Ed Tech Boxes

Know the surest way to make people dislike you? Do a close-reading of something they wrote without being asked. Then exaggerate their statement a bit so you can make a point you wanted to make. I’m going to do that with Martin’s quote below and then Jim’s blog post title. But maybe admitting all that up front lessens the irritation.

I think those of us who’ve been around shouldn’t bemoan the state of current ed tech too much, when these people are shaping it to their own ends. I have no evidence for this, but my experience suggests a lot of new ed tech people are driven by values, such as social justice, rather than an interest in the tech itself.

Martin’s statement above has stuck with me. I think because it feels like the “it’s not about the technology” statement that I’ve heard so many times over the years. It is about the technology. It just isn’t all about the technology. You see this pattern with lots of technologies. It’s not about the camera/lens. Sure. Having a really nice camera won’t get you great shots . . . but having certain lenses/cameras will make things possible that are simply not possible without the right technology.

When I first took photographs as a teenager (1990s) I wanted a shallow depth of field. I didn’t know what it was called. I just wanted it. I had was a cheap point-and-shoot without the ability to manipulate the aperture (or anything else). Since it was a film camera, experimenting had a direct financial cost. Add to that, getting the film developed led to large delay between the action and figuring out what the result was. I’d be really careful about taking shots and so I wouldn’t bring that roll in to be developed for months.1 That made it nearly impossible to connect my actions with the results in any functional way. Maybe I could have kept a notebook or something but I just thought I sucked at photography.

Fast forward to my 20s when I borrowed my dad’s digital SLR. The world changed. Suddenly I could experiment and see the results instantly. I had access to the things I needed to change to get what I wanted. I didn’t suddenly become a professional photographer but my ability to improve changed dramatically because of the technology. The camera even helped me by providing the vocabulary that led to other learning. The information about what I did was saved with the photograph for later reflection. Exif data became the notebook I would never have kept.

More recently, I bought a 28mm-300mm zoom lense so I’d have a huge amount of range when photographing sports. I can zoom in on fairly distant action and still get some really fun shots when plays come right into my face. Professional sports photographers usually have two cameras2 to deal with this but I’m dealing with a more limited budget.
023A3577.jpg

I brought that lens when visiting my in-laws in Cape Cod where we ended up trying to photograph the piping plover. They’re skittish, tiny, fast moving, endangered birds that live on the beaches. The chicks were particularly awesome. We were getting decent shots with at 300mm but I couldn’t help but wonder what we’d be able to do with some more range. I knew that at least a couple of my kids were into photographing wild animals in general and my oldest does some photography for kayaking/rafting where a big zoom would be advantageous.3 So after much research and much internal justification, I bought a 150-600mm zoom. It certainly changed how we were able to photograph those birds. It will change our options in the future as well. There is a reason nature photographers invest in powerful zoom lenses. The technology makes certain shots possible but it doesn’t guarantee those shots. That’s the thing people confuse.

piping plover chick

Now that’s whooooolllleeee lot of backstory to get to my point which is that this is always a blend. I don’t think Martin’s implying this all-or-nothing bifurcation between tech and social justice but I wanted to make it explicit as I do see people thinking about it that way.

To do edtech well4 requires an interest and understanding of so many elements. Given it’s ed tech,5 you really do need an interest and understanding of technology. It is in the name after all. Edtech people with no interest in technology are like chefs who aren’t interested in food. I guess you can do it at some level but you’ll never be any good. Maybe you want a different job? It would help reduce confusion.

Of course you can use technology for larger goals, and I’d argue you should, but if you don’t understand the tools and the ramifications of different technological choices then you’re missing the foundation. How deep do you need to go into the tech side? There’s no answer but I find that the more I know about everything (tech, pedagogy, media production, design, etc.), the more things I can actively make choices about. To stick with the chef analogy, you want to very your cooking styles. Try some French cuisine. Make some sushi. Do some chocolate sculpting. Master some things. Experiment in others. Keep on keeping on.

Does this get overwhelming? Yeah. There is an endless amount of stuff to know. Each layer of understanding just reveals more layers. It’s like if Alice just kept falling through additional mirrors for forever. The Wonderlands never cease. That kind of thing doesn’t fit well in today’s society where people want easy answers and crisp lines. This isn’t a recipe for happiness.6

To further parse the quote, I don’t know if people are shaping edtech to their own ends. Maybe that’s happening. It’s certainly not happening with corporate EdTech and it’s not happening if they don’t have an interest and understanding of technology. To shape a thing, you need to understand it.

I’m also fine with saying that the corporate aspects of EdTECH suck and saying it often. It’s what many of us did twenty years ago when we were young edtechers. No reason to change now. The current crop of young edtech people can take it or leave it. I think the key is not to falsely glorify the past. There was no golden age of edtech. There will be no golden age of edtech. It’s just a long struggle to do what you think is right and good. Expect no quarter. Expect no end. Know that any company will either betray you or go broke. Other good stuff will come and go.7

It reminds me of The Dawn of Everything8.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction to powerful critiques of European society posed by Indigenous observers and intellectuals. Revisiting this encounter has startling implications for how we make sense of human history today, including the origins of farming, property, cities, democracy, slavery, and civilization itself.

I won’t try to break down this whole book here but I think there’s some strong parallels to education in general that are worth exploring. It’s a large book and it’s given me lots to think about.

And finally, a brief comment on Jim’s post title. It’s a good post title but the word angst has continued to bug me. It’s dumb on my part but it does. It makes it sound like the complaints are the kind of vague whining that an emo teen will someday grow out of. That’s my own baggage with the word maybe but angst is never a compliment. I feel like if you’re not mad about a huge swath of what’s going on then you’re not paying attention.9 I see lots of educators who are only too happy to fit in neat little boxes shaped by corporations to maximize profit. They are happy. They are confident. They stack their corporate badges in their email signatures. They monetize their edtech edutainment juice on the social medias and proclaim their truths from various conference pulpits. They aren’t angst-ridden.

I look for that balance. I want people with serious concerns about edtech but I want people who see potential. I want people who have goals and see technology playing a role in achieving those goals. I avoid people with easy answers and blinding confidence. Give me people who worry at night that they’re wrong. Give me people who help you navigate complexity but don’t hide it. Give me people who can see when it’s technology causing a problem and when technology is just providing evidence of larger societal issues. These things aren’t angst to me but an accurate and honest view of a messed up world and an attempt to navigate a path to something better.


1 It couldn’t have been that much to develop film. However, I grew up to stories from my grandmother about how my dad saved up for months to buy a canary . . . and then didn’t buy it because it seemed like too much money.

2 Or three in this guy’s case.

3 Plus there was a birthday, some father’s day money, etc. etc.

4 By whose definition? Mine.

5 Is my spacing and capitalization of EdtEch inconsistent? Very well. I contain multitudes of not caring about that.

6 Want to be happy in the USA? Amp up greed. Crush that empathy. Ignore as much complexity as possible. Dunning Kruger yourself as hard as possible.

7 RIP: Yahoo pipes, Google Reader, a bunch of APIs . . .

8 Well worth reading.

9 Or maybe you’re just too depressed. I get that.

Comments on this post

  1. Martin said on July 19, 2022 at 9:21 am

    I’ve managed to upset you and Jim in one post – touchdown! 🙂
    Sorry, I didn’t mean that interpretation from my post (I used to get pissed off when people would say “technology doesn’t matter”, when in online learning, clearly it does). I rather meant that newer generation of ed tech people are coming when, say, MS Teams is an established fact in their organisation. I just don’t want to be the old timer who is gatekeeping what is ‘good edtech’ and saying it was more fun in my day.

    • Tom Woodward said on July 19, 2022 at 9:27 am

      I’m not upset. No way! I thought my intro paragraph covered that I was mainly just using it as an excuse to say a bunch of stuff that I thought. It was also a clever ploy to get both you and Jim to comment.

      I think we’re on the same page and I think I echo that sentiment towards the end. There was no golden age. Just different problems and different advantages at different times.

  2. Shannon (@shauser) said on July 19, 2022 at 11:46 am

    Your story about photography really helped solidify thoughts I’ve had running through my head recently. In the work that I do, mostly with students, I feel like my role is to constantly just push towards understanding a little more about technology to help them bridge the gap between where they are and what is possible. I don’t feel so much driven by knowing tech but know what tech can enable for me and the people I work with. This is what I try to drive home with all the students I work with, if you are trying to accomplish something and it feels like technology is somehow thwarting your end goal (like taking photos with a shallow field of depth) it is time to try something new.

    Maybe it is the advantage I have at a small school that when I see the big EdTech conversation circling the drain I look at what is going on at my own institution and see little evidence of this (we don’t have proctoring, turnitin, etc). In fact there are lots of faculty and students doing really cool things. Maybe I’m just ignoring an incoming tidal wave or maybe these things aren’t actually always the concerns of all institutions (like how the media inherently focuses on elite schools when they talk about colleges even though that is not the experience of most schools). Anyway, now I’m rambling.

    Also, I just put “The Dawn of Everything” on hold at my library. I love a good paradigm shifting narrative.

    • Tom Woodward said on July 19, 2022 at 2:55 pm

      There’s some long post I hope to write around photography some day. The parallels seem to nice to leave alone for forever. Glad it resonated with someone else.

      I think most people feel fairly good when they look closely. Looking big picture is when I always get sad. Scale is the enemy of happiness.

      I’ll be interested in what you think of the book. Let me know.

  3. Cog.Dog said on July 19, 2022 at 5:23 pm

    Rage it on, brother Tom. I was surprised when someone threw my post in with the angsters (I do find the British “whinging” to be a preferred term).

    I’m with you on the power of shaping rather then being shaped by the tech. What surprises me is how few seem interested in being shapers. Heck, they are missing out on the fun. I’d take that chef analogy to seeing that people want to make chef-like creations from a ready mix package or just in a microwave, without making a mess, getting dirty, or improvising ingredients.

    And that lens! A 600, woah, I wondered how you got those details on the football players faces. I understand your photography metaphor, yet I do remember my learning to use an SLR and also doing the development of black and white photos in the darkroom. I might go romanticizing but the tactile bit of creating the image was hard to beat (well and lots was crap).

    Yes, there was a delay between the taking of the photos and seeing them, but also some magic of seeing an image emerge in the chemical bath. It was still iterative to go back and forth, and I somewhat relished that comparing of what I thought I had seen in the image when I took the shot to what i saw later. I have that somewhat even with digital, as I find I don’t always see everything in the screen viewer on the camera than what I see later while editing, I still work through a delay process.

    Hmmm, I thought I had a point, probably not.

    No angsting in sight.

    • Tom Woodward said on July 20, 2022 at 5:40 am

      I have negative associations with angst (and whinging) but it’s probably personal. Jim’s comment here makes it sound almost noble to be angsty.

      I agree with you as much as I can without having done any developing. I can see that being pretty amazing and having a lot of value. There is a whole world of understanding that might happen in the developing process. There’s probably something deeper to analyze in what happened when developing film was outsourced. Lots more popularity in photography I’m sure. In some ways, I wonder if the digital post-processing options brings people back closer to those opportunities. I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a chart, a sabbatical, and a few grants to fully explore this.

      The Sigma 150-600 is new as of two weeks ago so no football pictures yet. I’m looking forward to it as an option. In the scheme of things it was a pretty low priced zoom and I’m pretty happy with it so far. The Canon stuff was just mind-blowingly expensive.

  4. Jim Groom said on July 20, 2022 at 1:30 am

    I appreciate that your post really lays out how the “it’s not about the tech” refrain is empty using the digital photography example. It really highlights how much the tech has changed the games on some fundamental level that we have not only internalized, but as a result minimalized. This example goes a long way towards demonstrating just how powerful the tech can be for learning with a really relatable example, so for that alone I love it. I think I was slouching towards a similar idea in my post, but my attempt was weak by comparison.

    I have to say I kind of enjoyed the “edtech angst” label given I love emo-core. It seemed for a moment to me like there was a sense of kinda like “Audrey’s gone? what’s next?” Lauren even said to me, “How are we going to respond to this news?” That for me was kinda like yeah, I guess the proclamation that good edtech is dead is potentially angsty for folks thinking they are part of a new edtech thing at Reclaim 🙂 Although, the angst is not necessarily bad in my mind, or seen as derogative. I imagine angst as something that pushes us towards expression, challenges, and a certain amount of cultural congealing. I think it pushed at least a few folks to want to write and share because the angst we feel has some basis in an always shifting landscape. I think angst is greater than ennui, for sure.

    That said, I do understand how angst might suggest this is just a phase, and the grown-up edtechs have made peace with the corporate EdTech and we need to get with the program, but if the angst is in reaction to that, i think it might have some legs as a space to challenge those without a deep level of discomfort about the field, or the world in general. So, in that regard, the angst might be a connecting principle around a new moment in edtech that gives a nebulous, if temporary, shape to the struggle you are talking about.

    • Tom Woodward said on July 20, 2022 at 5:46 am

      You make angst sound pretty good.

      I am likely reacting to an upbringing that has poisoned certain words. Angst and emo were not compliments in Alabama. There are a variety of words like that which I have to look up and compare it to what I’ve been raised to understand them to mean.

      I do need to know if any of the bands in this emocore article are real so I can listen/not listen.

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