by Dr. Amy Collier, Associate Provost for Digital Learning

My group–the Office of Digital Learning and Inquiry at Middlebury–works at the intersection of technology and learning, helping faculty and students to leverage technology for their academic and professional goals. This work is hopeful work, anchored in the belief that technology and learning can co-mingle and co-evolve in ways that are impactful, perhaps even transformative.

Yet there are days when I don’t feel hopeful about the future. Digital technologies are not neutral tools that we can wield benevolently to improve education; many are data-hungry, extractive, even exploitative tools that encode bias, greed, power, and control. At the intersection of education and digital technologies, we see a worrisome future, one which according to Bayne and Gallagher is “characterised by platform partnerships, pervasive analytics, datafication, scaling of student numbers, routinised surveillant practices, the hollowing-out of campuses and the delegation of teacher responsibilities to algorithms, it is a future imagined according to the values of growth, scale, ‘efficiency’ and progress toward a universal, global ‘knowledge economy’ (Facer & Sandford, 2010).” The EdTech industry has a vested interest in making us believe that their technologies will solve higher education’s problems (what Evgeny Morozov calls technology solutionism) and that the future they bring about is inevitable (what Ramesh Srinivasan calls techo-inevitability); in other words, that there is little we can do about these issues, and our concerns about the impacts on teachers and students don’t matter.

Within this context, is there hope for work that brings forward transformative possibilities for technology in education that center equity, justice, community, knowledge creation, and public good, rather than bias, exploitation, profit, control, and power? Or is the future pre-determined by the technologies and institutions we’ve built?

We’ve chosen to focus the 2023 Digital Detox on exploring these questions through the lens of Imagining Alternate Futures–to both critique current visions of the future (including our own) that we see as unacceptable, and to explore alternate visions and the work of folks who are creating those alternate visions.

Rebecca Solnit, writing about a lack of hope in the face of global climate change, reminds us that “the future is not yet written.” If our work is to be hopeful in digital education, then we need to engage with the idea that the future is not yet coded–that we do not have to accept a future shaped by our technologies, as they are currently built. But, how do we take ownership of the idea that today’s code–technologies we use and how they are coded–can be written (or re-written) by us?

We can learn from folks who study and do futures work, such as speculative fiction, speculative design, anticipation studies, afrofuturism, and future studies. This work can help us find hope and work toward alternate futures. As Keri Facer writes:

“Rather than seeing the future as a problem to be solved or ‘managed’, these perspectives see the future as a lived consequence of decisions taken today and in the past, and as emerging from social and political struggles over how the world should be. The challenge in these perspectives is not simply to figure out how to survive whatever the future throws at us, but how to create a world we want to live in. And a core strategy for this approach is to critique visions of the future that are being presented to us, to explore what resources we have at hand to build alternative visions of the future toward which we can start working today.” (p. 5)

Sohail Inayatullah gives us some helpful language for this critique in his paper on six basic concepts of futures thinking. Using Inayatullah’s framework, we might ask critical questions about futures being presented to us. For example, in the world of digital learning, we’re often presented with a future in which all educational assessment is “verified” or made “trustworthy” by automated online proctoring. This is a future presented to us by–and you’ll be shocked to read this–vendors of products that provide automated online proctoring. I have serious concerns about that future, which I will frame using Inayatullah’s framework and some questions inspired by the Design Justice Network:

  • In what ways is this a used future that borrows ideas about verifying assessment (proctoring), rather than reimagining what trusting assessment could look like?
  • What futures have we discarded or disowned because we’ve committed to a future in which assessments are proctored by automated online technologies?
  • Who is harmed and who benefits in this future? Does this future propose to address any of the harms it is causing and/or to balance who experiences benefits and harms?
  • What are alternate futures to automated online proctoring of assessment? Could we imagine a future in which our assessment of student learning doesn’t need proctoring? Could we re-imagine what it means to assess students? What steps could we start taking now to move toward alternate futures?
  • Who gets to imagine alternate futures? How would this future be different if it was imagined by folks who are most harmed by automated online proctoring?

Throughout this Detox, we will encourage you to ask questions about the digital futures being presented to us by tech companies and techno-solutionists. But of course we won’t stop there. As with all of DLINQ’s Digital Detoxes, rather than asking you to opt out or tune out, we’ll introduce you to tools and resources that help you opt into making the future a better place. We’ll explore the work of creating alternate visions for the future, the folks who are doing that work, and introduce you to toolkits and resources to help you do so as well. We’re so excited to be exploring alternate futures with you this January, so let’s get started!

“Imagination is our birthright: everyone owns this power and everything created must first be imagined. But too often, we’re persuaded to believe our voices don’t count or that the future is determined by a powerful few. In these times, social imagination is a radical act, restoring personal and collective agency, shifting dominant narratives, and affirming that all of us make the future. When we have the audacity to dream in public, when we begin to unleash imagination and turn it into action, we can move the world.” #DareToImagine, The Situation Lab

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Keep Reading

Teacher of the Ear podcast, Hope episode, Chris Friend with guest Brenna Clarke Gray

Near Future Teaching: Practice, policy and digital education futures, Sîan Bayne & Michael Gallagher

From park bench to lab bench – What kind of future are we designing?, Ruha Benjamin

Visioning Just Futures: Reimagining the Default Settings of Technology & Society, Ruha Benjamin