Student Success and Liberal Democracy

The political environment in the United States has increasingly highlighted huge problems in our education system. These problems, I would argue, are not unrelated to how we as a country conceptualize student success. From the perspective of the student, success is about finding a high-paying job that provides a strong sense of personal fulfillment. From the perspective of colleges and universities, student success is about graduation and retention. From the perspective of government, it’s about making sure that we have a trained workforce capable of meeting labor market demands. For all of the recent and growing amount of attention paid to student success, however, what is woefully absent seems to be any talk about the importance of education to producing a liberal democratic citizenry. In the age of ‘big data,’ of course, part of this absence may be the fact that the success of a liberal education is difficult to measure. From this perspective, the success of a country’s education system cannot be measured directly. Instead, it is measured by the extent to which it’s citizens demonstrate things like active engagement, an interest/ability to adjudicate truth claims, and a desire to promote social and societal goods. Now, more than any time in recent history, we are witnessing the failure of American education. In the US, the topic of education has been largely absent from the platforms of individual presidential candidates.  This is, perhaps, a testament to the fact that education is bad for politics.  Where it has been discussed, we hear Trump talk about cutting funding to the Department of Education, if not eliminating it entirely. We hear Clinton talk about early childhood education, free/debt-free college, and more computer science training in k-12, but in each of these cases, the tenor tends to be about work and jobs rather than promoting societal goods more generally.

But I don’t want to make this post about politics. Our political climate is merely a reflection of the values that inform our conceptions of student success. These values — work, personal fulfillment, etc — inform policy decisions and university programs, but they also inform the development of educational technologies. The values that make up our nation’s conception of ‘student success’ produce the market demand that educational technology companies then try to meet. It is for this reason that we see a recent surge (some would say glut) of student retention products on the market, and relatively few that are meant to support liberal democratic values. It’s easy to forget that our technologies are not value-neutral. It’s easy to forget that, especially when it comes to communication technologies, the ‘medium is the message.’

What can educational technology companies do to meet market demands (something necessary to survival) while at the same time being attuned to the larger needs of society? I would suggest three things:

  1. Struggle. Keeping ethical considerations and the needs of society top of mind is hard.  For educational technologies to acknowledge the extent to which they both shape and are shaped by cultural movements produces a heavy burden of responsibility.  The easy thing to do is to abdicate responsibility, citing the fact that ‘we are just a technology company.’  But technologies always promote particular sets of values.  Accepting the need to meet market demand at the same time as the need to support liberal democratic education can be hard. These values WILL and DO come into conflict. But that’s not a reason to abandon either one or the other.  It means constantly struggling in the knowledge that educational technologies have a real impact on the lives of people.  Educational technology development is an inherently ethical enterprise.  Ethics are hard.
  2. Augment human judgment.  Educational technologies should not create opportunities for human beings to avoid taking responsibility for their decisions.  With more data, more analytics, and more artificial intelligence, it is tempting to lean on technology to make decisions for us.  But liberal democracy is not about eliminating human responsibility, and it is not about making critical thinking unnecessary.  To the contrary, personal responsibility and critical thinking are hallmarks of a liberal democratic citizen — and are essential to what it means to be human.  As tempting as it may be to create technologies that make decisions for us because they can, I feel like it is vitally important that we design technologies that increase our ability to participate in those activities that are the most human.
  3. Focus on community and critical thinking.  Creating technologies that foster engagement with complex ideas is hard.  Very much in line with the ‘augmented’ approach to educational technology development, I look to people like Alyssa Wise and Bodong Chen, who are looking at ways that a combination of embedded analytics and thoughtful teaching practices can produce reflective moments for students, and foster critical thinking in the context of community.  And it is for this reason that I am excited about tools like X-Ray Learning Analytics, a product for Moodle that makes use of social network analysis and natural language processing in a way that empowers teachers to promote critical thinking and community engagement.

Also published on Medium.