Caveat Emptor with Ed Tech

I signed up to address the Board of Trustees this week. I thought I’d share what I talked about in the four minutes I was allotted to speak:


Good morning, chair Middleton, trustees, Chancellor Hyman, esteemed colleagues, honored guests and to all those known and unknown to me: hello.

Today, I want to provide information for you to consider applying to the decision making process as the board of the City Colleges of Chicago regarding educational technology.

I am Kristin Bivens; a faculty member from Harold Washington. I teach writing there. I have for ten years. My doctorate is in technical communication and rhetoric.

Around HW, I am known as a tech-savvy teacher on my campus where I coordinate the committee on the art and science of teaching. I create videos, podcasts, and digitize content. [For confirmation, see President Martyn.]

But, I am a critic of technology. [I am also skeptical of 3-D printers. Honestly, they freak me out for reasons I cannot elaborate on in four minutes.]

For the past fifteen weeks, I have proudly and dutifully served as one of several HW representatives on the district placement team. [The fruits of the placement teams’ labor, I am told, you will become aware of soon.]

I will use two qualifiers to describe my experience on the district placement team: valuable and worthwhile.

Because of my work on the district placement team I have thought deeply about the role of educational technology in my own, my institution’s, and our district’s pedagogical practices.

And I have thought deeply about what role educational technology should have in our district.

To think more deeply, I used ideas from the Roman M.A.C. Also known as Marcus Aurelius Cicero, or more plainly just Cicero [more than just a street name in our fair city].

Cicero wrote three books, essentially letters to his son, who was studying in Athens. By “studying,” I mean partying and carrying on, obviously to Cicero’s chagrin and displeasure.

Cicero wrote De Officiis or On Duty to his son as a moral treatise about decision making.

I use Cicero’s framework for decision making because I find us — all of us– at a similar stage of moving from adolescence to maturity regarding our use of educational technology.

Difficult decisions regarding educational technology are certain. Cicero reminds us of growing pains, like those I mention here regarding educational technologies:

Above all we must decide who and what manner . . . we wish to be and what calling . . . we would follow; and this is the most difficult problem in the world. For it is in the early years . . . when our judgment is most immature, that each of us decides” (De Officiis, I.XXXII)

We can make choices that serve us in the moment — expedient decisions, which tend to be costly (and sadly, wasteful) when it comes to educational technology.

Or, we can make ethical decisions — those that reflect best pedagogical practices, rooted in empirical, peer reviewed, scholarly research, not white papers, trends, and manufactured educational crises.

Decisions we make — all of us—, but chair Middleton and trustees: you approve or deny purchases that dictate practice for the 110,000 students in a city of nearly 3 million who depend on us to be critical, reflective, and smart.

And best practices in education resoundingly indicate pedagogical needs dictate the technology we use and not vice versa.

[Note: due to time constraints the *next few paragraphs were left out of the four-minute talk.]

*Although a myth, the lesson of the space pen is an important one, as told on snopes.com:

*During the space race back in the 1960’s, NASA was faced with a major problem. The astronaut needed a pen that would write in the vacuum of space. NASA went to work. At a cost of $1.5 million they developed the “Astronaut Pen.” Some of you may remember. It enjoyed minor success on the commercial market.

The Russians were faced with the same dilemma.

They used a pencil.

*According to NASA, Fisher Space Pens eventually went to space; but they were not a NASA-funded project. Although a myth, snopes.com helpfully explains the lesson of the false metaphor: “sometimes we expend a great deal of time, effort, and money to create a “high-tech” solution to a problem, when a perfectly good, cheap, and simple answer is right before our eyes” (para. 4).

I invite you to be critics of educational technology with me and to embody, as is our responsibility, the spirit and practice of caveat emptor–let the buyer beware.  Lest the we be subject to all the undocumented and withheld defects of those educational technological products.

We buy what we buy. So, let’s buy well.

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