On fetishes in technology and education.

I’m working through a grant application. There’s a fair amount of attention to detail needed for grants, but the parts that drive me nuts are the formatting issues. As a grant reviewer, I know well the desirability of uniformly drafted grants, so that reviewers can fairly weigh the ideas of a grant, and not its font choice.

That said, much of the grant and publishing world requires a fetishistic attention to formatting. I’ve been thinking about the line between defensible attention to detail and fetishistic obsession in education and technology lately. So much of what I read is fetishism, which is unfortunate, because obsessing over the specifics of a thing can often obfuscate larger needs.

Just a couple examples. Wade into the Apple universe and you’ll discover legions of websites devoted to every feature of iPhones, along with speculation about what future changes there might be. So what one feature would you like of your next cell phone? Yeah, a better battery. I don’t need my phone to summon Thai food with my preferred spice level to a location of my choosing, or make my laundry experience next-generation social, just make the phone battery last longer.

But that’s not the Apple fetish.

In education, we see a fetishism of analytics and “data.” To be sure, as teachers we can better use formative, diagnostic, and summative assessments. That said, most software solutions incorporated into learning management systems are not based on sound educational research, at least as far I can see. Rather, there’s a data fetish that “personalized learning” will be facilitated by real-time tracking of student activity. There’s actually been a logarithmic increase in student data collection in the last 10 years. Have we seen a noticeable uptick in student learning? Nope.

There’s a fetish that more data will yield better results. I think about that as I train for a marathon. I recently purchased a new GPS watch that gives me oodles more data, including heart rate, leg cadence, and recommendations for how long to rest after a workout. And that information tells me something, but it doesn’t help me do the thing itself, which is run. There is no substitute for thing itself. Data can’t help when my kids get sick and I can’t run or tell me why certain muscles are sore. The data page that comes up on the web page associated with the watch looks like a NORAD command center. It’s a fetishistic display of what the watch company thinks will help sell more watches. But it doesn’t make me faster. In the end, I will run, and a simple timer will tell me how fast I covered a distance. Distance over time is not sexy, but it tells me far more than any fetishized data visualization.

All of this is to say, I think we need to ask for less detail in many parts of education and technology, and ask instead what really matters for meaningful learning.

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