Students Size Up Edtech’s Dark Side

Jun 05, 2019

This semester I’m teaching a graduate seminar on education and technology for Georgetown University. Over the next few months, I’ll share the experience and highlights in a series of columns for EdSurge with highlights from the course. This is part 5. Read part 1, part 2 (about audio), part 3 (about video), and part 4 (about mobile tech in education).


When students in my graduate seminar on education technology were given the chance to select a topic for a class session, they wanted to devote time to the digital world’s dark side.

This made a great deal of sense. We’re witnessing waves of technology skepticism and dread, with multiple Facebook debacles, the publication of new critiques about the negative impacts of tech giants, and rising concern about privacy in an age of growing big data and AI. My students are also in a graduate program that teaches critical understanding of media.

They self-organized readings and key points to examine. Here were the three biggest trends they identified (in no particular order):

Tech Addiction

Rich media—gaming, VR, mixed reality—can be so powerful that they distract us from the offline world. This theme keyed into addiction concerns, as social media and gaming become ever more effective in giving us dopamine hits.

Digital Divides

While some may end up with too much of the latest media, others are completely cut off, due to persistent lack of broadband. Gaps opened up by race, income, education and geography drive wedges between technologies and entire populations. These gaps could well continue or widen as emergent media become more demanding of bandwidth, hardware and user knowledge. These divides, in turn, can lead to unequal educational access.

There’s also a new kind of class divide when it comes to tech. The wealthiest have the option of doing without technology, paying for access to other human beings for services. Perhaps the poor will inhabit a mostly digitally-meditated world as face-to-face contact becomes a luxury good.

Privacy and Digital ‘Colonialism’

The class also investigated problematic aspects of social media. We started with Chris Gilliard’s analysis of how certain companies find stoking outrage and tolerating abusive expressions to be fruitful parts of their business model. This led us naturally to questions of privacy and its exploitation, as well as to considering large digital enterprises in terms of colonialism. In other words, students viewed all of these challenges as expressions of larger structural problems: racism, economic inequality and colonialism. A persistent question: how can we decolonize our practice?

How did we respond to this catalog of challenges?

The students hope to infuse an awareness of these issues into their professional practice, driving them to seek to address them through their thoughtful and creative work. Ultimately we remained committed to exploring technology in education—but with a more balanced attitude, greater concerns and a deeper awareness of edtech’s social dimension.

As the semester’s end approached and some of the students landed jobs, they were thinking hard and deeply about how to balance these technological problems with the positive features of tech they also believed in. That’s actually a good microcosm of the balance that education leaders as a whole are trying to strike.


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