Tuesday, April 4, 2017

A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part one of a two-part review.

For the first time in ninety years, students across the country face a fundamentally redesigned SAT. Among changes meant to address the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and “provide a more accurate measure of a student’s college and career readiness” is the replacement of the required essay with an optional, longer prompt focused on textual analysis (Domonske, 2016). The adaptations this infamous exam has made to CCSS requirements bring to light many current conflicts in assessment practice, several of which are addressed by Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology) (2016). The latest installment in Utah State University Press’ Current Arguments in Composition series, this short publication discusses and critiques the mechanical nature of modern education. Fink and Brown explore the computerized scoring systems that have been created to evaluate student writing, and inform readers about some of the most controversial contemporary debates in writing assessment, including the mechanization of human graders, the socioeconomic implications of standardized testing, and the reprehensible conditions with which elementary and contingent faculty must cope. This first post offers an overview of the book; the second will offer my critique.

Fink and Brown ease into these contentious issues by first reviewing two prevailing narratives surrounding technology in the classroom: the “teachers versus technology” binary (p. 4) and its counterpart, the “teachers get offered a break” trope (p. 13). These narratives frame the book’s focus on Automated Essay Scoring (AES) systems, which are described as having the potential to eliminate the modern writing teacher and as labor-saving devices. However, Fink and Brown are not primarily concerned with the merits of these assessment systems. Instead, they use AES as an example of current educational attitudes and practices in their critique.

Noting that in education, “labor saving devices haven’t worked, don’t work, can’t work,” the authors discuss the immense labor investment required of teachers to produce what Bordieu (1990) called “durable dispositions”: enduring and effective ways of observing and engaging with the world (pp. 16-17). Such dispositions help students determine effective, appropriate ways of evaluating and responding to novel, challenging situations. Typically second-nature and often intangible, these dispositions rely more on tacit understanding than stated rules and standards. Modern educators may recognize these “habits of mind” as enumerated in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which features concepts such as “persistence”, “responsibility”, and “metacognition”. These “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical” are gleaned through observation and emulation, and they are difficult to directly examine; however, students with greater command of such dispositions are more able to apply these abilities when confronted with scholastic assessments.

Less privileged students, in their attempts to replace these dispositions, often turn to alternative means to make up for their deficiency in labor investment. Among these means is the “fake industry” (p. 18), which purports to help students master strategic formulas that “ensure” success on standardized tests. Fink and Brown argue such formulas cannot replace durable dispositions, and instead claim the fake industry illuminates a fundamental flaw in mechanized assessment and other labor-saving educational strategies. Specifically, they demonstrate that in most cases this industry only further enables those who already possess the necessary cultural capital to succeed. Struggling students continue to flounder while those with better command of durable dispositions simply fold new formulas into their extant constructs; in other words, those “who could successfully fake it [are] the ones who [are] already pretty much able to do it for real” (p. 18). This means a focus on labor-saving education and assessment methods results in testing which measures whether students are “privileged enough: lucky enough to have had all the necessary labor invested in [them]” (p. 20, emphasis original). Students fortunate enough to enjoy a more specialized and individualized education are likely to excel in these standardized testing environments, making quantitative markers of success easier to attain while also increasing the availability of future academic opportunities, including collegiate placements and scholarships.

Meanwhile, students of lower socioeconomic status are restrained by these tests. Because of educational experiences that include a lower degree of teacher labor investment, these students have likely encountered fewer opportunities to develop durable dispositions. Systematic examinations implicitly emphasize many of these dispositions by prioritizing formulaic structure and content over unique or creative student responses, and thus exacerbate the labor-related shortcomings of these students. AES is particularly at fault here, as such systems are the worst offenders in this dangerous prioritization. The result is an automatic disadvantage in assessment amplified by mechanization: The more mechanical a system’s methodology, the more it hinders students who are unaware of, or unable to appeal to, systematic features. Although their abilities may extend elsewhere, less privileged students who lack consistently effective means of engagement with examinations are unfairly assessed.

This issue is complicated by the financial benefits of labor reduction: although labor-saving devices don’t work for teachers and students, Fink and Brown recognize that such devices are attractive to the legislators and administrators responsible for making budgetary decisions (p. 22). The authors problematize the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), another labor-saving alternative to the traditional classroom. MOOCs, though attractive for their affordability and accessibility, are academically unsatisfying as they lack both substantial content and constructive interaction between students and teachers, and feature low rates of student completion (pp. 20-21). They, like AES systems, are not an effective shortcut to labor reduction; however, in an observation reminiscent of Bousquet’s How the University Works (2008), Fink and Brown mention “the history of education policy […] is the history of cuts,” and so MOOCs continue to be emphasized in budgetary decisions (p. 22). It is in this discussion of MOOCs the authors reach their central argument: By prioritizing labor-saving devices as cost-reducing alternatives to institutional labor, educators “tacitly consent” to a construct which reinforces and solidifies socioeconomic disparity (p. 23).


Bordieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bousquet, M. (2008). How the University Works. New York: New York University Press.

Domonoske, C. (2016). Students Across U.S. Take New SAT A) Saturday B) Sunday C) None Of The Above. The Two Way: Breaking News from NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/03/05/469307788/students-across-u-s-take-new-sat-a-saturday-b-sunday-c-none-of-the-above

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011). CWPA, NCTE & NWP.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


Journal of Writing Assessment Editorial Team will be at the 2017 Conference on College Composition and Communication this week.  We'd love to see you and talk with you about your ideas for publications with JWA!

On Wednesday, March 15 from 1:15-2:30 PM, Diane Kelly-Riley will be at the Research Network Forum's Editors Roundtable in the Oregon Convention Center, Portland Ballrooms 256, 257, and 258.

On Friday, March 17 from 12-1 PM, Carl Whithaus will be at the Independent Rhetoric and Composition Journals table in the Exhibit Hall in the Oregon Convention Center.  We'll be in Booth 303.

Our JWA Editorial Team will be at 4C17--keep an eye out for Diane Kelly-Riley, Ti Macklin, Jessica Nastal-Dema, and Carl Whithaus.

We'd love to meet with you to talk about your enthusiastic ideas for potential publications with the Journal of Writing Assessment or our the JWA Reading List.  Email us at journalofwritingassessment@gmail.com to set up an appointment!