They come not to teach

E-learning consultants invent crises and create divisions between students and teachers so they can sell their wares. Tara Brabazon analyses the rise of the digital Raj

July 3, 2008

Educational technologists are a strange group in our midst. Originally a sub-community of the diverse cohort labelled “teaching support”, they were the staff charged with rebooting the ancient machine in the antiquated laboratory that featured blue screens of death rather than YouTube clips. But they have now been reborn in the Web 2.0 age. While they celebrated the “innovations” of e-mail and internet relay chat in the 1990s, their progressivist juices now flow in a wiki-enabled, blog-logged, pod-synced age. No longer trapped in the daily grind of meetings, report writing and action research modelling, they are free to roam conferences preaching analogue exorcism and digital salvation.

Their tactics are predictable. Invent an educational crisis. Create a solution through “new technology”. Undermine, decentre and erase the expertise of generations of teachers and librarians. Everything must be new, shiny, light, small and – most importantly – interactive. Their PowerPoint slides are slick and animated, featuring flow charts, colourful Venn diagrams, quotations from Stephen Hawking and oh-so-amusing cartoons. Many have relabelled themselves e-learning consultants.

Rarely do these “consultants” write speeches. They merely resequence their slides at breakfast before delivering a keynote address at 9am. As one of the horsemen of the analogue apocalypse, they preach Armageddon from the headings. It is also fascinating to view the “research” that they cite through their pithy PowerPointed knowledge. Instead of deploying longitudinal studies, such as from the PEW Internet & American Life Project or Ofcom studies, they quote globalising management consultants such as Richard Florida and Charles Leadbeater. Words such as “creativity”, “technology” and “progress” enfold into a streamlined vision of “the future”, where everyone is online, sharing, editing, building and facilitating.

We all know – don’t we? – that teaching-led research funding follows those who celebrate “new” technology. If ‘e-’ or ‘i-’ or ‘pod’ is added to as many nouns as possible in a grant application, then its success rate improves markedly. If the e-learning, i-facilitating podcast develops entrepreneurship for the creative economy, then money will be thrown at the researcher before he can say “virtual university”. It is seemingly more financially expedient to invent another round black object that moves, giving it a new label such as e-mobility architecture or the podmobile, than to acknowledge that an existing object – a wheel – is an effective match of design and function.

For the past ten years, good teaching has been defined as the innovative use of digitally convergent platforms. The consequence of this inelegant and inaccurate relationship between “new technology” and “good teaching” is that curriculum development has suffered. The focus is on process and tools, not literacies and knowledge.

The techno-babble would not be so serious if we electronically tagged these digitised e-learning management consultants so that they could continue talking among themselves, restricting their influence to “networking” with other true believers. Unfortunately, the corporatisation of education requires the permeation of an incorrect assumption that teaching and learning is economically efficient. The problems of the online environment – and online education – do not fit into such a vision. Underreported in the literature – often because studies are funded by organisations that want good-news stories about new technology – are the high dropout rates from online courses, “gaming behaviour” from normally civilised students who flame their colleagues with racist, sexist or homophobic abuse, poor attendance in class, low levels of reading on or off screen, and depleted editing and drafting skills. It is much easier to celebrate the contribution of text messaging to literacy, or Wikipedia’s “history” page to critical thinking, than to consider – beyond a tabloidised shriek – why widening participation agendas have failed and why there is a high dropout from first-year students.

There are two crucial points to remember in such a strange age. Both have a convincing and long-term literature behind them. The first is that motivation is integral to education. When some of us enrolled in teacher education programmes in the analogue age, the goal was to move students from – remember this language? – extrinsic to intrinsic learners and from surface to deep learning. To enact this process, strong attention to students’ lived context, aspirations and expectations, rather than a user’s generated content, was required. To fetishise tools and platforms is to ignore why citizens are drawn to formal education. Students do not enter schools and universities to change a wiki. They want to change their lives.

The second point, which has influenced every part of my teaching, learning and curriculum development, is that students from “non-standard” backgrounds – including citizens of colour, mature scholars and those from the first generation in their family to attend university – require more teaching, not less. Yet at the very moment that we need to deepen our commitment to these students, giving them more care, more respect, more leadership and more understanding, we have absolved our responsibility for developing authentic, deep, challenging and compassionate education by hiding behind phrases such as “interactivity”, “office hours” and “student-centred learning”.

How did we end up here, confusing “the new” with “the effective”? Not surprisingly, Margaret Thatcher – and the “revolution” made in her name – must shoulder some blame. During the 1980s, the Conservatives became the radical party, the party of change. The attacks on “the state” and public institutions resulted in the market’s transformation into a postmodern secular religion, delivering liberation from the supposedly deadening forces of industrialisation, Fordism, the union movement and “the Sixties”, with all those troublesome socially progressive movements. Neoconservatives built on this imperative from both Thatcher and Reagan for endless transformation, taking their message of small government and big business to the world in a militarily fuelled evangelical crusade.

Since the 1980s, forces on the Right have been radical initiators of change, instigating an historical reversal of traditional conservative affirmations of the status quo and continuity with establishment values. Left and progressivist social movements in such an environment had – and have – two choices. Either they move to the right to reconnect with debates about change, as seen in Clinton and Blairite Third Way agendas, or they cling to a desperate (and ironically conservative) act of preserving institutions, values and beliefs from a kinder age for capitalism. They become part of an anti-change agenda.

The consequences of this political debate on discussions of educational technology are clear. We need to remember that some notable neoconservatives were Trotskyites in the 1960s and 1970s before their “conversion”. The technological progressives in their number, inspired by the efficiency and productivity of the globalising market economy, preach the language of their former selves, of permanent revolution. The goal is endless change, endless instability, a perpetual unsettling of the status quo using the agitated web environment as a model, method and siren’s song.

The small space that remains for the Left and progressivist forces is an unpopular, underfunded and marginalised commitment to “the public”, through the preservation of public health, public education, public libraries and an affirmation of independent decision-making, disconnected from corporations, public relations and marketing consultants.

There is a new phrase propelling this deep commitment to change for its own sake. “Digital natives” was first used in 2001. Marc Prensky, a(nother) management consultant, claims ownership of the term, and he uses it to demonstrate that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors”. Once more – as if commemorating the 40th anniversary of May ’68, the young ones are restless and the older generation doesn’t understand. But true to the pattern, Prensky has diagnosed a moment of revolutionary change, invented a social crisis and failure in education resulting from it, and transformed himself into the consultant to fix it.

Generation is too blunt a sociological instrument to understand social, economic and political change. It always has been. It is far too vague a description for our contemporary students and how “they” deploy “technology”. But in his affirmation of modernity, it is not surprising that Prensky deploys reified, positivist science: “It is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up.” So besides simplifying how “a generation” engages with information, he has also hypothesised a physiological transformation of the human brain.

It gets worse. Those older people who doubt the scale of this change (and his argument) are termed “digital immigrants”. Appropriately, in a post-multicultural era, being an immigrant is a problem because they keep a “foot in the past”. “They” go to the internet second, rather than first, when looking for information, and they supposedly print out e-mails. No ethnography or participation observation data are cited to verify these claims. Instead, natives are skateboarding through Web-two-point-zeroland while those pesky immigrants are slowing progress because they are weighed down by all those silly books.

An obvious point is forgotten by our e-learning consultant. The platforms, data and information being processed at multitasking speed by the “natives” were actually created by “immigrants”. Bill Gates, Serge Brin and Chad Hurley created the infrastructure that is being used because – a point forgotten by Prensky – “immigrants” know more than “natives”.

In less xenophobic times, such a statement would be self-evident, even at the level of analogy or metaphor. Immigrants have lived in different ways, in at least two places, and have had to manage the trauma of movement, translation and change. Immigrants are flexible because they have to be. Digital immigrants know that drafting on screen and drafting on paper are both valuable, and often locate different types of errors. We know how to engage with information quickly or slowly, understanding when superficial reading and data-mining will suffice and when a line-by-line, page-by-page, chapter-by-chapter deep engagement with an intricate text is required.

But statements about continuity, stability and considered reflection do not sell books, win grants or fuel consultancies. Prensky therefore must preach crisis and endless change: “If digital immigrant educators really want to reach digital natives – ie, all their students – they will have to change. It’s high time for them to stop their grousing and, as the Nike motto of the digital native generation says, ‘Just do it!’” Obviously, it is time for some history, or what Prensky calls “legacy content”. “Just do it” was a slogan first used in 1988 before our current students, the “digital natives”, were born. The age group included within his generational categorisation is increasingly murky through such popular cultural references.

Prensky runs a consultancy business that designs games, which he describes as “the best opportunity we have to engage our kids in real learning”. When reading his articles, such as “Digital game-based learning”, which appeared in ACM Computers in Entertainment in 2003, his “research” features two references, one of which comes from his own book. It is remarkable how many of these management consultants not only display few references, but the “research” they deploy is their own. Heavy self-citation is a confirmation of two facts. First, the writer is not a wide reader and second – even through Google alerts – he cannot find anyone to agree with him. However, a strong refereed article on this debate has emerged in 2008, written by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin and published in The British Journal of Educational Technology. These scholars saw the “digital native” discussion as a form of “moral panic”, one of many that have encircled “youth”.

Less emphasised by Bennett, Maton and Kervin is that Prensky is not only interested in the tools of learning. He is also an “expert” in content and curriculum, stating that “students should be learning 21st-century subject matter, such as nanotechnology, bioethics, genetic medicine and neuroscience.” Everything else is “legacy knowledge”. This is a form of crack-fuelled Darwinism; survival of the fastest text messenger.

Prensky, on his own website describes himself using the following nouns: visionary, consultant, author, speaker, inventor, game designer, learning designer and futurist. The irony of his labels becomes clear only when reading his curriculum vitae. He received a BA in 1966, an MA in teaching in 1968 and an MBA in 1980. Since that time, he has undertaken no formal qualifications or updating of his teaching skills.

Prensky has focused on the newness – the revolution – in technology because he has spent his career since 1978 in management, promotion and marketing, and most frequently as a consultant. His online profile states that “he has taught at all levels of education, from elementary to college”. That is correct. But let’s drill down into the résumé he provides on his own website. From 1968 until 1971, he taught maths and a special reading programme at Benjamin Franklin High School, following from 1971 until 1973 as “director” of the Citibank Street Academy, both in Harlem. His CV also lists an “adjunct” professorship in music at Wagner College on Staten Island from 1973 to 1978, while he worked as a classical guitarist and lute player. On this basis, he founded Games2Train, an “e-learning company” that services IBM, Pfizer, Bank of America and the US Department of Defence. Not surprisingly – and no self-interest here – he confirms that “games” are the best way to “train” in schools and universities. I am not sure if the US Department of Defence is an appropriate testing ground for pedagogical methods in our universities.

So while ridiculing contemporary teachers as “digital immigrants”, using his expertise with gaming to show he is “down” with the “natives”, he is carrying assumptions about the classroom that are – conservatively determined – 30 years out of date.

The classroom he imagines does not exist. It has been replaced by years of gradual, reflexive change that he has not seen because he has been working in the corporate environment. But this disconnection from the lived experience of teaching and learning is why “new” technology is seen as such a revolution in his rendering of the classroom. When he last taught on a daily basis, Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Annie Hall won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

These critiques of Prensky and other e-learning consultants – regarding generalisations, research and expertise – are obvious. But there is a final more troubling problem. This talk of “natives” and “immigrants” is meant to operate as a metaphor or analogy. In later work, Prensky describes this terminology as “humorous but useful constructs”.

Very few of the supporters or critics of Prensky question the profound inappropriateness of the word “native”. In a (post)colonial era, such a term activates histories of injustice, violence and inequality. Similarly, it is condescending and xenophobic to select “immigrant” as a term to signify weakness, redundancy and incompetence.

Seemingly, management consultants have replaced anthropologists, leading civilised peoples into a “new world” of online discovery and riches. The internet has replaced India and Africa. Wandering deep into Web-two-point-zeroland, we find alienated, text messaging, multiply pierced, pod-wearing, pink-haired people. They are different – exotic – compared with the rest of us.

To describe a group as “native” was acceptable through the 19th century. Through the survival and courage of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the conversational labelling of “natives” by empowered colonial masters started to drip away, along with the unjust assumptions of colonial “masters”. “Natives” became citizens.

A similar critique can be offered of the phrase “digital immigrants”. In a terrorised globe, the movement through space is patrolled, regulated and blocked. Migrants are dangerous, to be restricted, refused entry and monitored. “They” speak a “foreign” language, eat different food, and will not fit in with “us”.

But we are missing one identity from the duelling puppets of digital natives and digital migrants. We are missing the puppeteer. The e-learning consultants using these labels with no consciousness of the histories of injustice carried with and through “natives” and “migrants” must face a label of their own.

These consultants, trying to explain to teachers how to teach, to librarians how to manage information and to students how to learn, are the new digital Raj (or even more postcolonially appropriate digital Raja). Whenever colleagues or policy documents mention “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, it is important that we start to tether the digital Raj to these other glib phrases. In the balance sheet of education, the permanent revolution benefits only those who perpetually invent a crisis, to which they are the well-paid Prince Consultants to the rescue on a white charger.

Tara Brabazon is professor of media studies at the University of Brighton.

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