BEYOND SKILLS: Asking Critical Questions About Educational Technology
by Mark Roquet
The year 2020 has been a nightmare. As I write this in September, we are reeling from a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, experiencing a brutal new iteration of white supremacy and racist violence, facing the impacts of climate change with fires and toxic air across the West, and trying to hold onto hope for a nation in which many Americans seem determined to let the country stumble toward fascism and disaster rather than give up some of their privilege. These crises are deeply intertwined with each other and with networked technology, which has facilitated the spread of disinformation, climate change denialism, and racist ideas—while exacerbating economic inequality and arming corporations and the government with new tools for surveillance, manipulation, and control.
|Ultimately, these conversations take power away from a teacher and give it to students, which is essential to moving past carceral approaches to education and toward something more democratic and liberatory.
2020 has been particularly tough for educators. As I write this, many teachers and librarians are starting the school year scrambling to learn new technologies in order to digitally connect with and teach students, who are frequently experiencing traumatic crises of health, housing, and food access. Many teachers are implementing these technologies reluctantly, recognizing that they flatten unique humans into datapoints, surveil and profit from tracking student behavior, and are sometimes associated or integrated with platforms that have decayed civil society by promoting radicalization, bigotry, and conspiracy theories. This creates and exacerbates the conditions that fueled the pandemic and drove the need for distance learning in the first place.
Many teachers are uncomfortable with technologies that reinforce the most dehumanizing, punitive elements of education and broadcast the dominating power of teachers and schools into students’ homes. Many are dubious that things will ever go back to normal. Some fear that Silicon Valley is getting ever closer to disrupting public education by replacing human teachers with personalized, on-demand digital instruction that focuses on measurable skills and high-stakes testing rather than preparing students to be critical, curious citizens of a democratic society.
CAUSE TO HOPE
There is cause for hope in these dire times. As Rebecca Solnit writes, hope is not the same as optimism; optimism is believing that things “will all be fine without our involvement,” while “[h]ope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” As educators, we know that we have power to act and demand change when we unify, but we must recognize that our ultimate potential is through our students. In building our students’ capacity for critical thought, self-awareness, and compassionate action, we are building hope that they can create a better world than the one they are growing up in. This includes developing technologies that are more humane and more democratic and are designed to improve lives rather than extract value. In this article, I will share one strategy for educators—particularly, librarians and educational technologists—to develop this capacity in their students.
“Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act.” —Rebecca Solnit
QUESTIONS AND CRITICALITY
Gholdy Muhammad, in her book Cultivating Genius , describes criticality as “the capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression,” so that students will “read the world with a critical eye, refusing to accept unexamined information as factual or true. …” At the core of this critical approach is the habit of asking tough questions.
“Criticality is the capacity to read, write, and think in ways of understanding power, privilege, social justice, and oppression, particularly for populations who have been historically marginalized in the world.”—Gholdy Muhammad
Librarians teach students to interrogate source texts while researching, asking questions such as, “Is this source relevant to my research?” and “What are the biases or blind spots of this piece?” But questioning and interrogating texts goes far beyond source assessment for school research projects. Librarians should understand that anything that communicates meaning—an article, a tweet, or
a piece of software, for example—can be read as a text. Our goal should be for students to habitually question and interrogate any text they are presented with, whether it’s in the context of school research, pursuing a personal interest, or learning a new technology.
Educators can model criticality for students by sharing and exploring critical questions about technologies as they are introduced and used in class. Too often, librarians and technologists act as cheerleaders for new technologies, implicitly encouraging children to adopt the same orientation. While this approach sometimes leads to fun, shared experiences, it doesn’t develop students who are critical citizens or technology users. That’s not to say we can’t have fun and be critical in the same class period or even at the same time. As James Baldwin reminded us, true citizenship requires us to be critical even of the things we love.
“I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”—James Baldwin
I will introduce four sets of questions that are a good starting point for helping students to critically question technology. They can be incorporated into training sessions, provided as reflection exercises, or explored as standalone discussion, research, or writing activities. Each can be discussed in a few minutes or a full class period. A version of this can be applied at any grade level. Although the language and complexity of the discussion may be different, students from kindergarten through high school often have strong opinions about technology and are capable of expressing and developing their thinking. Finally, these questions aren’t specific to educational technology. Students will often make connections to social media, video games, streaming services, or other technologies they enjoy. These connections should be encouraged and explored as time allows. All technology demands critical evaluation. Educational technology is a good place to start because students are required to use it and may have an easier time adopting a critical stance.
This is not an exhaustive list. Different types of technologies lead to different questions. Educators should surface and share their own questions, apprehensions, and observations—and make space for students to do the same. Critical questions often focus on context (the social, economic, cultural, and historical environment in which a particular technology developed), impact (whether and how a technology challenges or reifies systems of power and oppression), and change (empowering students to think about both what they would change and how change happens). To be clear, our role isn’t to guide students toward predetermined answers. Instead, we must model (and develop in students) the habit of critically questioning any technology, with self-awareness, compassion, and a growing understanding of the role of power, oppression, and liberation in our society. Let’s take a look some questions to consider.
Who developed this product? How was it created? What came before? How did people respond to it? In history class, students might learn about the development and impact of the printing press, the telegraph, or the atomic bomb. However, if they learn anything about current technologies, it’s often limited to breathless celebrations of entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Instead, students can be encouraged to wonder about what problem technologies were developed to address, the background of the people who developed them, and how they were received when introduced. Students should understand that technologies are the products of regular, flawed humans rather than immaculate conceptions. Given the well-publicized representation issues in Silicon Valley, students may also wonder about the privilege and experiences of the creators and the resulting biases evident in the technology.
Who is profiting from this product and how? Students often understand they are being tracked online, but they don’t always understand the expansive business models underlying this surveillance. They might explore how many free services have opaque data-gathering operations behind them. They might also consider and debate whether data-driven corporations should face more regulation or how they can be encouraged (or forced) to be more transparent. Finally, students might explore other funding models: What if we supported technological infrastructure as a shared commons, such as the fire station or public library?
How will this technology impact people? Will it have different impacts on particular groups of people? Will it exacerbate or improve existing inequities? These questions involve research or discussions on how technologies might impact people in disparate ways and particularly across identities such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, ability, or socioeconomic status. Students might explore some of the many examples of inequitable outcomes from algorithmic technologies in home buying, education, employment, or the criminal justice system. Fully exploring these questions requires a safe, inclusive classroom environment and for all students to have a baseline level of literacy around race, identity, and oppression.
What would I change about this technology? How could this technology change? These questions speak to Rebecca Solnit’s definition of hope. We often talk about technology as having its own predetermined future outside of human control. This isn’t the case. While it’s not always possible to reject technologies or change them singlehandedly, there is hope in our individual and collective ability to take action. The first question can simply give students permission to be critical of the technology in the everyday sense of the word (what do they like or not like about using it?)—or it can encourage reflection on the aforementioned deeper questions. Students might also explore the ways that technologies do change and improve: advocacy from citizens and users, employee activism in Silicon Valley, accountability journalism, and government regulation. They may not realize the human choices behind iterative updates to technology or how technologies develop in response to market pressures and the risk of obsolescence. Finally, students can be invited to discuss how they might take action to change technologies and can be encouraged to take those actions if they are so inclined.
GIVING UP POWER
There is a tension in this work. We are inviting students to critique technologies even as we are training them to use these same technologies (often compulsorily). I experienced this tension several years ago when I first began exploring these issues. I was teaching seventh graders about Big Data and algorithms, and they began asking increasingly pointed questions about the data gathered by our student information system. I was delighted that they were thinking critically and that they had made this connection. But I suddenly felt vulnerable and unsure of my footing, wondering if I would hear from administrators after inadvertently encouraging students to rebel against the software used for submitting assignments, tracking grades, and recording attendance. I helped students explore these questions as best I could, but made it clear I was not in a position to defend the use of that particular technology or to excuse them from using it.
Since then, I have grown more comfortable facilitating these conversations, but I have learned that it’s often necessary to be clear (and vulnerable) about my role and expectations. Often, even as I am encouraging students to question a technology, I am required to ensure that they learn to use it effectively. Librarians and other educators frustrated by their relative powerlessness can look for opportunities to push this work upstream, helping other faculty members and administrators critically question technology and creating opportunities for students to have their voices heard by decision makers.
It can be scary, but there is also a sense of freedom in encouraging kids to critically explore big questions that don’t have easy answers and that are immediately relevant to their everyday lives. Ultimately, these conversations take power away from a teacher and give it to students, which is essential to moving past carceral approaches to education and toward something more democratic and liberatory. Technology is not the only area in which critical questions should be asked, nor are critical questions the only element required for making our schools more humane and more democratic.
But, particularly in this moment, it’s a great area for librarians and other educators to work toward preparing students to be critical, compassionate citizens. It’s one way to build hope.