Does it matter if technology makes us feel good about learning?

Jim Dickinson is on the other side of the earth at an edtech conference - but suddenly feels good about education again. Why?

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It was jarring at first – even my chit chat with the man from Customs and Border Protection was unfailingly friendly – but there’s really something to be said for the standards of customer service I’ve experienced since being in the US.

My left-brain is telling me that this is the way they’ve been trained, or that it’s because I’m in a state full of marijuana and microbreweries, or more likely that it’s because I’m suddenly immersed in a consumer culture disproportionately that tops up meagre salaries with tips.

But my right-brain is telling me to chill out and enjoy the feeling. Somewhere deep down, it turns out that I’m a human – and every time someone hopes that I have a great day, smiles at my arrival at the front of a queue or apologises for a minor mix up, I sense the endorphin hit.

And given I appear to be pretty much the only Brit at a huge corporate ed-tech conference in the middle of a huge convention centre attached to a huge leisure resort on the outskirts of Aurora in Denver, it’s also both made me feel both welcome and more able to participate in and learn from the event and its myriad fringe discussions on everything from course design to remote learning and generative AI.

It’s like the atmos at a big graduation ceremony. It’s all so… warm.

Making moments

The opening plenary at Instructurecon was full of slogans and buzzwords – “making moments” to deliver “dynamic learning experiences” to “every student, everywhere” that take teaching and learning “to the next level” – with tales of the way in which edtech has enabled students to “overcome adversity” or achieve their “true po-tential”.

It’s being staged by the company that sells the learning management system Canvas into schools and universities – and one of its features is an extensive ecosystem of third-party plugins from innovators around the world aiming to improve learning, or retention, or reduce administration and whatnot.

It’s probably DK in the team that’s most familiar with the way edtech has a tendency to do that capitalism thing of selling solutions to problems you didn’t know you had, but a roam around the stands in Convention Hall 3 was a real eye-opener.

I met any number of learner analytics firms, chatted with a man who’s selling a tool designed to improve feedback on assignments, saw a demo of digital chatrooms that enable classmates to communicate and build relationships, and experienced countless attempts by salespeople trying to convince me in vain that they above all other competitors are the ethical experts at detecting student use of generative AI.

Improving interactions

But it was the man from Namecoach that really floored me. I’d skated past the stall on my first run-round, convincing myself that I must have misread the digital screen proclaiming that it offered “accurate audio name pronunciations” to “promote inclusion, belonging, and rapport in every interaction.”

There had been a brief discussion on anthropomorphism in a plenary earlier in the day – and the way in which Chat-GPT had really taken off because it attached the perception of human interaction to generative pre-trained transformer large language models that had largely been used exclusively by nerds and enthusiasts in their first few years of development.

We’re used, I think, to technology offering the promise of freeing up our time to focus on other things – only to find the efficiency gains gobbled up by our employers. But are we really now reaching a point where basic human interactions need to be augmented by software solutions that enable us to both remember and pronounce the names of the students we teach and supervise?

It’s the same instinctive reaction I have to learner analytics, or those projects where a university phonebanks its students to see how they’re getting on. At first glance they present as replacements for community and connection that would surely be easier and more authentic if we just had smaller classes or more time to get to know those in them.

Kick off your Sunday shoes

But as I sat watching folks dancing along to Footloose at the impromptu Amazon AWS disco, my mind drifted back to a previous job where in Monday morning meetings, our chief executive seemed consistently unable to pronounce the surname of one of our few BME employees.

You can imagine the scene. He’s there fumbling it again, self-effacingly apologising like a lecturer trying to work the Powerpoint, while she sits there painting on a smile that hides a wider set of experiences and injustices associated with being a young and ambitious woman of colour in an organisation that says it’s progressive but often manifests as anything but.

I also think a lot about a brief conversation I had with an hourly-paid academic in a university recently where I’d done the stump speech on loneliness and belonging. “I have a class of 300 students”, she’d said. “I don’t even know their names, let alone know how to pronounce them.”

And then there was the other time that I got talking to a head of department in a coffee queue – who started by bemoaning that unlike students from China, the new wave of non-EU recruits “seem to insist on retaining their real name which causes me real problems,” and ended by him frantically backtracking in an attempt to convince me that he wasn’t really a racist.

So I finished up on my huge grilled chicken and mozzarella wrap and huge bottle of Pepsi and decided to seek out the Namecoach stall again. Maybe it was because my name is printed in a huge font on my huge badge, but as Brad casually referred to me as Jim, it struck me that doing so worked – it accelerated the process of developing rapport and enabled us to have a lovely conversation about the research underpinning the product and the way in which it can help combat feelings of invisibility and boost belonging.

Overcoming adversity

Floating around in the air in the boarding-school myth of UK HE, particularly from governments and policymakers, there’s still a grim sense that education is somehow only effective if it presents as some kind of ordeal to be survived – that you’re only a real graduate if you’ve overcome the adversities of being unfairly treated, or had your “mental health episode” ignored, or been sexually assaulted in your halls of residence.

Often UK HE and those pontificating on it somehow seem to excuse rudeness, or dismissiveness, or micro-acts of discrimination, or failing to consider the mental health aspects of pedagogy (“oh I don’t do mental heath”) as not just British, but core to our imagined excellence in education.

Round-table reviews of academic policies are infused with deep suspicions about the motives of those submitting requests for extensions or extenuating circumstances, and even the government’s 2020 instruction to OfS to review the National Student Survey talked of universities being “empowered” to have the confidence to educate their students to high standards rather than “simply to seek satisfaction.”

Don’t make them feel good! Treat them mean and keep them keen! Stop pandering!

Outside, a Colorado hail storm had caused Canvas’ huge inflatable panda – the corporate mascot picked because it’s the “cutest, most loved, cherished, endangered, and recognisable symbol to love” – to somehow burst. But later I watched as the firm launched a new chatbot for academic staff themed around that mascot – and as it leverages whatever algorithms and machine learning in the background to come up with its answers, it’ll doubtless also both help staff to do their job but feel good while doing so.

Time, these days, is against us. In the often fleeting interactions that are there, there are vanishingly few students who learn well while feeling unwelcome, unsafe, or lonely, or discriminated against in those interactions. If nothing else, students that feel good are more likely to be able to take being challenged and stretched academically in their stride.

So while I’m often the first to focus on reducing harms and finger wagging about things that cause them, it does also strike me that aspiring to have the student leaders that I train every summer to feel genuine joy about that day’s learning and the role they go to to undertake ought also to be an objective.

If technology can help me do that – help me to become a better human, and help me to foster better environments for learning and better connections between humans – then honestly? I’m all in.

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