in learning, research, teaching, technologies

Iron Man, Ultron, and the Future of Ed-Tech

A few years ago, I sat on a panel discussion with a few colleagues in my doctoral program to discuss our research and perspectives on educational technology. I have to confess that at the time, I had not done nearly enough work to understand the long and sometimes troubling history of digital technologies in schools. To this day, I’ve only started to scratch the surface.

I was also still somewhat wide-eyed about the promises of new media technologies for improving education. Nevertheless, I found myself making an offhand analogy about teaching and tech that seemed to resonate with others in the audience. I don’t know if I’m the first to come up with it, but since it hasn’t shown up on the first page of my Google search results, I wanted to get the idea on paper, if only for my own clarity.

Discussing, in particular, the recent trends in ed-tech, the analogy that came to my mind at the time was inspired by Marvel’s 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron film (spoilers follow). Outside of the general message about the dangers of advanced technology going unhinged, I found the superhero Iron Man and his creation-gone-wild-turned-antagonist Ultron to be interesting symbols for two approaches to educational technology.

Tony Stark and his rogue AI square off. Image still from Kjra Gaming on YouTube

For me, an Ultron-inspired approach to educational technology can be seen in trends around what Audrey Watters has called teaching machines – developments in educational technology that seem designed to automate education and ultimately replace the efforts of human teachers. Skipping, for now, the history of these efforts, more contemporary trends such as intelligent tutoring systems and AI-driven “personalized learning” might be recognized as broadly fitting into this category. In the same way that the rogue AI in the film ultimately concluded that humans were the biggest impediment to peace on earth, so too do some of our contemporary approaches to digital ed tech seem to be founded on the premise that it’s people (or at least some bad apples) that are the problem in education. Now where have we heard that rhetoric before?

“How much of an improvement is the right image over the left image? Image courtesy of Mary Jo Madda’s amazing TED Talk on this topic.

In contrast to this (or so I’d like to believe) is another approach to ed-tech, namely one inspired by the character Tony Stark’s use of his own Iron Man suit to augment his abilities in the fight for justice (or so he’d like to believe). In the Iron Man-inspired approach to ed-tech, digital technologies are used to augment the already amazing superpowers of our teachers – resourcefulness, empathy, fueling curiosity, anticipating misconceptions, and using our weekends and holidays to grade and plan. In the video below, you can catch a glimpse of an early-career Dan Meyer’s own Iron Man transformation.

Importantly, the tech that Dan showcases and continues to advocate for isn’t fancy – digital projectors, camera phones, and media that gets students wondering.

And maybe this is the direction we should be advocating for in schools. Digital tools that are built around the practices of teaching and learning – not the other way around. Approaches that support how people learn, rather than how tech companies want us to. These approaches might not give us the superpowers of the Avengers. But they might just help us better understand the superpowers our teachers and students already have.

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