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Audrey Watters: Will the Ed-Tech Industry Take Advantage of the Coronavirus Crisis?

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Audrey Watters reminds us of Rahm Emanuel’s immortal words, “Never allow a good crisis to go to waste.”

And she see the enthusiasts of the ed-tech industry ready to pounce and take advantage of the current crisis. She lives in Seattle, possibly the epicenter of the crisis.

She writes:

Some schools in the Seattle area — both K-12 and colleges — have closed, and there has been intense pressure on administrators to shut everything down and move instruction online. (Governor Inslee has just announced the state is considering “mandatory measures” to combat the spread of the illness, so we shall see what exactly that means.) I’ve heard lots of local tech workers complain angrily that, in a region that’s home to Microsoft and Amazon, there is really no excuse for schools staying open. Digital learning, they argue, is already preferable. And now, they say, it’s necessary.

But that just strikes me as wildly uninformed — although that’s never stopped the tech industry from intervening in education before. It’s an assertion that rests on the assumption that ed-tech is good, that it can replicate at home what happens in the classroom. “This may be our moment,” ed-tech folks exclaim, giddily sharing lists of their favorite digital learning tools (with little concern, it seems for questions of accessibility, privacy, or security) and tips for quickly moving “to the cloud.” Of course, education technology — as a field, an industry, a discipline, a solution, what have you — has had decades and decades and decades to get this right. It still hasn’t. So when you hear “this is our moment,” you should recall perhaps the thesis of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine. What we’re poised to see in response to the coronavirus — and not just in education, to be fair — is more disaster capitalism, and “disaster capitalists share this same inability to distinguish between creation and destruction, between hurting and healing.”

People are hurting and people are frightened right now. And thanks to the utter incompetence of the Trump Administration, there’s surely still more to worry about; still more people are going to suffer. This isn’t the time to be triumphant about ed-tech’s possibilities. This isn’t the time to prove anything about ed-tech, quite frankly. This an emergency response to a crisis.

Do all students have access to high-speed broadband at home? K-12 or otherwise? Nope. Do all students have access to laptops at home? Nope. Schools know this, and it’s part of the calculation they make whether or not to move everything online. But closure isn’t just about classes. The function of schools extends well beyond instruction. This is particularly true in K-12 schools, which also serve for many students and families as childcare, community centers, health care providers, disability support services, and places to eat breakfast and lunch. To close the doors to a school shifts the burden of all these services onto individual families.

Spare me the techno-solutionism. Let’s talk about big structural change. (But let’s not act like we’re gonna implement that tomorrow morning, ok?)

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