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I just started following Pessimists Archive on Twitter and listening to its podcasts. Both focus on the common but irrational fear of all things new.

The Twitter feed describes itself as sharing “reactions to old things when they were new”. Consider how this reaction in 1889 is still relevant in 2019.

It is 130 years later and people are saying the same about mobile phones.

Each podcast is about 30 to 40 minutes long and is released only every one or two months. I have listed to a few episodes and I can see why they are infrequent. They lead the listener with engaging storytelling and well-researched historical bites.

I liked two audio snippets in the episode about comic books. In describing how people lament about new technologies, the narrator said that you cannot herd cats but you can move their food. This described the human condition of gravitating to comfort (the nostalgic past) and collectively opposing change (the new present or uncertain future).

But when trying to bring change, we often impose it. For example, in the episode about comic books adults declared that they took action because they were thinking of the children. But they did not ask the kids what they felt and thought.

The furore over comic books has gone and the fuss now seems like wasted effort. The worry now is with computing technologies and video games, and we might be making the same mistakes. It is easy to say we speak for a group, but have be asked and listened to them first?

Some self-serving proclamations from “edtech” vendors make me do my version of gymnastics — my eyes roll and my stomach turns.

Recently I read how one claimed that it could “make learning more engaging, personalised and accessible”. I did my flips and then I felt nauseous.

Why should something that seems positive be so repulsive to me? Let’s break the claim down element by element.

First, the rhetoric of engagement. The premise for this rhetoric might read: I need to stimulate you, and if I do not, you do not learn. There is some merit to this based on what we know about cognition. If you do not get first attention, then subsequent stimuli are not likely to register.

However, the assumption here is that the stimulus is external. Students are taught to expect to be entertained or switched on instead of nurtured to be independent and self-driving.

Leaders in education and edtech have already started writing and speaking about learner agency and empowerment. This means that learners should not be treated only as consumers, but also as creators of content.

“Engaging” learners with extrinsic motivations is old school and futile in the long run. Empowering them to make, teach, and share is the new order of the day.

Vendors know that policymakers and teachers like to hear about engagement. It feels powerful to be able to engage. However, this does not guarantee students learn powerfully and meaningfully.

Vendors also know that the students must remain consumers and teachers or policymakers must remain buyers. If students and teachers learn to DIY and share openly, then vendors go out of business.

Second, personalised learning is not when it focuses on instruction. Teaching is not the same act as learning. Teaching does not guarantee learning in the same way that talking is not the same as listening.

Let’s assume that the personalisation of learning has three main requirements:

  1. Meeting students where they are.
  2. Letting students progress at their own rate.
  3. Offering students rich and relevant learning experiences.

The reality of “personalised learning” by vendors is often the opposite. Students to go where the vendor is (platforms, logins, access policies, etc.) Students may also need to meet prerequisites to earn the right to “personalise” their learning the vendor’s way.

Resources expire or are locked away if someone else decides the learners do not need them or should not see them. The same entity also dictates an access duration and period.

Sometimes what vendors actually mean by “rich and relevant learning” is actually individualised or customised instruction. They would like you to believe that they can provide choices for your students. For reasons pragmatic and financial, these choices are finite, predetermined, and locked behind a paywall.

Meanwhile learners young and old are already “personalising their learning” by a) not calling it that, b) Googling, c) using YouTube, and d) relying on social connections.

In other words, learners of today are already taking agency and empowering themselves to make their own decisions.

Teaching is neat. Learning is messy.

Teaching is neat while learning is messy. Personalisation is also messy, and no vendor can or should promise neat packages.

Third, “accessible” is not as broad as it should be. The vendor might mean online and reachable 24×7 (barring maintenance, which coincidentally, will always mess with your schedule). It could also refer to online resources being available on desktop, laptop, slate, or phone.

Such a claim of being accessible is the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. Consider if the resource is available if the learner is at level 5 but needs to access level 4 or 6 work. In most cases, the learner will not have such access.

Now consider if the learners are disabled is some way (mentally, physically, socially) or disenfranchised (financially, culturally). How more broadly accessible are the resources to these learners?

The vendors might call me fussy. I might call them dishonest. You decide whose interests I have in mind and heart.

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I tweeted this recently. My son spotted this standee at a mall. He asked me to join him in his critique of the vendor’s claims.

I was happy to oblige and I share some more thoughts now. I present and critique the educational value claims of a vendor offering a radio-controlled racing car service.

Eye-hand-brain coordination. Props to the vendor for trying to go one up on eye-hand coordination and trying to say the the brain and thinking were also important. So are other parts of nervous system (like the spinal cord) and several muscle groups. Why not add these to the mix and really educate people?

Spatial intelligence. This is a stretch given that spatial intelligence is about the knowledge and manipulation of 3D space, orientation, navigation, proprioception, etc., in sustained challenges. A quick whiz round a track is not going to do much to develop spatial intelligence.

Spark creativity. What a buzzword! I am surprised that this did not crash through the gates sooner. Creativity is nothing without criticality, as the contents of this standee exemplify.

Enhances fine motor skills. Needlepoint might require fine motor skills. Controlling a micropipette as part of the process of DNA extraction is a fine motor skill. People who skilfully control aerial drones for performances or camera work might possess such skills. But yanking wildly on a joystick? Probably not.

Parent-child entertainment. Why so specific? Can onlookers, siblings, or other relatives not also be entertained?

Improve mental focus. Does this address the dreaded short attention span syndrome? Have you seen kids playing video games or reading good book? They are laser-focused. A minute or two round a track will require focus, as will any other meaningful or self-directed activity.

Away from the “computer/smartphone syndrome”. And into the remote-control-a-device hole? So basically substitute one way of ignoring irritating people with another way of doing the same. I can think of so many other more worthwhile things a child can do on a phone or computer that does not require wasting cash on unproven edu-benefits of radio-controlled cars.

Improve psychology and personality. This one takes the cake. It seems forced because the vendor wanted one more item to balance the display. Just what does the phrase mean? Might a tough hike or doing public service do the same thing?

As my son and I shared our thoughts and bonded over the ridiculous claims, we did not notice someone cowering at a counter and behind the standee. But maybe the vendor was accidentally right. We did not play with the radio-controlled cars, but we benefitted from this critical thinking exercise.

I share this tongue-firmly-in-cheek. But there is a serious message too. There are many other “edu” vendors who make similar and even ludicrous claims about their services and products. The harm that they do and the money they make because no one questions them is no joking matter. We need to be critical mirrors and watchdogs in order to call them out.

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