Empathy Isn’t Enough: Power Imbalances In Edtech Must Shift

Opinion | Digital Learning

Empathy Isn’t Enough: Power Imbalances In Edtech Must Shift

By Taskeen Adam     Mar 4, 2019

Empathy Isn’t Enough: Power Imbalances In Edtech Must Shift

As agencies like UNESCO call for global citizen education, in an aim to create peaceful and sustainable societies, online education is being increasingly used to boost cross-cultural dialogues and promote shared values through empathy and compassion-building.

However, education has never been value-neutral. We cannot overlook the fact that education is a politically, socially and culturally mediated project. So as education becomes globalized through access to online learning, this becomes even more contentious because the internet is dominated by Western narratives and discourse.

As a result, the sources of knowledge production, especially digitally, lie in the West, and often promote dominant Euro-American epistemologies. This backdrop is essential in considering the role of technology in education for building peaceful and sustainable societies. And while empathy and compassion-building are essential for creating peaceful societies, I argue it is not enough. Past and present day injustices, and power imbalances, need to be acknowledged and addressed to constructively move forward.

In striving for peaceful and sustainable society, we first need to evaluate what peaceful and sustainable societies are, especially in the age of globalization. More importantly, who decides what peaceful and sustainable societies are? Will such societies embody communitarian notions of Ubuntu from South Africa, or Buen Vivir from South America? If we continue in the current trajectory, this is unlikely to happen. This is because a big factor in building peaceful and sustainable societies is building a value system. However, different groups of people have different, sometimes conflicting, values.

We live in the age of globalization and neoliberalism, which means dominant discourses in support of privatization, marketization and deregulation overpower other perspectives. This is further perpetuated through technological determinism; the idea that the technologies implemented in a society, shape the social norms, values and functions of that society. Marshall Mcluhan aptly describes this when he says, “the medium is the message.” Technological determinism, globalization and neoliberalism cannot be separated.

As technology penetrates communities globally, particularly education models, so do neoliberal values around secularism, commodification, free-market capitalism and individualism. As these values take off on the global stage, local, cultural or religious values that differ are given second place, if they fit in at all. We must be weary of who decides the universal tenets of peaceful and sustainable societies, and who they marginalize.

If we want to create sustainable societies, we must realize that educational technology is not a panacea, and that efforts around “development” and “progress” through online learning can reinforce systemic barriers and structural racism. Instead, we should be striving to work equitably with marginalized communities that were and are exploited.

In the pursuit of global knowledge and development to “catch up” with the West, we fail to realize that the entire globe cannot live like the “technologically advanced” West. Attempts at this are unfeasible and such high levels of technological growth are unsustainable. We also cannot forget that the West reached this point of “progress” through exploiting global resources and populations. We should not merely envision more sustainable pathways to development, but actually question and re-envision what we are striving towards in the first place.

So, how can we use technology in education to help rather than hinder such societies? One answer I hear is that technology must be “adapted to local context.” I have come to strongly dislike this phrase, however, because it still assumes that the solution lies in a Western version technology in the first place that can be tweaked superficially to suit the non-Western context. It assumes that Western knowledge and technology is superior, and the rest of the world is uncivilized, inferior, and in need of advancement.

Instead, I encourage models of transformation from within, where technology is built ground-up, with and by the community in question, rather than being trickled down from the West. Two promising models highlighting this are the Design Justice Framework from Sasha Costanza-Chock, an associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT, and Cheryl Ann Hodgkinson-Williams and Henry Trotter’s ‘Social Justice Framework for Understanding Open Educational Resources and Practices in the Global South.’ With such models of inclusive design, and many more emerging, I see hope for technology and edtech being used equitably to build sustainable societies.

Education for sustainable societies needs to have justice at its core. Such a society should strive for equity within itself and between other societies. It needs to recognize and overcome the power and dominance exercised by some over others. It needs to give room for previously marginalized and subjugated societies to grow, allowing for equal opportunity.

Sustainable societies need to embrace difference—not enforce homogeneity and assimilation that often comes hand in hand with the embracing of “global” value systems. With these principles of justice at the core of education, whether online or face-to-face, we can strive towards genuinely building peace.

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