The Question Concerning Education Technology

Photo by JD X on Unsplash

2020–21: What a year

During this year of the pandemic, teachers, and students have faced challenges and threats few of us ever imagined. I’ve had conversations about this with dozens of people in the Pressbooks ecosystem — faculty, librarians, administrators, students — all grappling with a transformed universe, one mediated more than ever before by technology.

A sad kid. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

I’ve lived some of this change in my personal life, watching my two young daughters navigate uncertainty, restrictions, Zoom classes, and concern about their grandparents, teachers, and their mother who works in healthcare. “How did online classes go this week,” I asked in January. Both daughters answered in unison, “Terrible.”

At Pressbooks, we went remote quickly in March 2020, and while it hasn’t been the easiest we adapted relatively well, though our office plants are suffering. Hopefully they will get more human interaction soon.

But for teachers and their students this has been an especially trying time. Whether it’s online-video-class-headaches, digital proctoring software controversies, getting access to hardware and reliable internet, hard-to-find digital resources, chat rooms, online homework systems, access codes, or renewed reliance on the LMS, 2020 (and 2021 so far) was the year of the edtech deep-end, where so many had to learn to swim the hard way.

Is it time to ask: What do we want?

As we start to emerge from the chaos of the past year, when so many critical decisions were foisted upon us so fast, it’s a good time to reflect on how education has changed. In particular, it’s a good time for us to step back and think about what we, as a community who believe in the power of education, want out of our education technology.

That’s true of the administrators who decide on tools and budgets; the instructors, staff and students who advocate for or against certain technologies; and technology providers like Pressbooks — everyone imagining a future that came a bit faster than expected.

We’ve talked about this a lot within the Pressbooks team, about what kind of company we are, what kind of company we want to be, and what kind of partner we want to be with the institutions and faculty we work with every day. As we click past a full year of living with COVID, and start to see glimmers of a possible “normal” future, it feels like a good time to revisit what drives us as this edtech engine revs into overdrive.

It feels especially important to me to return to the questions of why Pressbooks exists.

The origins of Pressbooks

Pressbooks comes out of four fundamental beliefs that have underpinned my interest in web technology since I first started really working on the web back in 2004/5. These beliefs are:

  1. The act of creating and sharing something you care about is among the most fulfilling human acts
  2. There is something magic about creating books
  3. The “web book” (network connected, multimedia, interactive, but also bounded) allows us to extend what a book can do in so many new ways, while maintaining the enduring power of a portable, bounded, and efficient mechanism to collect and deliver information.
  4. Open licenses reduce the friction in creation, giving us explicit rights to build upon work that others have done.

That is to say:

The thing we have always cared about most at Pressbooks, the thing that I care about most is giving more people easy ways to create and share modern web-books (that can also be expressed as paper), and building on a growing ecosystem of open content.

The Question Concerning Technology

In 1953 Martin Heidegger* published his essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” as part of a collection of lectures, Vorträge und Aufsätze. I cannot exactly recommend reading Heidegger. He’s among the most frustrating writers I’ve ever read, and I wouldn’t wish that frustration on anyone. Reading Heidegger is a bit like banging your head against a brick wall. But, somehow, when the head-banging pain subsides, a certain thrilling clarity emerges. At least, that’s what happened to me when I read “The Question Concerning Technology” as an undergraduate engineering and philosophy student (bruised forehead and all). It had a profound impact on how I thought about technology then, and a decade later, in 2005, how I thought about the web. Fast forward another 15 years and that influence continues to inform what Pressbooks is.

My copy of The Question Concerning Technology, from an undergraduate course in philosophy.

I wrote about Heidegger and technology way back in 2008, a couple of years before I started working on what would become Pressbooks. Back then, I did a passable job of summarizing my understanding of Heidegger’s arguments, and I’ll repeat myself here:

  • the purpose of technology is to order nature for human use (into “standing reserve”)
  • humans are part of nature
  • in ordering nature through technology, humans become part of that which is ordered
  • in becoming part of the ordered universe, humans lose humanity
  • this is a bad thing
  • we might be able to save ourselves, by appealing to the greek root techne, which means, in part: “art”

Heidegger worries that technology’s relentless drive for ordering comes with an existential threat to humanity.

He writes that as humans transform the world through technology:

Humans “… come to the brink of a precipitous fall; that is, [humans] come to the point where [they themselves] will have to be taken as standing reserve.

The prescience of this warning strikes me more powerfully as every year goes by. Getting sorted and ordered into “standing reserve” might have seemed somewhat theoretical back in 1953, when the height of Heidegger’s modern technology was a hydroelectric dam. In the age of personal data-driven technology, it’s anything but theoretical. We post our thoughts and likes on social media, our whereabouts on Google maps, our personal communication in email — all of this data is processed and analyzed by the companies who own these tools, to better sell us things and ideas. I suspect Heidegger would be tempted to say, “I told you so,” were he to survey the ways in which this technological entry into our personal and private lives has indeed transformed humans so enthusiastically into “standing reserve.”

Ordering Nature into Standing Reserve: An artistic rendering of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” by the author.

The Question Concerning *Education* Technology?

2020–21 was the year of Education Technology.

Students are in a particularly difficult place when it comes to technology. While any of us can opt out of, say Facebook, Google, Apple, Netflix (though the extent to which one can actually opt out is debatable), students have no say in the technology they must use in their learning journey at most institutions. Colleges and universities require students to use the Learning Management System (LMS), professors choose the textbook (no matter the cost) and often the automatically billed online homework platform that comes with that textbook, and students have to contend with access codes, and students suddenly have to navigate AI and adaptive learning, and online exam proctoring. There is a certain understandable logic that comes with many of these technologies: the logic of efficient delivery of more targeted education.

To be clear: more targeted, efficient delivery of education is a laudable target. Edtech will tell you: give me all the data about your students — where they get stuck, the ways they prefer to learn, the exact time they need to be notified to review their readings — and we shall deliver unto you learning like you have never seen! But, promises versus reality aside, efficiency doesn’t capture what I care about in education.

I don’t want to go too deep into this vision of edtech at this moment, either to praise it or critique it, but I will say that I look at it with a certain sense of unease, because it’s a model that evokes Heidegger’s warnings of standing reserve.

And, I guess if I have a choice (which I do) I’d prefer to think about, and work on the ways technology can help teachers and students with some other kind of model. Something more inspiring than efficient delivery of students as standing reserve. I’m most interested in how technology can help the creative experience of teaching and learning.

Saving Power

Heidegger provided a compelling warning about the ways in which technology transforms humans into standing reserve. But he also provided a possible way out: art and creativity, or in the ancient Greek, poiēsis.

In discussing potential solutions to the standing reserve problem, he quotes the poet Friedrich Hölderlin:

Where danger is,

grows the saving power also.

And he quotes Hölderlin again:

“Poetically dwells man upon this earth.”

If I have to choose a model to inspire my work with Pressbooks, it will be:

How can we help people dwell poetically upon this earth?

Humans as Standing Reserve, and the Saving Power?: An artistic rendering of Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology” by the author.

Pressbooks, EdTech, and Creation

That is to say, we at Pressbooks are on team poiēsis.

As we think about the educational technology landscape, we celebrate teachers and students as creators. As builders of things. Teaching has always been, fundamentally, a creative enterprise: A good teacher takes raw information of a subject and works with the student to build upon the raw data and weave it into a dynamic and encouraging learning environment. It’s a complex creative act of sharing, and building knowledge.

Sometimes, Pressbooks helps power explicit student creation, such as Diana Daly’s Humans R Social Media — Open Textbook Edition, edited, revised and expanded by students. But all teaching and learning is about creation in some sense: the math proof, the essay, the debate, the solving of problems, even the formation of memory and the answering of questions: these are all creative.

If I can adapt Hölderlin, I might say:

Poetically dwell the teacher and student upon the earth.

Or, at least, at Pressbooks, we want to continue to help teachers and students dwell poetically upon this earth. Every day, we see new books in the Pressbooks directory — made by instructors and sometimes students — suggesting we are on the right track.

*I should acknowledge here that Heidegger’s relationship to Nazism casts a big shadow on his work. I don’t feel able to tackle how we should think about people who write/creare great things, but have deeply troubling personal or political lives. Nonetheless, his article “The Question Concerning Technology,” remains a powerful influence on me. More on Heidegger and Nazism.*

[I still have a newsletter that I haven’t posted to in … years, but I’m planning on writing more about books, publishing, technology and education. If you’d like to subscribe, here it is!: https://tinyletter.com/hughmcguire]

books and/on the web: reb.us, pressbooks.com, librivox.org, iambik.com, and a few other bits & bobs.