Edtech and the Tyranny of the Extrovert Ideal
In a physical classroom, some students are shouters, others are reserved, and all gradations in between. As teachers, we respond to that difference and the uniqueness of students in a variety of ways, ideally such that everyone has a voice and can join into the whole in a way that feels both comfortable and authentic.
Technology encodes values and edtech is no different. In too many ways, edtech today tends to encode and promote the particular ideals of extroversion, demanding that students act publicly, visibly, and loudly, as if this is the only way of doing things in the world.
As Susan Cain describes so well in her book Quiet, extroversion is an ideal in American life especially; it is inescapable at work or in popular culture. While there is plenty of work on teaching different kinds of students, there is not nearly enough attention and critical questioning of the way that educational technologies default to the extrovert ideal and pass that on to students. To take just a few examples to start:
- Discussion boards: A staple of online education, it is pretty common for teachers to proscribe a set amount of posts and subsequent responses in order to get credit on discussion boards. Tools like packback and ment.io, both simply souped-up disussion boards, double down on all the bad features of social media (upvoting, junk analytics, constant rewarding of attention). Packback even has a “curiosity” score that is little more than a measure of optimal length for an assignment. Apparently if you write more (to a point) you are rewarded.
- Scoreboards and Leaderboards: I'm actually a pretty big fan of kahoot and some other tools like it. I particularly appreciate that it can be used in a semi-anonymous way with pseudonyms. That said, gamefication in these forms does often result in a very public display of winners or top scorers or the like. My point here is not that this is a bad thing; in fact, I think gamefication in general can be highly effective and is one area where edtech often does pretty well. But it is still, strictly speaking, something which is by nature performative and encoding certain values of extroversion. (As an interesting point of contrast, note how the developers of the very cool app Sift used limited gamefication for mental health and calm in their design, rejecting leaderboards and the like: https://medium.all-turtles.com/startup-playbook-designing-a-product-e102a5546e25)
- Zoom: This past year in the zoomified classroom has brought to the fore a particular problem with doing classes where everyone is appearing on screen. It is difficult for everyone to have to watch themselves, zoom fatigue is real, but there are a variety of reasons why this can be even more challenging for introverts. That everyone can feel zoom fatigue is, I think, an indicator of just how much that particular tool of video chat encodes an extreme form of the extrovert ideal. It's an always on, always visible, always ready to speak loudly and clearly and interrupt kind of technology. That said, one of the interesting features of Zoom class in practice has been, at times, a mitigation of differences, precisely because everyone is in the same situation.
- Counting views, likes, upvotes, etc.: This is a feature of discussion boards but also tools like Flipgrid (again, one that I rather like and use frequently). Many edtech tools have become laden with the apparatus of social media. I suspect their creators and promoters think this is a good thing, that they are meeting the kids where they are and doing things in a way that speaks to young people. But as so much research increasingly shows, the negative consequences of social media are fairly severe. No small measure of that is because of the constant mechanisms of approval-seeking that are the bread and butter of social media. Encoding them in educational technologies is a terrible trend, albeit one that has been around for a bit now. Using views or likes or upvotes or peer feedback of that simple sort is simply a way of reinforcing the extrovert ideal in its worst form — not only that you must be constantly performing, but also that your performance must be approved by the jury of your peers. (There are many entry points into critique of social media. For one from just this week, see https://hedgehogreview.com/blog/thr/posts/opinion-fetishism; then make sure to read Jaron Lanier's Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now). Edtech built to emulate social media is fruit from a poisoned tree. More importantly, we should remember that upvotes, likes, and all the other mechanisms of social media are design choices, usually aimed at tweaking algorithms, not inevitabilities and not necessarily choices with any human interests as a goal.
Perhaps you can think of other examples in your own experience. It is by no means cut and dry and much depends on how a tool is used. But there is something about the nature of online tools, requiring constant visible expression, leaving constant digital traces on a platform, that reinforces in particular the public, constantly social nature of the extrovert ideal. Edtech marketing terms like “engagement”, though ostensibly a positive goal, twist the solid pedagogical principle of active learning into the mold of the extrovert ideal when baked in to technology. My favorite example of this is of course the rise of eye tracking and other surveillance abominations as part of platforms from the extreme cases of Proctorio to the seemingly more benign Class for Zoom. Looking at the camera counts as “engagement”; but we can recognize that that is true only in some faux extrovert sense, the same way that constantly speaking or posting a lot or being loud on twitter constitutes engagement. If you prefer to look away, or to do your thinking in quiet and speak once but with impact after a period of reflection, all of that is not picked up as being “engaged” or active to today's edtech.
Edtech can't recognize quiet. That's a technological failure and not a pedagogical model. Teachers can recognize the work of quiet or sensitive students. And while I think there's still probably too much of “drawing out” sensitive or shy students as some sort of ideal, the differentiation that happens in the classroom is rarely if ever built into educational technology. Quite the opposite: educational technologies double down on the extrovert ideal, demanding that students be vocal and public and constantly performative.
What would edtech for introverts look like? And how would it work? Is it out there already?