By Charlie Jane Anders.
Published in January of 2016.
It was not until I read Charlie Jane Anders wonderful science fiction / fantasy novel All the Birds in the Sky that I understood the internal tension in our edtech profession.
All the Birds in the Sky is a novel about the conflict between technology and nature.
Childhood friends Patricia and Laurence meet as middle school outcasts, and then again a decade later as young adults in San Francisco. As kids, Patricia is shunned for her tendency to talk to animals at inappropriate times. Laurence fairs little better, as despite his skills at creating a supercomputer in his closet and a 2 second time machine for his wrist, he is the constant recipient of bullying and parental neglect. By the time they meet again as young adults, Patricia is a full-fledged witch (having received magical training at Eltisley Maze magic academy), and Laurence is fully embedded in the dot-com / Peter-Thiel-like techno/startup/digital-utopian culture.
It is clear from the early pages of the novel that Patricia and Laurence are meant to be together. It is equally clear that this union may be untenable, given the fundamentally different philosophies embodied by Patricia's magical connection with nature, and Laurence's faith in the potential of technology. Both Patricia and Laurence believe that the world needs saving, and that they can individually use their talents to do important and big things. But their divergent magical/technological methods places these two on a collision course. A path that puts the future of their relationship, as well as the world as we know it, on iffy ground.
Our edtech profession embodies many of the same conflicts that play out between Patricia and Laurence.
On one side of our profession their are those of us who are deeply suspicious of technological solutions to cultural and political problems. We believe that technology in education can be used effectively, if only technology was used modestly and judiciously. Instead, we see the promise of technology between oversold and overhyped. We see a movement to use technology to replace, rather than support, our educators. We believe that learning is fundamentally a relational activity, one that does not scale effectively. Technology, to some of us, has become code for efficiency and productivity - and has crowded out the real investments that we should be making in educators and our learners.
To another side of our edtech profession, technology holds the potential to enable discontinuous improvements in educational outcomes. We believe that incremental improvements in education are no longer sufficient, or even morally justifiable. The traditional structures of postsecondary education exclude too many potential students, and are too expensive for those that are served. For us, technology is a bridge to a different educational future. A future that is better for current learners, as well as one that will enable those currently excluded (for cost and access reasons) to finally enjoy the benefits of higher ed.
Can both sides of our edtech profession ever come together?
The solution for our edtech world may be to spend less time talking about our latest postsecondary programs, initiatives, and schemes - and to spend more time reading and discussing novels like All the Birds in the Sky.
Our best hope may be to read books that combine science fiction and fantasy - technology and magic.
If a witch and a technologist can get together, shouldn't we be able to find our own common ground?
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