Edtech is killing us: Random notes on a Neil Selwyn talk about edtech and climate crisis

Thanks to a blog post yesterday by George Veletsianos I was alerted to a recent talk Neil Selwyn gave to my friends at the Centre for Research in Digital Education at Edinburgh, titled “Studying digital education in a times of climate crisis: what can we do?”

Fundamentally, Neil asks “is digital education part of a realistic “livable future”…or even just a “survivable planet”…and in what form?”.

I clearly haven’t been feeling enough of the edtech dystopia recently and dived in for another helping. But the talk is really excellent imho. I am THINKING as a result of it and contemplating what I already do and what else I can do. I invite you all to watch and think and do too.

I watched it in fits and starts yesterday, furiously scribbling notes as I went, and have just re-watched it again, scribbling more and trying to draw connections together. My anemia-addled brain wants to be in full flow and it’s so frustrating to have to work and think in this slowed down way, taking smaller bites, recording my thoughts on paper instead of being able to rely on my memory and multi-task. But maybe that’s something to think about. In a state of bodily collapse I have to do less, conserve and use resources more thoughtfully…

There is a lot in this talk. That we currently live in a period of edtech excess and that this is fuelling increasing disadvantage and climate crisis. He remains sceptical, like many of us, that the answer to these big problems is yet more tech. He calls out the ways in which current forms of edtech are actively harmful beyond their climate impact, debasing and degrading education (cop-ware; boss-ware). The phrase “orgy of destructive excess” was used and it didn’t feel like hyperbole. There was also an offer of hope though. The challenge, inspired by eco-justice and degrowth thinking, is to consider how we might use “less tech for more just educational outcomes”. One suggestion is that we should be looking to regions that are already resource and climate constrained for real innovation and practical examples.

There’s a lot in here that I want to unpack and think about further. I already see a thread running through a work discussion on Monday about OER, our commitments to decolonisation in Canada (which has to include responsible use of natural resources imho), the reality of who and where the students are in my institution, and the visceral reality of the climate emergency that I have felt here in British Columbia over the last year. The trees on the hill at the end of my street are scorched and bare. The river is swollen and flooded from unusual amounts of rain. I want to hope that an open, online institution such as mine might be open to modelling what sustainable and responsible digital education could look like because I fear that our very future might depend on it, in all senses of that phrase.

Whilst listening I couldn’t help but reflect back on the excellent Digital Technologies and the Environment Detox that Middlebury College ran in January of this year. I wrote a post at the time where I wondered whether we should be assessing the environmental footprint of our courses as a design and quality assurance activity much like might assess accessibility? If you haven’t explored this collection of resources and posts I’d definitely suggest you do. Tom Woodward’s on building a less resource intensive website for the Detox is brilliant. There are also posts on data centres, right to repair, and reconnecting with nature through technology.

Neil talked about the possibility of more communal and convivial forms of edtech including “community based co-production and sharing” and the idea of nowtopias – nurturing alternatives in the cracks of where we are today.  I think again about the OpenETC. Simple edtech, run collaboratively and communally, with self-determination built into it’s core operating model. It continues to frustrate me that it remains harder to find $10k to pay for the annual costs of the OpenETC, than it is for lots of people in our sector to find multiples of $100k to pay for institutional LMS licenses, Zoom, Teams, or whatever. But the way that this simple, shared tech has been able to move the needle for some of the least well provisioned institutions is remarkable.

There was also a good Q&A at the end of the talk which I suspect could have been twice as long as the talk itself. Some of the themes and questions asked are captured in the blurb that goes with the recording and in the transcript. A question was asked about the extent to which technology could be used to reconnect us to place and the environment and it reminded me of this article I read about a University of Toronto professor adapting a land based course to be online as a result of the pandemic with the result that students reconnected to their own personal environments in deep and meaningful ways.

The whole talk also reminded me very strongly of Laura Czerniewicz’s keynote at OTESSA 21 which I know was recorded, but which I cannot find online now [EDIT: but here is a good blog post covering some similar themes]

This isn’t any kind of super critical reflection – simply a way of sharing out the talk and noting the things that came into my mind. There is much more ill-formed thought still swirling around, but if this does anything to prompt others to talk about this, then it seems worth the effort.

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