The interrelated questions of technology, ethics, and justice are among the prime forces that pulled me into education in the first place. Two years in, I’m still trying to sift these things out, but a recent email exchange about this post on giving teachers freedom to experiment got my brain churning. I firmly believe that teaching kids in low-income communities (and high-income communities as well) demands taking risks. But whenever there are life-outcomes that depend upon risk-taking, there are inevitably issues of morality. Technology complicates these. The metaphor I use for thinking about these things equates teachers with engineers: we’re using whatever technology is appropriate (books, rulers, iPads, algorithmic personalized learning software, etc.) to solve a problem (students need to learn). Experimentation is absolutely fundamental to engineering; I also believe it is fundamental to good education. What is tricky is that experimenting in education involves the fates of kids.
After fighting to get a class set of iPads and experimenting for a year with those, I’m keenly aware that just getting tech into a classroom does not necessarily have any impact on student learning. But I’m also aware of the importance of experimentation and iteration. As a first-year teacher, everything I did was an experiment from my perspective. That felt scary because yes, I wanted to see measurable academic success from my students (as did my administrators). But it also felt scary because I couldn’t help thinking about it in terms of bioethical principles.
Without going into a digression, part of my previous job revolved around writing and editing policy ideas about bioethics. I saw those daily teaching experiments (which over the course of a student’s development, slowly add up into an education) as analogs to a series of medical experiments. The connection is wildly imperfect, but education is a major factor in socioeconomic life; so is access to quality health care. Nevertheless, I think anyone who has taught in low-income schools gets the gist that you’re responsible for a series of small lessons that are components of a child’s opportunities.
Sometimes you’re asked to use (or have nothing more) than educational tools (instructional techniques, materials, tech tools, etc.) that are inferior to the task at hand. Bioethicists ask questions about the moral responsibilities of health care professionals applying techniques to help patients or to run experiments to find new, better techniques. Bioethics as an academic field is founded on these four principals:
- respect for autonomy (people should be able to make choices about their health care)
- nonmaleficence (doctors and scientists should not hurt people)
- beneficence (doctors and scientists should help people)
- justice (make the whole system help everyone as fairly as possible)
Here’s how I see that mapping to education in this context:
- In K-12 education, autonomy isn’t really there: our society mandates elementary and secondary education.
- As a teacher, I was painfully aware of when I was doing things that weren’t helping my students learn. All things considered, a flubbed lesson probably didn’t hurt my students. But a year of bad teaching for students, as we know from the statistics, is a painful blow. Yet here’s the rub: experimentation, by definition, requires failure.
In a medical experiment, autonomy + nonmaleficence = a patient willingly agrees to try, say, a new drug, and the doctor takes every precaution to ensure that the drug and the trial for testing it will pose a minimal risk of harm.
In an education context–where technology can accelerate the rate and range of experimentation–where is the balance of experimenting when you know that failure is necessary but may have costs in students learning?
- Teachers, like doctors, want to help people. I think that even when considering the most convoluted edtech questions, it’s important to always ask: “Is this going to help kids learn?” When we’re talking about edtech, there are lots of situations where technology actually doesn’t help–instead it hurts. So if tech isn’t the thing that will help, then don’t dwell on it. The moral responsibility is to use the tool or technique that will help, or to find it if you don’t have it.
- Finally: justice. For me, education is all about justice. If a solution will level the playing field, close achievement gaps, or generally make things more democratic, I want it. Technology can do this in some instances. But what has made things more just in the realm of bioethics is experimentation that adheres to these principles. In education, I think that justice requires more experimentation. Principles like these could help guide it.
That’s a first stab at synthesizing some of my thinking on this. It is incomplete, but it’s also an experiment.