Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Part II: 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 two of a two-part review.

Recently, I provided a summary of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology). Here, I move from that general review into a critique of Fink and Brown’s assertions. Specifically, I examine weaknesses in their generalizations about the educational workforce and their focus on expedient solutions; however, I also recognize the potential they’ve created for further advancement of the topic.

In my earlier post, I mentioned Fink and Brown’s central claim: that prioritization of labor-saving devices in education results in institutional propagation of socioeconomic disparity. The first half of this argument is logical: If mastery of durable dispositions is linked to student-instructor interaction and teacher labor, then those who have the means to afford more individualized education will continue to be privileged by mechanized assessment. By increasing the chances of obtaining further education and attractive employment, such imbalanced academic achievement heightens the odds that those students will repeat the cycle and provide their own children with similar educational advantages. However, the authors’ decision to levy significant guilt for this cycle upon teachers (themselves included) is expedient and simplistic. Their claim that “Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering, and we can’t blame that on the machine […] We made it what it is” (pp. 28-29) ignores the financial, geographic, familial, and market factors which force educators to acquiesce to the implementation of sub-standard pedagogy.

The negative features of our educational system extend far beyond the situations of individual teachers. Many of the educators Fink and Brown cast as responsible for large-scale reform are likely more concerned with finding, and retaining, jobs. Their tacit consent to the application of inadequate praxis is not born of blindness or ineptitude, but of necessity: Societal and political trends toward slashed budgets and devaluation of education have left them with no other option. Fink and Brown insist upon speaking for these teachers, admitting that “we have continued to […] teach in thoroughly mechanizable ways – without recognizing what we were doing” and “we’ve already made education robotic” (p. 27). Assigning a single voice to “we” teachers ignores this group’s unique backgrounds and innovative pedagogies (both of which hold real potential for combating mechanization). Granted, a short book such as this requires some simplification, but in generalizing teachers as a scapegoat for such a complex issue, Fink and Brown do more harm than good.

As the authors work toward proposing a solution, The Problem with Education Technology addresses a common villain in the composition classroom: the perfunctory paper (pp. 23-26). Fink and Brown contend that papers are ineffective at teaching skills such as argumentation, use of evidence, and rhetorically effective writing (p. 26). Instead, like standardized examinations, these assignments emphasize only the basic dispositions mentioned above, further mechanizing the writing process. This transition is meant to reinforce Fink and Brown’s accusation that teachers are at fault for this progression in assessment, not technology. Specifically, the authors claim companies such as ETS, Pearson, and Vantage did not create the academic battlefield we now face; they just capitalized on an extant situation for which educators are responsible (pp. 26-27). Here, Fink and Brown have the opportunity to parse the differences between liability for current issues and responsibility for their gradual repair, but instead they conflate the two while brushing aside educational realities which force teachers to consent to destructive practices. For example, the authors choose not to explore concepts like negative washback, a phenomenon in which teachers modify curricula to align with and address testing requirements. Such a discussion would likely reveal that these teachers, rather than dictate destructive assessment practices, instead respond to them as best they can. By glossing over such nuanced situations, the authors create a simplistic paradigm that allows them to mop up constrictive, biased policies with a generic call to action.

This problematic strategy is what enables such a small book to endeavor to solve such broad and seemingly-permanent problems. Having accused teachers of creating and perpetuating these issues, Fink and Brown next attack from two fronts. First, they insist the move toward standardization can be disrupted by teachers willing to divert extra effort and time toward crafting intricate assignments with unique rhetorical challenges (p. 31). They offer multiple alternatives to the stereotypical “write a paper” prompt, including asking students to compose and send emails to friends and family, and challenging students to edit Wikipedia in a manner that avoids removal by the website’s editing Bots (pp. 29-32). However, such solutions are like a Band-Aid for a broken bone: They don’t address the larger issue of institutional reliance on assessment systems, which, whether technologically enabled or still reliant on human labor, are mechanized beyond the point of detriment to students. Confronted by the need for systemic change, Fink and Brown introduce their second call to action. They propose that teachers, parents, and students must organize, not in an alignment against all educational technology, nor in panels and presentations at academic events, nor in ephemeral statements and signatures, but in “hordes” and “networks” bursting with people aligned by a common agenda (pp. 35-37). The authors close by noting the majority of educators support their cause, an encouraging sentiment; however, their claim that “the problem is ours to solve” is both daunting and, as I have already noted, unnecessarily troubling for teachers with more immediate personal concerns.

Fink and Brown’s presentation is engaging, but also riddled with complications. The Problem with Educational Technology provides introductory material necessary for readers seeking to engage in scholarly conversation about mechanized assessment, and its minimal length and informality allow for rapid consumption with high retention. However, its final call to action is concerning, as it strays perilously close to claiming that the end justifies the means: “We may not like [our allies…] but we’ll work together anyway” (p. 37). This book is useful in generating awareness about a major educational issue and in its efforts to simplify and contextualize complex arguments within writing assessment for the uninitiated reader, but those same simplifications weaken its overall effects. Despite its shortcomings, The Problem with Education Technology proves itself worthwhile by informing readers about an imminent threat to both teacher and student well-being and by helping ignite critical conversations about the role of united advocacy in finding an effective solution.

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