Edtech and the evolutionary arms race

In 1944, in response to a question about whether there could be a “purely American art”, Jackson Pollock said this:

The idea of an isolated American painting, so popular in this country during the thirties, seems absurd to me just as the idea of creating a purely American mathematics or physics would seem absurd …  the basic problems of contemporary painting are independent of any country.

It’s a famous move in the history of exnomination that plays differently, I think, outside America. By exnomination, I mean the straightforward work that language can do to make some features of any situation seem so obvious that they don’t need to be named. It’s a card trick of some subtlety.

The concept has often been used to think about exactly how cultural power makes itself both invisible and taken-for-granted in terms of gender or race.  But it transfers easily to edtech, where the exnominated term is “North American”, and it seems just as absurd to suggest that cultural context influences either the design of educational technology (surely all university systems are the same, aren’t they?) or the kind of content that will come down the pipes. But there you have it: I think it does.

And those of us working outside America run into the cultural paywall that’s erected around US-based edtech all the time.  Six months ago, my niggling reminder of global insignificance was the notification from Ning that the special deal co-sponsored by Pearson to relieve the pain of Ning’s transition to a user-pays business model was only available to educators working in the US.  This week, it came from edtech startup Educreations, whose sign-up process included a pull down menu to register my institutional location … but only as somewhere in the United States.

(I did get a very nice email from them about this, and apparently recognising the existence of the rest of the world is on their short to-do list, for which our heartfelt thanks.  And this puts them ahead of any major vendor still using US-focused promotional videos to sell to college systems outside the US.)

But my broader worry about the way in which we accept the proposition that the “basic problems of [educational technology] are independent of any country”, to misquote Pollock for a moment, has come from a different direction.  I was asked this week, by none other than Adrian Sannier, why I had reservations about “evolutionary arms race” as a metaphor for market-driven technology innovation.

Again, I think this is one that plays very differently in America than it does in smaller economies like Australia’s, for whom any mention of an arms race is a metaphor for gross defense dependency. To sort out my ambivalence about this, I’ve been reading up a bit about something called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis, because the “evolutionary arms race” is in fact a double handled metaphor, where the competitive nature of military development comes to stand in for the ways in which species co-evolve in response to the threats that they pose to one another.

The reason it’s called the Red Queen’s Hypothesis is lovely: it involves the passage in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in which Alice spends a bit of time chasing the Red Queen around trying to make sense of a disturbing landscape of directional quirks, reversals, and paradoxical pathways. After a while, she complains that as much as they both run, neither of them is getting anywhere, at which point the Red Queen says something along these lines: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”

The adoption of this hypothesis to explain co-evolution suggests that the result isn’t as bad as it seems, and this is precisely what makes the “evolutionary arms race” a benign metaphor to push one further step into the context of competitive edtech innovation.  But if we strip back to the original metaphor for a moment, the “arms race” is actually a reminder that the last time we really thought about equilibrium in arms development, we called it “Mutually Assured Destruction”, which does start to sound a bit less attractive.

So the question is whether what we’re seeing in educational technology is the capacity for mutually beneficial co-evolution, as Sannier argues, or superpower standoff, or a more troubling lurch towards monopoly, in which case it really will matter where the cultural headquarters are located. Michael Feldstein’s discussion of why OpenClass really is a big deal puts it this way:

What does Pearson get out of all this? They potentially get all the data on your students and an iron grip on the point of sale for all curricular content. Everything that worries you about what Facebook and Google know about you and everything that worries you about the control that Apple exerts over the iTunes and App stores should worry you about Pearson’s ambitions. If ClassConnect succeeds in massively disrupting the LMS market, then Pearson potentially controls the center of the chess board for ePortfolios, digital educational content, transcripts—possibly even schools themselves.

The harmonious co-evolutionary potential in this scenario is really hard to discern if you aren’t one of the other giant North American technology and platform innovators (although it’s obviously terrific if you are). Certainly, smaller edtech providers pitching in the same market as OpenClass are likely to find it hard to keep up with Pearson’s business capacity to turn the campus LMS into a loss leader.

But for those of us beyond the North American educational market, who are having to take seriously the promise that thanks to edtech we’ll no longer need our own chemistry professors because Harvard have got one whose superior content they’re prepared to share online, the health of the global education ecosystem is an even more serious concern. Ferdinand von Prondzynski is arguing for vigilance on this question, because the world’s regional universities are more than simply outlets for content generated elsewhere, piped in via systems developed elsewhere. We are contributors to our own local economies and cultural ecosystems because we’re able to generate both research and curriculum that are tailored to where we are.

So while we may be bystanders rather than key players in this particular evolutionary arms race, that doesn’t mean we can afford to be indifferent to the way it turns out, or even sanguine about the values on which it is built.

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