Building Compassionate Contexts With Education Technology

Emerging Technologies and Edtech November 20, 2014

The goal of education is ultimately social; we aim to create reflective citizens. We transmit the ways of making sense of the world that we have collectively agreed are in our communal best interest. How can technology make it easier?
When we teach academic content, we are not only training individuals in cognitive skills, but also implicitly telling them the best context within which to use them. Context is, by definition, about relationships. Context defines the ways in which things encounter one another. Therefore, context provides the social component of academic content.
In the Western world, unfortunately, we tend to contextualize learning through a narrative of ownership and individual ambition. Most of our thinking about educational technology encourages students to view academia within a paradigm of self-interest: they are MY grades, MY education, MY opportunity to get ahead in the world (usually by leaving someone else behind). Knowledge is imagined like a consumable and hoarded for personal gain. STEM and ELA skills are taught under the presumption that they are to be employed toward professional achievement. Our children deduce that the usefulness of learning ultimately lies in its ability to help one build personal wealth or, at best, wealth for one particular team – maybe a corporation, or a city, or a nationalist/separatist identity.
School does not have to be this way. It is also possible to contextualize cognitive skills differently. Academic content could be presented in ways that encourage empathetic, or cooperative, interaction rather than individual achievement. Community and human dignity could become the first priority. It is simply a matter of contextualization.
Unfortunately, due to the practical realities of modern schooling, such a paradigm shift looks as if it would be a Herculean task to implement. Not only do nations and regions have educational bureaucracies that make it difficult to implement change quickly, but also  such a change looks impractical from the vantage point of the predominant educational paradigm of personal achievement and individualism. Large school districts, for instance, understandably need ways to account for the work going on in small classrooms and routine individualized assessments have, thus far, been a necessity.
New education technologies, however, have the potential to offer efficient ways to monitor and assess successes without depending on rigid testing procedures and high-stakes grading. Video games, for example, can provide an enormous amount of data about the choices players make without relying on typical examination strategies. Games-based learning strengthens and assesses both cognitive and psychosocial metrics.
But just measuring social and emotional outcomes is not sufficient. Fortunately, good learning games bake the content right into the mechanics, success involves mastering the ability to use content in context. This means developers might create arithmetic or reading games that feature any narrative or system they can imagine. “Success” could easily become a function of one’s ability to utilize cognitive skills in relationship with other game avatars – other players, other students. In fact, in today’s world, the other students need not be only the others in your classroom, nor limited by the size of your local region; they could include students from anywhere around the globe.
Great teachers already understand how such a pedagogical strategy works. We have all been assigning small-group work since we started teaching. When the majority of the work happens in groups, students learn to value each individual’s contributions. They recognize unique strengths and learn to seek help and mentorship from peers. They stop competing with one another and learn to create a communal economy of knowledge, skills, and support. Group ambition and collective responsibility trump individual accountability and personal achievement. Conflict resolution and consensual decision-making become skills which students are intrinsically motivated to master. Skilled educators have been doing this kind of work forever, even despite the obstacles presented by bureaucratic requirements.   
Educational technology has the potential to mediate the ongoing tension between the need for individual assessment data and the desire to teach content within a context where compassion comes first.
Therefore, when choosing technology for a district, a school, or a classroom, look for options that connect rather than isolate students. Look for games and apps that do more than just provide a more efficient blackboard.
Remember, we do not need technologies that make our current pedagogical methods more flashy. Instead, we need to leverage technology’s ability to make social change a real possibility.