Avoiding solutionism in the digital transformation of education

Evgeny Morozov - 7 July 2022 |

Morozov Ideas Lab

In 2014 the first packages of Soylent powdered drink began to ship from a California company with strong venture capital backing. This cocktail of various nutrients, once consumed, promised to satisfy whatever it is that our bodies need to get by and stay healthy. This was the solutionist diet that Silicon Valley had in story for us: take some powder, mix it with water, drink – and repeat. It was cheap, clean, efficient. Perhaps, even a solution to world hunger. And it was a perfect embodiment of solutionism ideology.  

This logic of turning everything into a Soylent-like product has spread to many other domains, including, of course, education. Here, the assumption is very similar: just like nutrition is considered a matter of mixing the right nutrients, so education is considered to consist primarily of gathering and transmitting facts and figures, supplemented, perhaps, with multiple-choice questions or exercises. 

Of course, there is much more to nourishment than an awful tasting powder can deliver. Food is also about craft, creativity, conversation, and experimentation. 

Meaningful, impactful education is like this, too. It’s not just a matter of rote learning, of memorizing facts, or of internalizing certain routines. If anything, it’s also about breaking those routines, through dialogue and confrontation, through discovery and through exposure to ideas and approaches that might even initially look wrong and off-putting. It takes a seasoned pedagogue and respectful peers to get over that discomfort and turn it into an enriching and satisfying experience. 

Today as the EdTech industry peddles its Soylent-like solutions, it is extremely important to shed critical light on the dangerous solutionist path that our societies, impoverished by the unexpected pandemic, have been following in the past few years. In this spirit I propose a few key lessons on the perils of today’s EdTech.

It’s not so much humanism vs. technology
as it is humanism vs. ‘technology solutionism’

First of all, we should avoid any hints of techno-pessimism. It might be very appealing and satisfying to be bashing EdTech and its providers – and we should take every opportunity we can, whenever at least their promise starkly diverge from reality, which is the case most of the time. But we should also make sure not to throw ‘the baby with the bathwater’. 

This means staying clear of false dichotomies. When we talk about technology, these dichotomies are ubiquitous and to be avoided. It’s not so much about humanism vs. technology as it is about humanism vs “technology solutionism.” The big question that we ought to pose is: what would an alternative paradigm – let’s call it “technology humanism” – look like? How could an alternative paradigm be integrated with a rich and ambitious educational agenda for a world that is recovering, slowly and painfully, from the nightmare that was the pandemic? 

Second, we have to be very clear that the main problem with “technology solutionism” is its dubious relationship to democratic values. If you study solutionism closely, you’ll see that it usually aligns itself with post-democracy rather than democracy as such. It doesn’t actually listen to those whose problems it claims to be addressing, preferring to merely furnish them with readymade solutions. An alternative paradigm should not only be humble and curious about the populations that it claims to be serving, it must also create formal ways to ensure the involvement of the affected actors in both defining the contours of the problem and a range of acceptable solutions for it. 

Specifically in the context of education, this would mean finding ways for teachers, students, and parents to be formally involved in decision-making that involves not only aspects like what’s on the curricula but also questions the extent to which technological solutions (even those of the humanistic variety) are adequate substitutions to other, more human approaches. This is not to deny that technology itself is one such social institution; however, we should also not deny that, as institutions go, technology is likely to align itself with those of the bureaucratic rather than creative variety. 

It is at the level of trade-offs
that a more complex and democratic debate
ought to take place

As importantly, the constituencies that are faced with problems should also be able to define the very criteria by which the proposed solutions will be evaluated. And this is where we have to tread with utmost care. 

One of the reasons why the paradigm of “technology solutionism” has had such an easy ride is because its proponents convinced the public that there was no need to debate these criteria for optimization. Efficiency, innovation, lower costs: these seemed like goods that were self-evidently and incontrovertibly good. But even if it were so – and, of course, it isn’t – achieving those values still requires trade-offs – and it’s here, at the level of trade-offs, that a more complex and democratic debate ought to take place. 

Thus, in the context of education, we ought to ask the sort of critical but uncomfortable questions that, for now, have mostly been absent from the agenda. “Efficiency,” for example, presumes that the process that is being optimized can be represented as a series of clear steps, an algorithm of sorts. Yet, most experienced educators would agree that effective – rather than efficient – education is not like that. It thrives on ambiguity, opacity, experimentation, and improvisation. 

Under those conditions, what we want is to preserve some “slack” in the system rather than strive for maximum efficiency. Democratic life, to draw a parallel, is like that too: as theorists of democracy like Robert Dahl argued long time ago, any democracy worth its name needs to respect institutional “slack” and prevent an obsession with efficiency, for it would eventually produce anti-democratic effects. 

There’s no reason to assume that education, a fundamental pillar of democracy, is different. If education is about dialogue and conversation, novelty and discovery – the pillars that I personally find extremely important –there’s no way for it to be scripted, reduced to an algorithm, and optimized to perfection through big data or sensors. The reality is that in a truly democratic, pluralistic society, any invocation of “perfect” is usually a false lead – it’s simply theoretically impossible and politically dangerous. 

Most of what passes for EdTech innovation
is really just ‘efficiency’ cost-cutting

Similar critiques can be waged against the nearly universal fascination with “innovation.” Whenever you hear that word, your first question should be: “Innovation for what”?  Finding a way to lower costs, in the current climate, will pass for “innovation.” Or, one can innovate to boost the truly experimental potential of both technologies and their users, on the assumption that people feel more creative under some arrangements and less creative under others. The latter is a step in a humanistic direction; the former is not. 

We have to recognize that much for what passes for EdTech these days is mere “innovation for cost-cutting.” This explains the immense appeal of this term to so many governments across the globe. Already struck by the heavy toll of the pandemic, they jump at the opportunity to invoke the mantra of “innovation” while expecting lower costs, even as these lower costs often remain an illusion. 

Somehow, it is rare to find this same obsession with cost-cutting in domains that look more strategic like national security, for example. No one is asked to innovate for cost-cutting there. No one would suggest that simply doing research on Google is an adequate replacement to the subtle craft of intelligence agencies, even if it would result in enormous cost-savings. Yet, somehow, we have come to accept this downgrade in the field of education. 

But we should, once again, be mindful of false dichotomies. “Technology humanism” does remain a powerful option. While digital technology cannot replace dialogue or discovery, it can definitely strengthen and enhance them. And here I’m not talking about our existent technological framework, whereby services like Google or Facebook offer us a chance to look up information or to converse with each other. In a sense, they, too, are caught up in the paradigm of technology solutionism. They too assume that we are all like algorithms ourselves, out there to engage in instrumental action and accomplish some well-defined, quantified goals. 

An alternative EdTech paradigm
will be as open-ended, unfinished,
and experimental as education itself

Yet, as I hope I have already made clear by now, this is not the right paradigm for thinking about processes that are open-ended, ambiguous, and experimental. Which is what education is. Here, technology ought to be playing a supportive role but it should do it differently. A truly humanistic search engine would leverage serendipity: it would allow us, its users, to start in one place but end in another, perhaps asking very different questions from the ones that motivated our initial queries. 

This ability to think of users as complex, unfinished human beings, whose steps in the digital universe are not scripted, and who are creatures capable of personal growth and self-doubt is badly missing in most of the EdTech initiatives. And this problem won’t get fixed on its own. Such a respect for the idiosyncratic nature of individual learners will never suddenly appear in these tools on its own, for the simple reason that it is only by thinking of education as a Soylent-like standardized service – something that is packaged once, for learners of all sizes and shapes – that the EdTech industry can actually turn in a profit. 

The immense and rapid success of EdTech in the pandemic era wouldn’t have taken place if the field of education was working perfectly. Of course, there are problems – and they persist. Many new EdTech companies are appealing to needs that are, in many cases, quite real. There’s no harm in acknowledging this, as we contemplate the emergence of the alternative paradigm. 

Public institutions need to play
a greater role in democratically implementing bold
and ambitious visions for an alternative post-EdTech paradigm

But this alternative paradigm won’t emerge until we fully realize that technology, like education, is a public good. We have not spent enough time thinking about translating that insight into policies, partly because we have not yet fully digested it. Building the basic infrastructures of technology humanism will be expensive – and we have to accept that as a fact and go search for the money. We also have to accept that, to serve as true public goods, these technologies need to have strong public bodies behind them. 

Therefore, those of us who believe in humanistic education should spend the next decade convincing governments and international bodies, of which UNESCO is one, that it’s their absolute responsibility to play a more hands-on role in both defining and executing a bold and ambitious vision that might give us an alternative post-EdTech paradigm. 

This holistic vision can’t come from the private sector, even if the latter can, of course, be counted on to executive some of it. But we have to learn the lessons of the past: merely reciting the gospel of innovation will not suffice because, no matter how intelligent and ambitious, innovators, once left to the vagaries of the market, will have to eventually surrender and opt for some kind of a compromise that will reduce education to a service or worse to a commodity.  

But it’s not just about remembering that both technology and education are public goods. We should also not lose sight of the effects these vast transformations will have on democracy as such. Where is democracy left in our push towards EdTech? Are we really sure that today’s digital economy is truly as innovative as its proponents claims If so, why is it that the only “proper” way to innovate is by launching a start-up, and not by working from any other kind of organization, such as a school or an NGO? Isn’t innovation actually something that all of us, from children to the elderly, engage with on a daily basis as we encounter some basic problem in our everyday life and find solutions that didn’t exist previously? 

We need to spend more time building a digital economy that can actually put these mini-discoveries to good use. More learning from each other’s experiences would much more democratic but also much more innovative. This would give us the true peer-to-peer learning experience – rather than the weak version that is being preached by the cheerleaders in today’s Silicon Valley. It’s only by making innovation more democratic that we can be sure that it is, indeed, the right value and benchmark for our educational strategies. Innovation that works only in the interests of companies and venture capitalists is probably not an ally of education – and it’s probably not even worth of being called “innovation”. 

It is only by subjecting EdTech and the claims made by its proponents to critical scrutiny that we will be able not only to resist their charms but also to ensure that education remains a right, and not just a service. Making that right meaningful – and not just an empty box to be ticked – in our own digital era should remain a crucial task for public institutions, including governments and UNESCO itself. 

 

Evgeny Morozov is a writer and thinker on the social and political implications of information technology.  He served as a member of the International Commission on the Futures of Education.

Cite this article (APA format)
Morozov, E. (7 July 2022) Avoiding solutionism in the digital transformation of education. UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. Retrieved from https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/morozov-avoid-solutionism-digital-transformation.

Cite this article (MLA format)
Morozov, Evgeny. "Avoiding solutionism in the digital transformation of education." UNESCO Futures of Education Ideas LAB. 7 July 2022, https://en.unesco.org/futuresofeducation/ideas-lab/morozov-avoid-solutionism-digital-transformation.

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