The tech world is teeming with metaphors (you might say the way an ocean is teeming with fish). Sometimes those metaphors are helpful for understanding new innovations and ideas, but other times they can be up to something else, as a tool of persuasion trying to shape the narrative.
For this week’s EdSurge Podcast we’re looking at how metaphors shape technology in education. There are many metaphors of edtech out there, and sometimes we might not even realize the metaphor is there. After all, an ‘online lecture’ is a metaphor, using the tradition of teaching in front of a classroom to describe teaching in an online video format.
We talked to a professor who has spent a lot of time pondering the metaphors of edtech and taking them seriously to understand their impact. He’s Martin Weller, and he just wrote a book called “Metaphors of Ed Tech.” His day job is as a professor of educational technology at Open University in England, and he keeps a blog called edtechie.net.
The book is packed with examples of metaphors—those the author thinks are helpful and some that are less so. And it also has some suggestions for educators on how to best sift through metaphors and make smart decisions about what technology best works for their actual situation.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: I wanted to start with one example of a metaphor you use in the book. You say that there’s an aspect of edtech today that compares to the fascination that some wealthy British folks had for fairytale castles in the Victorian era. How?
Martin Weller: I live by a castle. I live in Wales, and it was built by the third Marquess of Bute back in the industrial age, who was like the wealthiest man in the country, if not the world, because of the big coal industry then. And he wanted to build a fairytale castle, and so he built this thing on the site of an old castle that had been there since the 11th century.
The metaphor I make is that partly these people were coming into extreme wealth, and they were very worried about revolution. We’d had the Chartists and the labor movements in Wales. There’d been riots over in West Wales. There’d been an uprising in Ireland. And they were seriously worried about people sort of turning against the aristocracy and people with money. He kind of generally loved this stuff, but part of what this castle does is it symbolizes that they’re here, there’s permanence. That they’ve got stature. It’s almost like, ‘Don’t question us, we’ve been around forever.’ Here’s this castle. And you can see the castle all the way into [town]. You’re kind of reminded of it everywhere you look.
And so my metaphor here … that it’s a lot of the new money people in Silicon Valley [who] are always trying to get into education. There’s something appealing about it beyond just the kind of money that it offers, you know, and education is a very rich area. So Zuckerberg, you know, Bill Gates … I think there’s a status for them. It’s part of that same desire to be saying, ‘Look, education is a social good. It’s been around for ages. We are part of that thing.’ Almost ‘don’t question us, where we’ve come from.’ It gives them credibility.
In higher education, people think that the Silicon Valley tech giants are coming to us as a favor. But they want something from us too, as well as the money. They kind of want this prestige, and we shouldn’t sell that lightly. We’re giving them something in that exchange, and so don’t think that they’re kind of doing you a favor. So that was my long-winded way of getting a castle from Wales into my book.
What is the most dangerous metaphor in education technology these days?
The most dangerous, and certainly some of the most prevalent ones are the ‘[insert whatever the most current business model is in Silicon Valley] for education.’ So we’ve had ‘Uber for education,’ and ‘Netflix for learning,’ and those kinds of things. It’s always puzzled me why people take whatever the latest piece of tech and say, ‘Hey, we could do that for education.’
So in the book, I break down why the Uber for education model just isn’t very good, because if you think about Uber, you’re getting a taxi ride, basically. And there’s got lots of things about a taxi ride that are completely different from education. A taxi ride is short, whereas higher education takes a long time. Taxi rides are usually something you do on your own and maybe with a couple other people. Whereas education is something you do with a cohort. You know how to get a taxi ride, but you don’t really know how to educate yourself, otherwise you’d be doing that, and so on. There’s lots of really fundamental differences. And the differences are more significant in many ways than the similarities. [I think it shows a] fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of education.
What’s the most helpful metaphor you see in edtech?
There are some music metaphors I think that are both great and really off-putting for some people. There’s the idea of the educator as a DJ, and I think if you’re into that, it’s actually a really useful way to kind of reframe it and think about the role of the educator and what we do in education. But if you are not into that kind of music, it’s interesting how off-putting that is. I remember when Edupunk was [a popular metaphor], it had a kind of middle-aged men trying to relive their youth kind of vibe about it, which I think put a lot of people off.
Hear the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast episode.