EdTech and the Mania over AI and 5G

Has ISTE lost its way or is it being faithful to its true mission?

Only a fool would blithely welcome any technology without having given serious thought not only to what the technology will do but what it will undo…

— Neil Postman, 1997

As an educator, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) has always troubled me. In fact, I’ve always thought that ISTE does the whole notion of EdTech a disservice. Its recommended standards, like all standards I suppose, seem oblivious to the nuances and individuality inherent in the teaching — learning process by suggesting a mechanical implementation that leaves little room for a student’s process of personal discovery or application of critical thinking. They also come off as shallow, as if following trends rather than truly being at the vanguard of something meaningful. With 68% of its revenue coming from its annual expo, it’s hard to see ISTE as anything but a sales venue with its widely cited standards and education initiatives as advertisements. This would explain, for instance, why its CEO, Richard Culatta, sounds like a salesperson. More than a specific brand or product though, Mr. Culatta sells the idea of technology as a social tool for capitalism.

This past August, during his keynote for ISTE’s annual conference and expo, Mr. Culatta was in fine form as the head of sales. Glossing over how the datafication of our lives impacts every aspect of our individuality and society, he resorted to clichès (“We are standing on the edge of a major transformation…”), cheap scare tactics (“…our students won’t have the skills they need…) and shaming (“We asked teachers to explain AI, 80% of them couldn’t.) to sell the crowd on the virtues and inevitableness of 5G networks and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Hearing and watching his ebullience over these technologies reminded me of Neil Postman’s lecture to the College of DuPage titled The Surrender of Culture to Technology, given in 1997. Back then, there was considerable excitement and energy surrounding the drive to “wire” schools for the Internet and make sure that computers were available in every classroom. Considerable resources were spent and Mr. Postman addresses them with brilliant irony in his lecture.

In the years since 1997, the benefits to learning by embedding digital technologies in the classroom remains debatable at best and in fact most independent evidence suggests that the presence of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the classroom has a negative impact on student learning. Richard Culatta knows this but is perhaps swayed by his role in other companies that are heavily invested in Edtech initiatives to employ even the bare minimum critical thinking skills that should be on display at any event purportedly about education. Had Neil Postman heard him raving about the virtues of 5G networks and Artificial Intelligence, he would have surely encouraged Mr. Culatta to use the following questions to critically assess these new technologies.

What is the problem for which these technologies are the solution and whose problem is it (that these technologies solve)?

With 5G networks, Mr. Culatta says, we can “download the entire eighth season of Game of Thrones in 30 seconds.” By that metric, 5G networks are apparently very fast. So there must be a problem in American schools regarding Internet speeds that is directly impacting student learning, right? The Brookings Institute recently asked itself a very similar question (albeit for entirely different reasons). “Are slow Internet speeds holding back American Schools?” According to its findings, only “15% of school districts fall below the 250 KBPS threshold recommended by SEDTA needed for online learning.” In other words, a small percentage of schools in America lack enough connectivity to have all their students engage with online learning platforms simultaneously. Hardly a crisis. But the best part of the Institute’s report comes buried at the very end in an almost comical contradiction.

“Given the evidence that internet connections in the home and school are weakly related to student outcomes, it’s unlikely that slow internet speeds are preventing improvements in the classroom. However, there is a baseline level of internet access that schools need to function for administrative needs […] and the FCC should continue this successful policy [of meeting broadband targets] rather than changing course and risking recent gains in school Internet speeds.”

Students don’t need 5G netoworks and ISTE’s CEO knows this. “The interesting thing about 5G networks that most people don’t realize,’’ he shares, “is that they’re not really being built for us, they’re being built for them (machines).” What he is referring to is the Internet of Things (IoT), the network that allows machines to talk to machines. “Gartner says”, Mr. Culatta goes on, “that by 2020 there will be more than 20 billion smart devices on the planet […] about three times the number of people in the entire world.” So 5G networks solve a connectivity problem… for machines. “But superfast connectivity is only part of the equation,’’ Mr Cualtta explains. “With these new applications comes an enormous amount of decisions that will need to be made way more than we have the capacity to make as humans […] That brings me to the second technology that will change our world in the next couple of years and that’s Artificial Intelligence.” So AI solves the problem of data processing in a world of machines talking to machines, and 5G networks solve the problem of how those machines can share vast amounts of data between each other. In Richard Culatta’s own words, then, 5G networks and Artificial Intelligence don’t solve any problem that students, teachers or schools have, at least not in any way related to teaching and learning. Why then the 15 minute pitch to a crowd full of educators? He references a conversation with General Motors in which they express their concern over not having the labor force they will need to expand production in a future in which there are more machines talking to machines than people talking to people. To address this future short fall in workers with General Motors’ required skill set, GM and ISTE partnered to help prepare teachers to help prepare students to be the kind of employees companies like GM will need. Very clearly and very tellingly he did not use his keynote in any way to address topics related to making learning meaningful to students but instead used it to make a pitch that was useful to corporations and in so doing revealed that for ISTE, technology in education, or maybe even education itself, isn’t about learning, it’s about training, and those are two very different things.

Let us rephrase Neil Postman’s original questions, adapting them to the specific technologies promoted by Mr. Culatta.

What is the problem for which 5G networks and AI are the solution?

5G networks allow machines to talk to machines and AI allows machines to process that communication.

Whose problem is it that these technologies solve?

It is a problem for corporations who wish to expand their markets by embedding 5G networks and AI in their products.

And this leads us to Mr. Postman’s third question.

What new problems might be created because we have solved the problem?

We could refer to already existing issues of bias in algorithms, or to the kinds of exploitation of labor that can result from having algorithms perform managerial functions but perhaps the issue that should concern us most is Luciano Floridi’s concept of enveloping. In essence, enveloping is the process through which a particular environment is adapted for the sake of a technology’s performance.

“We envelop environments around simple robots to fit and exploit their limited capacities and still deliver the desired output. A dishwasher accomplishes its task because its environment — an openable, waterproof box — is structured (“enveloped”) around its simple capacities. Enveloping used to be either a stand-alone phenomenon […] or implemented within the walls of industrial buildings, carefully tailored around their artificial inhabitants. Nowadays, enveloping the environment into an AI-friendly infosphere has started to pervade all aspects of reality and is happening daily everywhere, in the house, in the office, and in the street.”

If we solve the problem of how machines can communicate with each other in increasingly complex ways, what new problems might be created because we have solved that problem?

To paraphrase Luciano Floridi, these technologies risk constraining our physical and conceptual spaces, forcing us to adapt our bodies and our minds to the technologies because that is the best, or sometimes the only, way for these technologies to work.

We therefore risk limiting humanity’s natural capacities for the sake of generating profits for technology companies. Well, at least it’s nothing we should worry about, which would explain why Richard Culatta didn’t feel the need to model any sort of critical thinking to a room full of educators. Fortunately for him and the Edtech industry at large, many educators and education policy makers are apparently not critical thinkers themselves. No wonder ISTE removed that strand from their standards in 2016.

Throughout the country we’re preparing to spend billions of dollars to wire schools in order to accommodate a computer technology and for reasons that are by no means clear. There certainly does not exist any compelling evidence that personal computers, or any other manifestation of computer technology, can do for children what good, well paid, unburdened teachers can do. Where then is the outcry from teachers? They are losers in this deal […] American students already have an oversupply of sources of information. There are in America 17,000 newspapers, 12,000 periodicals […] 500 million TV sets, well over 600 million radios (not including those in automobiles), there are 10,000 libraries and 40,000 new book titles published every year. Do American students now require an additional hundred million dollar investment to ensure that they become well informed citizens? [M]any teachers are thrilled by the thought of a hundred million dollar investment in computer terminals [and not in them]. Bill Gates loves this form of stupidity.” — Neil Postman, 1997

Musician, teacher, artist and human.