Fridges and the (Home) Economics of Ed Tech

Billboard advertising gas refrigerators

A maxim even more famous than “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!” is “Never make analogies about technology adoption where scholars of refrigeration can find them.” And yet, in “Is Your Edtech Product a Refrigerator or a Washing Machine?,” Julia Freeland Fisher makes just this mistake, when she draws on what she takes to be the comparative adoption rates of these two appliances to argue for more disruptive innovation in educational technology. (Sigh.)

The internet being what it is, the splendid Jonathan “Refrigeration Nation” Rees found the article, and has some fun with the accuracy of Julia Freeland Fisher’s statistics, and the consequences for her argument. As he points out:

The whole assumption behind that article is that one technology will always inevitably drive another technology to extinction: Refrigerators will completely replace ice, washing machines will completely replace washboards and edtech will completely replace conventional teaching. That is only true for the first of those examples (and even then, only really in the United States). Whether teachers want to teach with or without edtech is a cultural decision, not some hard and fast rule determined by the universal laws of technology.

I agree with this 100%.

But there’s an even more insidious problem that arises if we try to compare the adoption of consumer technology with edtech: the problem of money.

As someone who bought a fridge recently, I can attest that I paid for that myself. Similarly, 5 years ago when we had to replace our washer and dryer: we paid. When we’ve bought window units or fans, we’ve paid. The question of cost/benefit was entirely down to us.

When it comes to edtech in higher ed (or K-12 for that matter), it’s more or less never the case that an individual faculty member or student makes the purchasing decision. Even faculty and students have representatives in a purchasing committee, they’re not responsible, typically, for keeping the technology running in the school’s environment. (The idea that “those who don’t teach, buy” is probably the cleanest way to explain the user experience design of most learning management systems.)

This is a slightly bigger idea than the obvious point about making decisions based on feature lists rather than design. There’s also the question of who exactly is supposed to benefit, and how? We can see this in an LMS: one of the purported benefits of many LMS platforms is the ability to track student engagement, data ostensibly related to learning that’s also able to be used for a variety of other purposes. Similarly, most campuses can only really support one LMS, and so it’s not as if faculty or students get to choose the one that best fits the work of a particular class.

The desire to game adoption rates can have all kinds of weird consequences: For example, some schools only recognize technologically innovative pedagogy if it uses the officially-supported technology purchased by the university. That’s . . . that’s not good.

Adoption rates of edtech are a terrible proxy for questions about whether or not technology is being used effectively in the classroom, and an *even worse* metric for questions about whether innovative teaching is happening at a particular campus or in a particular classroom.

Photo “Billboard Advertising Gas Refrigerators” by Flickr user Powerhouse Museum / No known copyright restrictions

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