Over Easter I’ve been reading “To Save Everything, Click Here – Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist” by Evgeny Morozov, with an eye on how his views on internet solutionism could so easily be applied to the current discussions around MOOCs, learning analytics, electronic assessment and feedback etc. Two more lengthy and much better informed reviews can be found at:
Tara Brabazon also provided an excellent review in the Times Higher a few weeks ago.
In this post, I’ll just highlight some areas that resonated with me, and which can be related to the HE context.
This book is a required read for anyone interested in the internet, and the promise of solutions to everything which are peddled by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and parroted by those how haven’t taken the time to really understand what might be happening, but just see a new shiny toy, and think that they need one too.
This isn’t to say that all internet innovation is wrong – just that we need to think a little more about it.
Morozov frequently criticises Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky et al in his book – and possibly rightly so, as the way in which he describes their polemical arguments is that they feel they cannot be criticised, because “the internet” is beyond criticism – it just is.
Moving through the book, Morozov explains his key theme of technological solutionism – essentially, someone identifies that something is broken, and that there is a technological solution to fix it. He then identifies the limitations in this way of thinking.
At the moment, higher education (indeed all education) is being portrayed as broken, with for examples, MOOCs or the work of Sugata Mitra being proposed as solutions.
As Morozov states early in the book:
The ballyhoo over the potential of new technologies to disrupt education – especially now that several start-ups offer online courses to hundreds of thousands of students, who grade each other’s work and get no face time with instructors is a case in point. Digital technologies may be a perfect solution to some problems, bit those problems don;t include education – not if by education we mean the development of skills to think critically about any given issue. Online resources may help students learn plenty of new facts….but such cramming is a far cry from what universities aspire to teach their students.
Are our students different?
..”the Internet” has produced an entirely new generation – the so called digital natives………They are a generation of scrutinizers who are more sceptical of authority as they sift through information at the speed of light by themselves or with their network of peers. Best of all today’s young people are authorities on the digital revolution that is changing every institution in society
Are we sure that this is the case? Do we really think that our students are a homogenous group who are all authorities n a digital revolution? We know that we still need to help students to develop skills in information and digital literacy, that they don’t all have the highly developed critical skills to think about an issue and develop their own learning.
Transparency and Openness
This chapter of the book is interesting, particularly in the context of an article in the Times Higher this week, which is also about openness.
In terms of education, we are being bombarded by the idea that MOOCs are a salvation for us. Let’s not forget that “open” in this case, doesn’t mean open. Only enrolled students can access the learning materials, they’re not there to be re-used or re-purposed as we might expect from truly open educational resources.
Internet –centrism and solutionism feeds on Enlightenment-era attitudes towards the liberating power of information. More information is always presumed to be better than less; having more ways to analyse the same piece of information is always preferable to having fewer ways……..this gives rise to a mindset that equates information gathering with a “single inevitable trajectory of forward progress”.
Just having access to information is not always a good thing, and Morozov questions whether we understand what our consensus might be around an understanding of openness.
Our internet debates, in contrast, tend to be dominated by a form of openness fundamentalism, whereby “openness” is seen as a fail-safe solution to virtually any problem. Instead of debating how openness may be fostering or harming innovation, promoting or demoting justice, facilitating or complicating deliberation – the kinds of debates we are likely to have about the uses of openness in the messy world that we live in – “openness” in networks and technological systems is presumed to always be good and its opposite – it’s quite telling that we can’t quite define what that is – always bad.
While internet-centrists believe that “openness” is good in itself, internet realists investigate what the rhetoric of “openness” does for governments and companies – and what they do for it.
Here, for a university, the data that we do or do not provide on our provision , eg through KIS, or through the information that UCAS hold (and currently withhold) on attractiveness of courses for 2013 entry are aspects of data that we are urged to make open and transparent. There is a question to discuss about the real usefulness of making everything available. If for example UCAS did publish data at this stage of the cycle on current attractiveness of undergraduate awards at institutions it could send a negative signal to the student recruitment market, which might be based purely on one data point but could have significant effects on the viability of a subject at a particular university. The data alone is not enough for rational decisions to be made.
The perils of algorithmic gate keeping
In this chapter Morozov looks particularly at how big data in combination with an algorithm can be used to predict behaviours. Parallel lessons could be learned from this, particularly in the discussions developing around the use of learning analytics to identify learner behaviour, to identify the student who is likely to fall by the wayside. It may of use to note the following quotation:
But how do we know that the algorithms used for prediction do not reflect the biases of their authors?
It is useful to reflect at this point on how we in the UK Higher Education sector use data to describe our institutions to potential and existing students.
The drive to provide data through Key Information Sets might mean that all institutions are providing information that is thought to be of use to students. However, the actual measures used (for instance contact hours) are not necessarily a measure of quality or a guarantee of student outcomes.
In addition, much of the data that we provide to KIS and to Higher Education Statistics Agency is then re-used in various league tables. Here, institutions do not know the algorithms being used by the compilers (at least not in detail) and so there is a danger that institutions now start to try and game the system, to improve a rating, rather than to truly identify areas that need improving.
Evgeny Morozov has produced a thought provoking book, which takes pot-shots at the some of the internet gurus of our age – and hits bull’s-eyes with remarkable frequency.
While the book is not specifically about technology in education, parallels can easily be drawn. Plenty of debate has been appearing online, and for further reading I’d recommend this series of letters between Morozov and Farhad Manjoo on slate.com.