Why do edtech folk react badly to scepticism? Part 1: Vested interest
“It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair.
I’m sceptical about the benefits of ‘edtech’. This is, I think, a legitimate position to hold. It doesn’t make me a Luddite: I’m enthusiastic about the advantages generally of technology, I’m just not so sure about the ways in which ‘edtech’ is sold to schools.
Since writing this piece on my exasperation with the way iPads are fetishised in education I’ve been inundated with edtech folk pointing out what an idiot I am.
Now obviously enough, I’m not that surprised. When somebody criticises something in which you have a vested interested it’s very hard to remain dispassionate. And this is the problem: vested interest is a very predictable route to bias. Just to be clear, a vested interest is defined as “a strong personal interest in something because you could get an advantage from it”.
Here’s a selection of the Twitter profiles of some of those who have been quick to point out why I am wrong to be sceptical of edtech:
Anything stand out? All of them identify as an Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE). Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting a public affiliation with the US tech giant makes these people in any way corrupt. I’m certainly not suggesting a direct financial interest in pushing Apple products to schools, But I am suggesting that publicly identifying with a corporation whose interests only the most naive would believe were not motivated by those of capital means that it’s difficult to maintain any kind of neutrality. I only know one of them personally but I’m sure all of them are perfectly reasonable and pleasant when not discussing criticisms of Apple products.
When I pointed out the problem with identifying oneself as an ADE, I was told this betrayed my complete lack of understanding of the ADE programme. So I thought I’d have a look on the website; this is what Apple say:
Apple Distinguished Educators (ADEs) are part of a global community of education leaders recognised for doing amazing things with Apple technology in and out of the classroom. They explore new ideas, seek new paths and embrace new opportunities. That includes working with each other — and with Apple — to bring the freshest, most innovative ideas to students everywhere.
Right, so this appears to be a way for Apple to recognise teachers who do “amazing things” with Apple products. You can imagine the boardroom conversations:
So, what do ADEs actually do?
ADEs advise Apple on integrating technology into learning environments — and share their expertise with other educators and policy makers. They author original content about their work. They advocate the use of Apple products that help engage students in new ways. And they are ambassadors of innovation, participating in and presenting at education events around the world. Being part of the ADE community is much more than an honour — it’s an opportunity to make a difference.
This indicates that the role of ADEs is to find the best ways to help Apple sell tech to schools. There’s not even a pretence that any of this might raise students’ achievement, it’s all about helping “engage students”. The problem with engagement as a primary aim is that it might even be in conflict with achievement.
There’s also the suggestion that the “honour” of being an ADE might result in lucrative opportunities for self-promotion whilst “presenting at education events around the world.”
Unsurprisingly, in order to register an interest in becoming an ADE you need to sign in with your Apple ID. Luckily, what with me being a sucker for Apple’s marketing, I happen to have one.
This takes you to a page where you can either apply to become an ADE, sign in to the members area or, if you’re an Ethics Officer or Supervisor, complete an ethics form. (Naturally enough, I was unable to find out what the ethics form entailed, but if anyone knows I’d be very interested to find out more.)
Sadly, the computer said no, and I was unable to discover anything about the application process:
That’s all the information Apple provide about the ADE programme.
But let’s imagine I’d been able to apply and got accepted. What then? How, if I’m going around advocating “the use of Apple products that help engage students in new ways” am I going to remain no partisan? What if, for instance I though the new kit from Samsung or Microsoft was better than the Apple products I was advocating? Would I feel able to say so? How would Apple react if I advocated someone else’s products?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. This is not an attack on Apple or on the ADE programme which for all I know might be entirely free from self-interest, but I struggle to believe that anyone who publicly identifies themselves with a technology corporation, whether it’s Apple, Google, Toshiba, or anyone else, can be expected to have anything like an objective view on that company’s products and services. And I think the rest of us ought to view their technological pronouncements with a healthy dose of scepticism.