Set aside the pedagogical sketchiness and possible corruption of this decision. Set aside its botched rollout. Set aside the pressing need to spend bond money on construction, maintenance, and repair of school buildings in the LAUSD. Think instead about things like political economy and class warfare.

Think of what might have resulted from plowing that local tax money back into the working class communities from which so much of it came. Think of the local jobs that might have been created for the under-employed parents of thousands of at-risk school kids. Consider the possibility that those kids' learning might have benefited more from this general economic uplift than from a bunch of iPads. (After all, there's a strong correlation between poverty and educational underachievement.)

Finally, think of what's going to happen instead. Think of all that local money flying off to Cupertino to pay for BMWs and hand-tiled hot tubs.

Is anything like this going on in higher ed? Do you ever discern a similar political economy at work at your own institutions? If so, is there anything you can or should do about? If you belong to any professional organizations, such as EDUCAUSE, is there anything those professional organizations can or should do about it?

Speaking of EDUCAUSE, I just spent a little time browsing its website. When I got to its mission page, I noticed that the words “faculty” and “student” are nowhere to be found. (Link: http://www.educause.edu/about/mission-and-organization/strategic-directions.) On another EDUCAUSE page I read the following (my italics):

“Every organization and every business has a goal — a cause. For companies marketing IT products and services to the higher education community, that cause is building sales and profitability while contributing to the enhancement of higher education. To do so successfully, you need to create awareness of your products or services and gain access to the right audiences within colleges and universities.... When you partner with EDUCAUSE, you can expect access, awareness, and action when it comes to reaching your target audience. Discover today how we can help you.

Yes, we each have a cause. Gandhi had a cause. Martin Luther King had a cause. Pearson has a cause. A cause is a cause is a cause, whether it's promoting social justice or “building sales and profitability.” It's all the same to EDUCAUSE.

Please forgive my edu-snark. Does EDUCAUSE's coziness with the ed-tech industry compromise its ability to advance the cause of higher education? Are there conflicts between (1) helping students and faculty and (2) serving as a marketing arm of the industry? If so, do any of those conflicts ever manifest themselves at the local level where you work? If so, what can you do about them?

My university is committed to Blackboard. We spend quite a bit of money on it, not only on direct payments to BB but also on perpetual rounds of platform-specific faculty training. (I've gone through this training myself. For me the strongest lesson was that I wanted to continue supporting my classes with the WordPress site I created many years ago on my own.)

I have a wild theory that there are better ways for my institution to spend its money than shipping it off to Blackboard. Perhaps most effective of all would be to spend that money directly on our most needy students in the form of scholarships. Then they wouldn't have to work at Wal-mart for 30 hours a week and could spend those 30 hours studying instead. But since that sort of direct approach seems to be forever off the table, I'm thinking maybe we could better use our IT money to free up some time for faculty to investigate, experiment with, discuss, collaborate on, and perhaps adopt some of the tremendous variety of freeware out there — to use technology in ways that make the most sense to each of us in accordance with our own pedagogical and disciplinary needs.

Very few of us do this right now, because we all teach a 4-4 load. Time spent exploring the web's amazing pedagogical possibilities is time stolen from our students. Far more of us would investigate those possibilities if we had a little release time now and then; the money thus spent might not help as much as money spent directly on scholarships, but I suspect it would at least result in a more tech-savvy faculty and better instruction.

Is this theory really so “wild”? When institutions lock instruction into proprietary systems instead of substantively supporting wide-open faculty experimentation with freeware, are they empowering faculty, or techno-infantilizing them? If the latter, what, if anything, is the proper role of ed-tech staff in instigating change?

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Joshua Kim

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