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Wonder Woman and the Story of American Education

Audrey Watters
Audrey Watters

Education technology's Cassandra visited Davidson last week, and she brought Wonder Woman with her.

Audrey Watters, "troublemaker... an education writer, a recovering academic, a serial dropout, a rabble-rouser, and ed-tech's Cassandra," gave the keynote address at Davidson's annual Teaching Showcase 2015, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning.

Watters was assisted onscreen by Wonder Woman, who has more connections to the psychological underpinnings of 20th-century education theory than one might expect.

"I've spent a lot of time muttering to myself about narratives of teaching and learning that ignore the past and the present," Watters began her talk, titled "The Golden Lasso of Education Technology."

In particular, certain hyperventilating Silicon Valley narratives, she said, read as though "no one else has ever thought of this, until an entrepreneur did."

The history of education begs to differ, she said.

Watters juxtaposed her own graduate studies and academic interests in literature, folklore, cultural imagination, art and "the stories we tell" with what she called the "scripted, adaptive learning" styles required by much ed-tech software run by algorithms. For the uninitiated, adaptive learning is an educational method which uses computers as interactive teaching devices, and to orchestrate the allocation of resources according to the unique needs of each learner.

This scriptedness, she said, is epitomized by the current notion in the popular mind that everything worth knowing is available on the Internet.

It's not.

Watters also noted in passing that the educational technology industry is driven by profit motives that aim first and foremost at business success. Among other concerns, that raises student privacy issues at every grade level.

Enter, Wonder Woman

Computer technology, by definition, is a psychologically behaviorist endeavor, Watters continued.

And further, in spite of late 20th-century psychology's turn toward cognitive approaches, the approach to much educational technology depends heavily on behavioral models developed in the early 20th century, she said.

That's where Wonder Woman comes in, dragging all her psychological baggage.

Wonder Woman's creator, William Moulton Marston, aka Charles Marston, a psychologist and inventor, developed the systolic blood pressure test in the 1920s, a precursor to the lie detector. Marston also held specific, behaviorist understandings of active attention, passive attention and even physical bondage.

Early 1940s Wonder Woman comics explored numerous related themes of literal restraint and coercive experimentation in the pursuit of truth, justice and the American way.

Marston himself once explained to DC Comics executives in the 1940s: "Wars will only cease when humans enjoy being bound."

Enjoying being bound, Watters posited, is the opposite of education (lit., "leading out.")

For perspective on the digital applications in classrooms today, it is helpful to note that educational behaviorism and scriptedness ("adaptive" or not), are not new, Watters said.

Think of grade-school "times tables," or the now-ubiquitous multiple-choice test, developed in the early 20th century. (A related ed-tech effort to market an automated, multiple choice "teaching machine" made out of old typewriter parts, did not find commercial success.)

Pith and Vinegar

Digital technology in education can compound advantages and also disadvantages.

But the keyword is still education.

"[In a scenario driven by education technology] students have very few opportunities to be the subjects of their own learning," she said in reference to the ascendance of the digitally mediated educational experience. "Educational technology wants to make teaching and learning look like science."

During Q&A, Associate Professor and Chair of Russian Studies Amanda Ewington said, to much acclaim from her peers filling the room, that she did not recognize Davidson itself in much of the broader discourse being presented by Watters, to which Watters replied, "Good!"

It's a question of using the tool and not being a tool, all agreed.

A few more outtakes:

  • On MOOCs: "MOOCs assume students are all self-directed and self-motivated with access, a world of roaming auto-didacts. But teaching and learning means structure, and mentors, and networks."
  • On metrics and big data: "I'm not sure we need to parrot a narrative that in order to do our job better we need to make them more measurable."
  • On teaching and learning: "Teaching and learning are more complicated than the best-designed methodology."
  • Word of the day: "Bloatware," or software whose usefulness is reduced because of the excessive disk space and memory it requires.

Watters was clear about not being "anti"-technology, while remaining adamant that the education narrative need not spring solely or even primarily from the education technology industry.

"There is not one single, authoritative direction the story has to go," she concluded. "We have to demand much better stories."

A Few Showcase Highlights

Individual sessions of the showcase provided updates on campus initiatives in teaching and learning, many funded by $800,000 in Mellon Foundation Digital Studies Grants:

Blended learning–In addition to ongoing blended learning that mixes classroom and online components in biology, chemistry, German and Russian, Davidson will soon partner with Wellesley College in a blended project originating on both campuses.

Davidson Domains–Davidson Domains gives faculty and students a "domain of one's own," a unique web domain to host class projects, student work, and personal experiments in online identity formation.

Breathe, Eat, Touch Project (BET): Engaging students in STEM through Case Method Teaching in Environmental Health–An interdisciplinary team, including faculty and students funded by an NSF/TUES grant, developed an introductory environmental health course for undergraduates that incorporates biology, chemistry and epidemiology. It was designed to be modular, such that individual cases could be integrated into pre-existing courses in public health, biology, chemistry and environmental studies. Visit Environmental Studies to learn more.

A Conformational Analysis Discovery Activity Using 3D Potential Energy Surface Models–Three-dimensional models that represent potential energy as a function of molecular geometry have been developed as a discovery activity for introductory organic chemistry in which students combine textbook images, molecular models and 3D potential energy models to explore conformational analysis. Read Wall Street Journal: Davidson Leads in Chemistry Curriculum Reform.