Less is more in technology and in education

Students, Consumers, and Growth

Amidst the signs of the season are various news pieces both reporting consumerism and, inevitably, questioning the nature of consumerism. This piece from Salon (“People didn’t used to be “consumers.” What happened?”, citing research about how simply using the word “consumer” to describe ourselves can change the way we act, made me think about the pressure on educational institutions to deliver products for their “consumers”— er, I mean “students”, and “growth” in curriculum or enrollment or other measures.

An example from the piece:

Change one word and you can subtly but deeply change attitudes and behaviour,” writes Kate Raworth in Doughnut Economics, a 2017 book that sought to develop a more sustainable model for economics.

One experiment, for instance, asked corporate executives to solve riddles that contained words like “profit,” “costs,” and “growth.” After the exercise, the executives had less empathy for their colleagues and worried that expressing concern for others would be seen as unprofessional.

At some level I suspect this sort of thing is not surprising. There are plenty of critiques of the neoliberal university or privatization and businessifying of education that push back broadly against consumerism. Things like open access or OER recognize the cognitive damage of modeling education as consumerist transaction.

I appreciate this piece's emphasis on what words we use to identify ourselves and define our activities. e.g. “Simply reading the word consumer prompts people to act more selfishly.” So too with something like educational technology or education in general, it does matter whether we see ourselves as consumers and purchasers of a particular product. Are we “users”? Are our students “users” or “consumers”? Does it matter that educational technology is so often something where we are acutely aware of access and the economic exchange involved to procure a product? (Or, to be fair, is that invisible to most students and teachers?)

The piece floats some possible alternatives to “consumer” in the context of people in general: citizens or simply person.

This all had me thinking that the language we use to describe our interactions with edtech are a cheap and readily available means to change our relationship. For teachers' and students' interaction with technology, what might a good term be? Can we actively combat the default assumption (in American society in particular) that everyone is a “consumer” and that every enterprise (including the educational enterprise) must seek “growth”. (I will set aside here the self-improvement angle here, where individuals too are encouraged to aim at particular and constant “growth”) Are we all simply “students of” when it comes to technology in education? “Learners”? “Adepts”? “Builders”? “Scholars”?

I don't know. But for now I'm thinking that it should be a term of empowerment. I'm thinking “Jedi.”