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MSPnet Blog: “Are learners ‘entrepreneurs’? Says who?”

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posted June 11, 2018 – by Brian Drayton

Among other things, educators and others concerned with teaching and learning constitute a market, that is, a bunch of consumers sharing enough interests that it is convenient and profitable to target them for products and services.  One of the ways this is done is by shaping a sense of group identity.  A signal example of this from the past century was the creation of the American teenager.  It’s not as though people had never noticed this age cohort before.  After all, the adolescent (Lat. adulescens, one in the process of becoming an adult) represents a well-marked stage in the life-history of Homo sapiens, and cultures around the world make it a focus of initiation and special training (and restraint), from the Masai emorata to Amish rumspringa  tobthe Athenian ephebe to mention two among thousands (add the ones you went through!).

Yet we somehow ‘discovered’ the teenager in the 20th century.  By some accounts, this represented a straightforward transformation of earlier transition rituals, under various cultural influences operating in the post WWI decades — maybe at bottom it was the spread of the automobile.  Yet the amplifying power of marketing and propaganda (positive and negative) played a key role — as Derek Thompson wrote in a piece linked to above:  “Teenagers are the market’s neophiles, the group most likely to accept a new musical sound, a new clothing fashion, or a new technology trend.”  In effect, commercial interests listen carefully to the desires and interests of young people, and then aim products at them — which in turn shapes how they and their elders (and youngers) envision themselves, their norms and expectations.   This is not a thing of the past, of course, because the teen market is still large and lucrative — digital technologies come to mind right away, of course, but the list is long — though media (magazines and music) have played a key role for decades.

Well, the same thing has been happening to “learners” during the last couple of decades of school “reform,” facilitated (I would say) by the increasing availability of Web-connected computing.  While it is incontestible that these devices can offer useful (and occasionally unprecedented) resources for people trying to learn things, the marketing machinery has been hard at work shaping and propagating an ideal (norms and expectations!) learner:  the learner-as-entrepreneur.  You go at your own pace, you carve out your own path, you move forward at every step making use of new eduproducts, you are a 21st century gritty competency-based inhabitant of a learning ecology whose intricate webs of information intersect at You.

Audrey Watters introduced me to a valuable formulation of this image:  the “roaming autodidact.”  She attributes this idea to Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Cottom, in an essay on “Intersectionality and critical engagement with the Internet,”  defines the roaming autodidact thus:

A roaming autodidact is a self-motivated, able learner that is simultaneously embedded in technocratic futures and disembedded from place, cultural, history, and markets.

You don’t have to look far in the ed-tech or ed-reform press to come across the use of this ideal — it is intrinsic to the “anytime anywhere” language, and the claims about new ways of learning, and “never before,” and so on, which are used as arguments for block-chain-based electronic portfolios, the various techology-centered versions of personalization, the increasing focus on badges and micro-credentials, and the finer and finer tuning of high-school and college to market requirements (the market requirements as defined now).  Anxiety about catching the wave is one reason that ed-tech so often trumps other expenditures in school budgets, regardless of the evidence behind the New Thing (see here for the latest laptop venture in LA).  Note from a recent report that

The U.S. Department of Education via the Institute for Education Sciences (IES) and other federal agencies (e.g., NSF) insists grantees use the best possible research methodologies to measure and report the impact of products and technology-inspired pedagogies on student learning outcomes…Our working group conducted a survey… of superintendents, assistant superintendents, technology leaders/specialists, principals, assistant principals, instructional coaches, and teachers from 17 U.S. states responded to the online survey. Results demonstrate only 11% of 515 respondents demand a tech-based product have the type of independent, gold-standard research championed by the federal government for funding prior to adoption or purchase. Follow up interviews … corroborated that the stamp of federal funding and research excellence is desirable, but far from being a deal breaker.

The EdWeek story by Neuhaus, Oreopoulos, and Kane from which I learned about this survey  makes the case that in fact very little ed tech is subjected to any test of efficacy (they use the conventional measure, increased test scores).  You could say that our kids and teachers are the test subjects (though without much in the way of “human subjects” protections) for a whole range of products whose costs or benefits cannot be warranted — yet they are not even participating in anything like a methodologically sound process, the “tests” being those of the market place, not the laboratory, or even the field study.   (See here for a critical story on a new blend of ‘brain based’ and ‘social-emotional’ learning being touted by the Gates Foundation and other eduphilanthropreneurs).Of course, we are well-accustomed in our culture to be practiced upon without protection or evidence — you are probably aware of the staggering fact that more than 80.000 chemical compounds are in industrial or commerical use, whose safety has never been tested.

Watters, following Cottom, makes the further point that much of this innovation of products and rhetoric seems to come to bear especially on those who are already privileged, so that they are tuned in to the messages, are accessible to the image of the roaming autodidact, while studies show that many people are untouched or unaware of much of the hype, and much of the technology, that is supposed to be inaugurating the New Thing. Watters writes:

One of the themes that I come back to again and again in my work is that education technology exacerbates existing inequalities. “Those who are better off and better educated get more benefits from learning,” the authors of the Pew observe. Addressing these sorts of structural inequalities demands we do more than suggest that “lifelong learning” will be an economic or intellectual panacea. And when education technology and “future of work” proponents say that it’s increasingly up to the worker to become more “entrepreneurial,” to become a lifelong learner, we should interrogate exactly who that imagined worker might be.