For TeachLab’s tenth and final Failure to Disrupt Book Club we look back at Justin’s live conversation with regular Audrey Watters and special guest Kevin Gannon, professor and director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Together they discuss the final chapter of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education. “My institution is where you have students who are living in their cars, students who can't get basic needs, students who are working three jobs and need some technical solution to help them manage this workload. But they're not in those conversations about the tools that we have available to us, to adopt. I don't know what the solution to that is. But I don't think Ivy League graduates designing these products that look like the app students use, so they're more comfortable with it- I don't think that's the answer.” -Kevin Gannon
For TeachLab’s tenth and final Failure to Disrupt Book Club we look back at Justin’s live conversation with regular Audrey Watters and special guest Kevin Gannon, professor and director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. Together they discuss the final chapter of Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education.
“My institution is where you have students who are living in their cars, students who can't get basic needs, students who are working three jobs and need some technical solution to help them manage this workload. But they're not in those conversations about the tools that we have available to us, to adopt. I don't know what the solution to that is. But I don't think Ivy League graduates designing these products that look like the app students use, so they're more comfortable with it- I don't think that's the answer.” -Kevin Gannon
In this episode we’ll talk about:
Resources and Links
Check out Kevin Gannon’s book Radical Hope
Check out Audrey Watters' book Teaching Machines: The History of Personalized Learning
Check out Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education by John Warner
Check out Schools That Learn): A Fifth Discipline Fieldbook for Educators, Parents, and Everyone Who Cares About Education co authored by Peter Senge
Watch the full Book Club webinar here!
Check out Justin Reich’s new book, Failure To Disrupt!
Join our self-paced online edX course: Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices
Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley
Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley
Justin Reich: From the home studios of the Teaching Systems Lab at MIT, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm Justin Reich. This is our 10th and final episode of our book club series about my book Failure To Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education. This week, we're talking about the conclusion with Kevin Gannon and my cohost Audrey Watters. Thanks for joining us for the last session, Audrey.
Audrey Watters: Thank you for having me.
Justin Reich: It's been great having you for all of the past 10 episodes.
Audrey Watters: I have enjoyed it and I am probably stealing this idea for my book when it comes out.
Justin Reich: Well, let us help you. We're into it.
Audrey Watters: Actually, as I think about my book, Justin, what was this like for you to spend 10 episodes rehashing a book that you spent a long time thinking about and rehashing it with, in many cases, the subjects of each chapter?
Justin Reich: Yeah, I mean, that's a lot of fun for me to be able to revisit these ideas, which to some extent are kind of stuck in my own head, but to be able to do it with other people. And I really like it when people point out the places in which the book is not comprehensive or wrong or missing pieces. I think it's quite useful for... One of the themes of the book is people have perspectives on issues and it's our job to just be constantly critical of those perspectives. And I hope that people extend that to reading this book.
So I think back in some of the moments, very early on in episode one, when you said, "Hey, Justin, why do you keep talking about this thing called learning at scale when that's a term that the neoliberal free market charismatic ed tech folks have adopted so readily and in contrast to terms like public education?" Those kinds of confrontations are great for me to think about, oh, maybe I should've picked a different term or maybe I should have taken a different direction.
I mean, another one I really liked from very early in the season or the series was George Siemens saying, "Justin, you got a lot in the book, but it doesn't really deal with international contexts, particularly in depth or particularly well." And I think that's a valuable caution for readers who are jumping into this. I don't know, Audrey, looking back, do you have sort of cross-cutting themes or moments or things that were like particularly-
Audrey Watters: I have a favorite moment, which was probably no surprise was with Dan Meyer, right? Because I think both you and I agree, like if we can pick like different ed tech startup, Desmos is often the one that we referenced. And when I asked Dan, was there anything that Desmos had decided not to do? His response and talking about something that teachers had demanded that Desmos thought was contrary to their mission I thought was so interesting, partially because I feel like it actually cracked open some of the things that you talk about throughout the book, which is that often what the ed tech companies want and what they're responding to are really those the things that improve learning?
And I thought that his answer was... I thought it was honest, which was really interesting from a company's perspective, not from Dan. But I thought it was really great just for him to talk about teachers wants this particular process grading to be automated and Desmos has decided no, that's actually not how we see our tool being used, is not how we want our tool to be used.
Justin Reich: Yeah. So Audrey, for our final conversation, we had a chance to talk with Kevin Gannon, the author of Radical Hope and a professor and the director of the Teaching and Learning Center at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa. And what I loved about the conversation is that we really got to the biggest systemic political issues. We started with ed tech, but then we saw how ed tech is connected to our school funding, our pedagogical models, the infrastructure of venture capitalism that produces our technologies. What did you take away from these big broad conversations?
Audrey Watters: I thought it was a great conversation and a perfect way, really, to be able to talk about the conclusion of the book and really focus, not on technology, which is a big takeaway, not focus on technology, but to talk about all of the structural issues around it, I thought it was important.
Justin Reich: Yeah, that's certainly something that I hope that people take away is that technology is a catalyst for discussing these things. When I teach my undergraduates at MIT, one of my favorite things to help them realize is that education is like this web, which is sort of connected to every part of our society, to loan interest rates and to transportation policy and to housing policy and to poverty and to affluence and to cognitive science and how our brains work and the limits of working memory, that you sort of just start tugging on any thread in education. And you just find it's connected to all of these other pieces of who we are as human beings and who we are as a society. And I think conversation is a great example of how these kinds of connections can happen.
Audrey Watters: Yes. And at really at the end, what we value, right? And what we want to do about it?
Justin Reich: So Kevin, the way we've been asking people to introduce themselves with their ed tech story. What signature event from your own schooling or teaching got you interested in these kinds of topics?
Kevin Gannon: So I've been thinking about this. There's actually two things, so I'll try to be concise. So one is I graduated college in December of 1994 and my last semester I discovered Gopher, which was just this amazing... As a history major, I could look books up in other universities' library card catalogs. And I thought to myself, this is totally rad. And the pinnacle of research technology, of course.
So ever since then, I've been really fascinated by tools that help us open up doors to find more geeky material, whatever that might be. And also tools that expand access to libraries. My other, where I really became kind of immersed in this world. In about I think it was 2007 or so, I started consulting with Pearson Higher Ed on there My History Lab product.
They were looking to get some people from the pedagogical side to talk about how it might be used in class and things like this. And what happened was I eventually... The people I worked with were great and I think they were mostly in it for the right reasons, but Pearson itself is this thing, right? And this was back when they were doing like super, super well.
So I got brought out to two of their annual meetings, one in Orlando and one in San Diego and addressed groups of their representatives on how living, breathing college felt. Like here's a college faculty member-
Justin Reich: Look, it's a real one.
Kevin Gannon: Right? Like in from the wild, in our private [crosstalk 00:08:08] controlled habitats. And so, the second of those annual meetings, I met the Newton people. So your discussion of the book of Newton was hilarious, because that was totally my experience. And I was like, wow, you guys are really selling this hard. And it was-
Justin Reich: Newton was this provider of sort of adaptive learning as a service. Up until that point, almost every adaptive tutoring product had been built in its own platform. And what Newton says is you write the items, you write the answers, and we'll create a backend that provides you with adaptive service. And then they made a bunch of totally unsubstantiated over the top claims about how powerful this was going to be. Continue.
Kevin Gannon: Which you know, they got their practice for that at the Pearson meeting, because all I heard was how this was going to just totally revolutionize online components to college classes, from math to humanities and back again. And my reaction was kind of, eh, so that relationship actually went on for about three or four years. I went to their headquarters a bunch of times, worked with some editors, wrote some material, was involved in the conversations about their auto grading products, which I was totally not a fan of.
And then, Pearson and market share term being what it is, the people that I was working with ended up getting reassigned or whatever. And I kind of fell out of that orbit for a lot of reasons, but it was a really interesting introduction to just how companies you're working with at among higher education or even education in general take one particular aspect of a technology and just bludgeon you with it and weaponize it to the point where you almost feel like resistance is futile.
I called them the board because it was like, we will be assimilated. Right? But it was a really eye opening experience. And it was also very interesting. Some of the people I worked with were great and like totally dedicated to good higher education and accessibility, but those were also people who I think were very ambivalent about their role in Pearson because Pearson is certainly not all about accessibility. So that's kind of what I think set up some of the things that I'm really interested in thinking about and working with today was that experience. Plus, it was wild going to like super nice swanky hotels and having all these sorts of experiences that one doesn't get in higher ed as a regular part.
Justin Reich: Yeah. Yeah. And then heading back to Grand View University, to not necessarily humble colleges. They are still great places, but not quite as swanky places to be able-
Kevin Gannon: Yes, certainly less swanky than the Ritz Carlton in Orlando, for sure.
Justin Reich: Well, good. Well, it would be great to hear from you and Audrey, both sort of a summary of the conclusion, but kind of your take on the whole book. Because Audrey has been here for a bunch of the last weeks, Kevin, we'll start with you. What did you take away from the conclusion? Especially for anybody here who maybe has not read it yet, what's the take home message for you from Failure to Disrupt and then we can figure out what's wrong or what's missing from that message?
Kevin Gannon: So this is kind of a cop out of your question I think, but really what resonated with me the most throughout the entire book and certainly in the conclusion. And I'll put it in the form that you asked for. So I used to think that the hype cycle for ed tech and the promises that were being made were done in profound ignorance of history. And I'm trained as a historian, so very sensitive to this, but now I think that's even more true. So we'll go with that.
Justin Reich: The sense is in the 1990s and 2000s, someone should have been able to look back at the history of radio, of film, of personal computers, all the promises made with them and be like, come on, people. Everyone keeps saying that these things are going to profoundly change education and they don't. And boy, should we really be able to be confident kind of saying that now.
Audrey, having read and had these conversations over the whole book, and now the last couple of pieces in the conclusion, what were some of your takeaways that you think are important for people to be attentive to?
Audrey Watters: So actually, I would say similar similarly to Kevin, this ed tech amnesia is what I call it. This way in which people who work in and around, near with ed tech seem to just forget about the past. It's like a Will Smith and Men In Black with the little shiny light. All of a sudden, like we've forgotten what happened last year, let alone that. And I think that that piece is really important, but one of the things I really liked about this conclusion and it's actually one of the reasons why I thought Kevin would be a great guest today was because you kind of lay out your theory of change. Right?
And I think that in Kevin's book, which I'll plug for him. His book, Radical Hope, which is excellent, really excellent. He also has a theory of change. And I think it's really interesting how, of course, the ed tech evangelists have a theory of change as well, that we can sort of put that I think we can very easily push back on, but how do schools change? And what's the direction we should be pushing them in? And how do we get there I think is just really important questions to tussle with?
Justin Reich: Having looked at both of them, Audrey, and then Kevin, you as well. How are the theories of change and Radical Hope and Failure To Disrupt the same or different? What are the key sort of common components?
Audrey Watters: Well, I think that both would insist that the transformation is not technology, right? The technology is not the... There's that book that the editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly wrote, What Technology Wants, right? As though technology has agency and makes choices and makes decisions and pushes change. And I don't think that that book... Both books say, nah, and in fact it's community that we should be thinking about. I think that that's one similarity. How about you, Kevin? Do you have-
Kevin Gannon: No, I think that's exactly right. And that's what struck me too is and why I like to... So what I really liked about the kind of conclusion here is it's a very non-sexy argument, right? Like change is incremental. Change involves such radical concepts. Like, hey, let's talk to each other and make sure we really want to do these things. Right? Like those are hard sells, but that's how change takes place, and I'm a firm believer that... It almost sounds counterintuitive. And I love tech. I'm a device geek. I love all this shit. But I think really what EdTech does in many ways is, it doesn't open anybody's imagination, it actually constrains our choices. And so when we're presented with like, "Here are all these tools that will help affect change," and then all of a sudden we start conceiving of change as something that can only be affected through the use of technology or a particular technology that has certain affordances and certain capabilities, and not on the other side. So, we actually put blinders on. And then we talk about change as if there's a scale effect that the more technology is used, the more dramatic the change is. And this is where we get into the idea of disruption. Disruption, I've always been fascinated by the fact that it's not a word with extraordinarily positive connotations for learning, yet everyone wants to disrupt learning. And so-
Audrey Watters: The disruptors were the Romulans' weapons, the banned weapons that the Romulans had.
Kevin Gannon: Exactly.
Audrey Watters: The Federation decided there will be no disruptors because that's like the worst possible thing.
Kevin Gannon: That's right. So, it undoes everything. I think what I really resonated and held with this conclusion, was that even though it's swimming against a really strong tide in terms of what we think is important culturally, it's an argument that we have to keep making. I mean, as Audrey talks about, clearly it hasn't taken. We're on a year to year renewal of the hype cycle that we see here. But it's a profoundly important one for when we try to advocate for things like students and the resources that we need to work with and among students well.
Because some of those resources get sucked up into these tools or databases or things like that, as opposed to like, "Hey, maybe we could hire a couple adjuncts into full-time lines," and use the technological affordances we already have, but this would be a more profound change in the student experience in any sort of algorithmic-driven tutoring service than we could buy. For just using as examples. So I think the insidious effect of EdTech, and of the hype cycle in particular, is that it profoundly limits our vision of what is possible. And then we can't imagine alternatives without EdTech, and that's where I think we get into a really dangerous place.
Justin Reich: And Kevin, hearing that, I see your argument operating on two levels. One level is the kind of rhetorical level. So, we come to believe that tech is the source of the change. But I also think there's a real mechanical, on the ground level of like, we invest in these systems and put a bunch of sunk costs into them. We've spent $X million to be able to do a system-wide learning management system implementation, and we set up the standard course shell across all of our courses. And now we all just have to use that, whether it's for a poetry class or chemistry class, or whatever it is. Because we've put all of this investment in this particular form of education technology, that idea of having our choices constrained rather than expanded seems powerful.
And Gardner in the chat has a nice contribution, I think to this. "I used to think that the limitations of technology in schools and classrooms was a function of teachers' time, limitations, and fear. Now I think that teachers' suspicion has actually saved us from some of the educational industrialization that would not really serve us." One co-story to the story of disruption is the idea that, "Wow, we can really do these tremendous things, except these conservative teachers in the classrooms, just kind of stuck in the past, not letting us change anything we're doing." And opens up this alternative story, which is, "No, these folks who are bringing more skepticism are not necessarily trying to prevent things from getting better, they're just questioning whether or not the approach that we're taking is actually leading to folks getting better," which I think is a nice modification. I don't know. Are there thoughts on that conservatism or skepticism that's worth holding on to?
Audrey Watters: I think that's so important, because I do think that that is the story that you have heard historically, and that you still hear to this day, is that teachers are Luddites, that they're the ones who are preventing change, rather than actually... One of the other pieces I liked is, you lay out really clearly in the conclusion that school, and you're talking about K-12 school, but it holds for higher ed too, there are myriad of purposes, and often competing purposes, functions, that schools meet. These are complex systems. And so, when technologies aren't adopted, the narrative is too neat to be able to say, "Ah, it's because of this particular profession," which just happens to be the largest unionized profession, and mostly female in K-12 worker.
So yeah, I love hearing people who want to push back on that idea that it's the teachers' fault that disruption hasn't happened. I mean, I can say that it's interesting to think about the way in which technology opens these questions. But I think that for better or for worse, I think that the pandemic has also really prompted us to have these questions with and without the technological component. What are we expecting people to do as students? What do we expect teachers to do as teachers? What does that look like? And what does that look like now that I think a different set of eyes, or maybe on the classroom, than were pre-pandemic? [crosstalk 00:21:33]
Justin Reich: Yeah, literally parents' eyes, family members' eyes.
Audrey Watters: Yeah.
Justin Reich: Are there specific conversations that are happening now, Audrey, or specific sites of those conversations? What through lines of that should we follow or pay attention to, do you think?
Audrey Watters: For me, it's been interesting to watch how the narratives around teachers have changed since February, March, the realization early on that teachers were all heroes and should be making a million dollars, in the first few weeks when parents were attempting to do remote or to at least manage their children's [crosstalk 00:22:13]-
Justin Reich: I've been trying to teach my child math for two hours, and now I think every teacher should be paid a million dollars.
Audrey Watters: Exactly.
Justin Reich: Yep, I remember those tweets for only like a week and a half in March.
Audrey Watters: Yes, but then things changed. And I think that we saw over the summer and even into the fall, I think a lot more critical and I think pretty negative sentiments towards teachers. "Why are teachers refusing to go back to school?" for example.
Kevin Gannon: "Why are teachers refusing to play their usual role as picking up all the slack left by the state and the community." Right?
Audrey Watters: Yeah.
Justin Reich: I had a really interesting conversation with a principal in Yakima, Washington. I was giving a talk to a group of educators and I was saying, "One of the most unfortunate things of the pandemic is that municipalities, states, should have had a much, much bigger role in preserving the social safety net. And instead, society basically turned to schools and said, 'Can you do the teaching and learning, but can then you also keep everyone fed and be frontline healthcare workers and find housing for kids who don't have it, and basically be our social safety net?'" And this principal in Yakima said, "But we should do that. That's our role. We needed to do that to take care of these kids." And I said to him, "Please maintain that attitude as an educator. Please believe that you can make an enormous difference and that you can tackle all these challenges."
And then, as a citizen, put a lid on that and realize that there's a negative feedback loop of teachers being like, "Yep, we're totally overwhelmed, but I guess we'll take that on too because no one else is doing it." Because it reshapes the conversations, so that Jeb Bush can do an op-ed in the Washington Post, which says, "Schools really need to make sure during the pandemic that we're providing internet access for children." Which is of course, on the one hand, it's absolutely true. Schools should dole out every hotspot they can. We just found out this week that there might be 60,000 kids in New York City who are doing remote schooling with paper packets because they don't have technology, they don't have connect to the internet. But by the same token, it's completely absurd to think that the overburdened New York City Department of Education should be responsible for running new fiber optic cable into housing projects and homeless shelters, and those kinds of things. There has to be other parts of society that step in to take care of students and families.
Yeah. I mean, I think the pandemic... Gosh. I guess part of that twin stories is, to what extent will the pandemic be a kind of awakening moment where we sell, "Goodness gracious, there's so much more that society needs to do to take care of kids." Or will we leave the pandemic with a message like, "That was pretty bad, but teachers kind of held it together, so they probably will next time"?
Audrey Watters: "And the tech sucked, but what are you going to do? You got to have EdTech."
Kevin Gannon: Right. Like, "Yay teachers, but they're still complaining too much and we still vaguely dislike their unions because..." reasons. I have two kids, one junior high, one high school, doing remote schooling through Des Moines public schools. I mean, our school district has just done amazing yeoman work on this. Our all-volunteer school board is trying to navigate basically the complete institutional failure of everybody around us. So, teachers are communicating with us, schools are communicating with us as, and as a parent I'm totally digging this. But by the same token, most of these communications are meal pick up and the logistics of getting kids who were on free and reduced lunch the family food that they need.
Again, the pandemic has just laid bare how faulty most of the assumptions we had about what educators are doing and should be doing in our society, just how unsustainable that is. And for about two weeks in the spring, there was that window of hope, but now it just seems like we're over that. This whole neoliberal idea that we could just contract all this stuff out, the basic functions of civil society, and somehow keep stumbling along and being successful and someone will help us disrupt our way out of it as soon as we figure out the right tool with which to do so, to me, it's fantasy. It's absolutely ludicrous fantasy. And I don't know what the answer to that is, but I felt like I wanted to say it.
Justin Reich: I'm glad you did. Well, I'm also glad you brought up school board meetings. I definitely feel like some of the moments of gratitude that I've most had over the last few months, have been sitting in on a couple of different towns' school board meetings. Yeah, as you mentioned, unpaid volunteers who assumed that they were going to be managing like a plus or minus 3% change in the budget, and helping make sure that the superintendent was connected to community, and maybe rehiring that person eventually, suddenly finding themselves in the midst of these incredibly difficult gut-wrenching decisions. As I understand it, the modal elected official in the United States is a school board member. There are more people elected to be school board members than any other elected position in the United States. And I think you're exactly right that they've made extraordinary efforts and extraordinary contributions during a difficult time.
So, one of the structures that's in the conclusion, it aspires to be a bit of a how-to. The title is, Preparing for the Next Learning at Scale Hype Cycle. So, I offer this series of questions. I don't know, maybe it's a little bit inspired by a tool [inaudible 00:28:33]-esque checklist mentality. Like, "Okay, so there's a new technology. What are the questions that we ought to ask for it?" And it starts with, what's really new here? And then continues into other kinds of details of that. Who controls the learning? What's the role of assessment? How are the communities being prepared? Those kinds of things. What was your take on these eight questions? Are there questions that you would take away from that list? Are there questions that you would add to that list?
Audrey Watters: I was curious if you could say a little bit more about the, "What existing technologies does this adopt?" Because I was thinking about, what did you mean by existing technologies? Do you mean, are we just using Google Docs, which is a enterprise tech system? Or are you talking about technologies maybe in different ways? What existing practices does this adopt?
Justin Reich: I think I did mean technologies, in the sense that most new EdTech being sold is not made of de novo new technology. Newton is a great example of this. Newton's founders were out there saying, "We have created the brand new algorithm-driven learning as a service. This is totally revolutionary." And then their engineers were making blog posts that were like, "Here's how we use two-parameter item response theory models to be able to make these predictions." And these models were made in the 1970s, 1980s by educational testing service. And Newton had more data per person, than the educational testing services people did, but the core technology at the heart of Newton was not a thing that was new. It was a thing that had been built a long time ago.
And I think similarly, a bunch of the auto grading tools that we have are not that different from the ones that were programmed into the Play-Doh learning systems in the 1960s and the 1970s. So, almost every education technology software is kind of an amalgamation, all software to some extent is an amalgamation of a bunch of different things, a bunch of services and calls and libraries that have been developed before. Part of, I think, the routine that I'm asking people to try to do is to look at this thing and flip through and look at the individual parts of it.
Audrey Watters: Well, this also ties into Kevin's point earlier. I think that once you start making certain decisions and investing, quite literally, in certain technologies, then the new pieces that are like puzzle pieces, those have already circumscribed what you can do next. Right? The way in which the development of the learning management system was really circumscribed by the development of the student information system that it was built on top of. And so we're building all of these new pieces, we're just packing things onto the learning management system these days, or I guess onto zoom or whatever. But those are already circumscribed by those previous technologies, which hearken back to some really old database stuff. The student information system is, and if you've ever talked to people who run the student information systems at your university or school, it's clunky.
Kevin Gannon: My wife runs ours. And yeah. It interfaces with Blackboard, we're a Blackboard school. And so this is how classes get populated. And so, what this looks like in operation is right now, I direct our teaching and learning center and we're responsible. And by we, I mean basically me and an instructional technologist Blackboard admin person, and we're responsible for online and high flux training development, tech support, all of that. And so the administration has said, "We're going to use the standard core shell." Which I hate, but here I am having to copy it into people's classes. And when we did this pivot in March, all my colleagues in the humanities are like, "What the fuck is this? I can't teach what... Just literally pulling their hair out, you know?
And I was on a zoom meeting where one person started doing that. Right? Because it's so foreign, it's so alien to the way that they are conceiving of the learning outcomes for their class and the vehicles that they want to take to get there. So with the questions that you pose in the conclusion, one of the things that resonated with me was you're making reference to, what is this embodying pedagogically speaking, right? And so, the refinement on that I would have for one of these questions is what pedagogical choices does this particular thing promote? And what choices does it take off the table? Right? Because if I'm teaching a traditional seminar-based class, zoom is basically the only technology I need to do that in a synchronous way if I can't be at my physical classroom.
I don't necessarily need something to be managed, but if I am doing something like auto graded quizzes with adaptive release, where students can level up in terms of their ability to solve a particular type of equation or problem, yeah, then let's talk about that. But, education is a complex system. Colleges and universities are complex systems with varying needs, and all too often, we make decisions based on, I would argue, based more on the needs of STEM fields than anything else when it comes to ed tech, because there's already a shared language I think there. And those of us in the humanities haven't always played well with technology and we've been visibly curmudgeonly about it. And I think that that has shifted the narrative a little bit in terms of the way that resources get allocated when it comes to digital materials, digital spaces, digital tools, to help us create good learning spaces for our students. And I think we're really seeing that divide in these pandemic induced, remote teaching times.
Justin Reich: What an interesting feedback loop that you're proposing, something along the lines of one group of stakeholders say, "This is the kind of technology that we want." Another group of stakeholders says, "That's not really the kind of technology we want and we actually don't need that much technology." And then, IT staff implement those, you described them as STEM ideas, but they also implement them on the humanities people or on other people who weren't primary to the conversation. And they go, "No, no, no, wait." And so then, they feel compelled to... A point they might want to make is like, how do we very selectively choose only a few of these pieces to bring in? But instead they're sort of forced into a conversation, which is more like, "Okay, now that we are completely surrounding these learning experiences with technology, which isn't what we want in the first place. But now we have to jump into these conversations because if we don't, then, the people who aren't at the table are not going to have their input included."
But it's a way that more people are forced to be attentive to these issues, even if their first instinct is to try to be more skeptical and more conservative.
Kevin Gannon: And there's never a student voice that's involved in any of these decisions. Right? The primary audience for like the sales pitch for an LMS or something like that is towards faculty and the IT administrators, the LMS administrators. And like, "Here's all the things that will help you do better and more efficiently. It will help you create spaces that are more organized and help you do these kinds of assessments."
And there's never anything of this rhetoric about it's going to help students do better. Right? The assumption is that the faculty implements something proficiently, then the students will automatically learn better. And if they don't learn better, it's certainly not a design flaw or disciplinary difference. You just must not have implemented the solution right. I think that's part of your hype cycle. Right? This tool is going to solve your problems. It didn't solve your problems. But no one asks the students how they experienced that tool from the user end of it. And that's a real...
I'll say one other example. So in COVID, my institution decided to adopt a COVID tracking app, which was all sorts of problematic in terms of its privacy implications, but no one talked to any students about it. And so the Student Life staff and our administration made this decision on this app that required our student athletes to download it and enter in all this personal health information and use this app. There were two problems. One, they were like, "Hell no, with all this information stuff." And then the second is it was such a screwy app. The interface was awful, the UX. So they were like, "We cannot literally use this."
And so we abandoned it after two weeks, which it goes to show. Right? What are the pitfalls of it? And we allocated a significant amount of CARES Act money to that. So anyway, student voice is sadly missing from this resource allocation, especially when you're locked into something that's going to give you [inaudible 00:38:33] costs. Right?
Audrey Watters: I think that many people imagine that that students are being included because they use words like student success, they imagine what students want. And then of course, what they imagine students want is for students to graduate in four years and get a good job. It's kind of the extent. So I think that people do imagine that students are included. And I think it ties back to some of the things that we talked about previously, that there's also the imagining what students are like when these tools are being constructed. And I think it's that phrase that Tressie McMillan Cottom has, the roaming autodidact, that students aren't... And perhaps it ties into who becomes the engineers for these products as well. Are they from humanities backgrounds? Are they from Ivy League schools? What those people even imagine the student experience to look like and what those folks, I think, imagine what the students want. And I think, Sara Goldrick-Rab reminds us they would like food. Students are hungry, right? Students are homeless. Students are really struggling. And that's not the kinds of things, I think that ed tech even begins to imagine.
Kevin Gannon: And that's because the students [crosstalk 00:39:58] at schools like mine. Right. And schools like mine aren't the big accounts. We're not going to do a system wide adoption to make you a ton of money. We've got 1500 FTEs. And so, we'll pay you 20 grand a year for Blackboard, but that's just a drop in the bucket. Right? My institution is where you have students who are living in their cars, students who can't get basic needs met, students who are working three jobs and need some sort of technical solution to help them manage this workload. But they're not in those conversations about the tools that we have available to us, to [inaudible 00:40:29]. I don't know what the solution to that is, but I don't think it's Ivy League graduates designing these products that look like the app students use so they're more comfortable with it. I don't think that's the answer.
Justin Reich: Yeah. I think part of the answer is sort of political and part of the answer is about professional ethics, or at least those are sort of two of the kinds of things that I've been trying to advocate for [inaudible 00:40:54]. There's nothing within technology that will make the technology more student centered, more accountable to student needs. What will make technology more accountable to students' needs is educators organizing and saying, "Look, we're not going to make these choices without listening to students. We're going to find some way in our internal political processes to include student voice."
But then at the other level, going to venture capitalists, going to the philanthropists, governments who support these things and saying, "As you're funding teams, are you asking them questions about who is at the table? Who is on your board of advisors? What people have you hired under your team that went to places like [inaudible 00:41:38] University, that went to America's urban school systems and not to the exam schools, but to the other neighborhood schools? As one of my colleagues said, "Institutions where the top hundred percent of students go to."
In your teaching and learning center or in your other work, Kevin, how ambitious are you as to the degree to which institutions can make big changes about how they do teaching and learning? One of the through lines of the book is that education systems are just conservative systems. How much should we realistically expect of them to be able to make big changes, pedagogically, organizationally, to serve students better?
Kevin Gannon: So I think the way I would answer that question is to make a contrast between the impetus for change or the willingness to do that kind of change, and the structural systems around that limit that change. And so here's what I'm thinking, right? It's often the case that people will say, "Well, college faculty were never trained how to teach. We never learned anything about pedagogy in graduate programs. And so we're wedded to the lecture model."
And I think that's true to an extent, but with the proliferation of teaching and learning centers throughout the country, faculty development's been a field for the last 40 years, at least. Right? And we know there's been a ton of work on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Institutions know, and if they don't, they have no excuse about what's effective teaching and learning and what isn't.
And we know that the 200 person, 300 person lecture is not effective learning. And so the faculty member who's teaching that course, it's not that they want to teach that course that way. It's they have to, because this is where the resources have been allocated, we're looking for budget efficiencies. And so we want to put a full-time faculty line with 250 students, because that's the space we have and that's the personnel budget we have. And so when we talk about change, how do we disrupt that pattern?
One of my first teaching gigs was at University of Houston where I was a visiting faculty member, replacing an older professor who used to spew vile racist epithets at his classes. So apparently after a year or so, that didn't fly anymore. And so I come in, brand new to everything, and he's teaching 490 person lectures in this vast cavernous auditorium. That's completely the wrong way to teach, but I had no choice, in terms of what pedagogy I'm using. Is it the university, is it the system that's not going to change, or is it the model of funding that we have for higher education that mandates decisions like this?
I think institutions have some wiggle room. What does the administration see as a priority? Our mission may emphasize teaching and learning, well our budget should follow that mission. Right? If we know that 300 person lectures aren't the optimal way, how are we trying to undo that as much as we can? There is some room there, but only some. And so it becomes less of a how do we implement technologies? Right now the decisions on implementing technologies are how do we make this huge lecture-based form of pedagogy more efficient and easier to grade for grad students, basically? Those aren't the right questions, but we can't ask the questions we want to ask if we're stuck in this larger funding model that dictates warehouse classrooms for pretty much every 100 level course we offer.
Justin Reich: So I think there's a similar kind of argument in K-12 too that's made particularly powerful in the pandemic, which is something like, there's no reason why the last nine months had to unfold the way they did. There's certainly no reason why the last three months had to unfold the way they did. We could have made big investments in school systems like we made big investments in airlines. Like we made big investments in banking and financial institutions, to be able to substantially increase the number of staff who were supporting teaching and learning. There's all kinds of folks, one of the most straightforward arguments that has been out there has been something like we know tutoring works. If a bunch of kids are missing school time, we reasonably know how to take volunteers, under-employed people, and train them up to help folks get more individualized attention. And it's simply a matter of making those kinds of investments. So I do think, I mean to me and I hear in your language similar dilemmas that I've faced.
Which has been like, okay, as an educator, I just walk into that 490 person classroom and I do the very best job I can for those 490 students who are there. And I use the best technologies and the other resources that are most available and do what we can. And then as a citizen, you going to have to say, okay, this is totally unacceptable and we need to come up with some other set of solutions for addressing this. And some of what addressing this is going to involve changing the way that we fund K-12 and higher education so that students can have better and richer experiences. Audrey, what are your thoughts on this? What's your sort of optimism or pessimism for academic new deals or for tackling some of these bigger questions?
Audrey Watters: Boy, you want me to be optimistic.
Justin Reich: I didn't say optimistic. I asked for-
Kevin Gannon: You do that?
Audrey Watters: I do think that if we want, if this country... I'll speak of this very US-focused answer but if this country wants to continue to be able to take any sort of pride in its higher education system but also to continue to be the kind of economy, we're going to have to change the way in which we fund school. I would say that I am hopeful that something is going to be done about student loan debt. But again, if we don't change the way in which students have to fund their higher education, then I'm not sure that that's the kind of massive structural change that we need to see. But I think that things have to change. I think it's, I think I said this a couple of weeks ago, it's going to be really interesting to see what the new secretary of education does about standardized testing this spring. The priorities for a very long time have been in running students through the paces for the standardized testing. And this is a moment again, where we can do something different.
We've seen a lot of schools say, maybe we're not going to look at the SATs anymore.
Justin Reich: And a lot of K-12 school systems say there's going to be another year or at least a lot of K-12 school systems saying we didn't do our testing regime last year. The sky didn't fall, maybe we shouldn't do it again this year. And I do think it opens up a bunch of imaginations of like, huh, so okay. If we didn't do that, what would we use as-
Audrey Watters: What would we do? Yeah.
Justin Reich: What would we imagine otherwise?
Audrey Watters: Well, the other piece of that is I would say the sky didn't fall, I mean and it is in some ways the counter to the call for incremental change is that things are really bad. And things are really bad for a lot of students, not just because of the pandemic but certainly, it's been exacerbated. And things are pretty bad for a lot of teachers and adjunct instructors in particular in higher ed. And something has to happen now. I don't know if we want to sort of wait for things to kind of a little bit course correct and for the... Is there a point where we have to be more radical with the things that we demand schools, these institutions do? What does that look like?
Justin Reich: I think that is amongst the most compelling arguments against incrementalism. I sort of feel like the pandemic presents both a powerful case in favor of and against incrementalism. The case in favor of it is something like look around at what's happening and the extraordinarily conservative response of K-12 and higher education institutions. I mean the number of institutions that have actually taken this moment as an opportunity to do something even modestly different is in my view quite small. Shockingly small. And so one view is to say like, look, descriptively these places change slowly. Let's accept the fact that they change slowly and keep our shoulders to the wheel of trying to make sure that slow change is heading in the right direction. And then I think a powerful counterargument is something like but this is totally untenable, inequitable and it's not what our communities are capable of doing as communities or as a society. We can pull together and do better than this. There are points of light out there, we know how and we should follow them.
Well, we have just a couple of minutes left and we got a terrific suggestion from Anne Gardner, which is before the three of you leave, can you each recommend a next book? Let me put Audrey on the hook for recommending Kevin's book. Audrey, why should Radical Hope be the next book that we read?
Audrey Watters: For me, I think it was... Oh, I will say I really like any book that's got manifesto in the subtitle, just politically I find that to be really compelling. But I just felt it was for me particularly as someone who... What is it? I am a pessimist because of intellect and an optimist because of will is what Gramsci would say. But I thought it was politically optimistic in a really powerful way and yeah, I wholeheartedly recommend the book.
Justin Reich: Kevin, do you have a recommendation for a next book to take on?
Kevin Gannon: Well, first let me thank Audrey for those really kind words too because that means a lot. So when Audrey's book is out, you should definitely read that because that's the history that informs these things, right? And a lot of what you wrote Justin when you explored that resonated with some of the work of Audrey's that I'd read before. So I really like the way that that kind of deepened my context. The other book I would recommend too, John Warner who's on Twitter as biblioracle and he writes the Just Visiting column at Inside Higher Ed. He has a new book out through Belt Publishing, the small publishing house in the upper Midwest on the future of higher education. And I think he calls it, what does he call it? I have-
Justin Reich: Sustainable. Resilient. Free.
Kevin Gannon: That's the one, Sustainable. Resilient. Free: The Future of Public Higher Education. And even as someone who works at a small private institution, I have found that book enormously provocative and sort of generative and reflective of the type of conversations that we need to be having. It's a good table-setter I think into that. So that's the book, I think we need to be addressing these big... Change may come incrementally but that doesn't mean we can't be asking the big questions and if we're not asking the right questions, then we're just going to sit and spin our wheels. So I am all about someone, let's put those questions on the table, take an unflinching look at where we are so we can better discern where it is we want to go.
Justin Reich: I think maybe a great companion piece to that kind of thing in K-12 is a book by my colleague at MIT, Peter Senge and a bunch of his colleagues, sort of the community text called Schools that Learn. So Peter Senge wrote a book called The Fifth Discipline, which I think is one of the great management texts about how organizations go through big changes. He coined this term called the learning organization in which he was talking about firms of all kinds. The oil refineries and people that make sneakers and things like that. But I think it applies powerfully to schools that when great organizations are doing their work, they're accomplishing their goals. But also everyone is learning and growing at the same time and that's how institutions become greater. And then he with a bunch of colleagues wrote this book called Schools that Learn that both further explores that idea. But then also gives a bunch of concrete guidance of here are the kinds of things that we could do to be able to make progress in that direction.
Well, Kevin Gannon, it's been an absolute treat getting a chance to have you join us here for our last meeting. Thank you.
Kevin Gannon: Thanks for having me and for the book, I've already given copies of it to my provost and deans. So they have assignments over Thanksgiving break that they're supposed to read it and then we're going to have a discussion group on my campus. So-
Justin Reich: Good. More homework. That was my-
Kevin Gannon: Right. Well, I appreciate-
Justin Reich: And Audrey Watters, the last 10 weeks have been such a pleasure. Thanks so much for joining me, really looking forward to doing this for your book Teaching Machines.
Audrey Watters: Yep. Thank you. It's been great.
Justin Reich: That was our final Failure to Disrupt Book Club conversation with Kevin Gannon and Audrey Watters. Check out our show notes for more resources and links to the books we recommend in today's episode. And be sure to check out all of our previous Book Club episodes if you haven't already. You can find my book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education at booksellers everywhere but please patronize your local bookstore. Be sure to check out failuretodisrupt.com to sign up for future online events. That's failuretodisrupt.com. And join myself and Vanderbilt professor and author Rich Milner in a free self-paced online course for educators called Becoming a More Equitable Educator: Mindsets and Practices. Through inquiry and practice, you'll cultivate a better understanding of yourself and your students, gain new resources to help all students thrive, and develop an action plan to work in your community to advance the lifelong work of equitable teaching. You can find the link to this edX course in our show notes where you can enroll now. The course is already open, it's full of passionate educators from around the world and they would love to have you join them. I'm Justin Reich.
Thanks for listening to TeachLab. If you like TeachLab, be sure to leave us a review and subscribe so you never miss an episode. This episode of TeachLab was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley, recorded and sound mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe, until next time.