Burbules (2016). Technology, Education, and the Fetishization of the ‘New.’

Burbules, N. C. (2016). Technology, Education, and the Fetishization of the ‘New.’ In P. Smeyers & M. Depaepe (Eds.), Educational Research: Discourses of Change and Changes of Discourse (pp. 9–16). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-30456-4_2

“Petrus Paulus Vergerius was talking about the ‘new education’ in 1400, and ever since education has been enamored with its own constant reinvention.” (p 9)

“… the ‘new’ needs to be viewed as part of a discourse of change that serves political purposes. At still other times, especially in the modern era, the ‘new’ is a strategy of educational product promotion that reflects specific commercial interests: a context in which the ubiquitous slogan ‘new and improved’ has special resonance.1” (p 9)

[“I” (p 9) …]

“A brief review of synonyms used for ‘new’ indicate part of its appeal as a discourse of change: ‘recently developed, up to date, latest, current, state-of-the-art, contemporary, advanced, modern, cutting-edge, leading-edge.’2 New is innovative. New is exciting. New is cool. New is unprecedented.” (p 9)

“But the new, in order to be recognizable as such, needs to be based in something familiar: a new car, a new detergent, a new approach to teaching. Something truly _sui generis_ would be unrecognizable: What is _this_? What do I do with it?” (p 10)

“A light switch is a crucial technology that we use dozens of times a day, but without ever being aware of it …” (p 10)

“Unexpectedness, then, is part of the new: we don’t fully know what will happen when we use or encounter something new. … One distinct type of newness is a _mistake_. … Not all newness is pleasant or productive.” (p 10)

[“II” (p 10) …]

“… because education is about a process of growth and improvement for the learner; and as a result it is a process that continually seeks growth and improvement itself.” (p 10)

“… a marketplace of educational innovation, with the same commercial strategies that we see in advertisements for cars or shampoos: try this new thing, and _you_ will be better, and happier. Commercials start with the promise of improved functioning for the product, but always end up promising an improved life for the user of the product. In many cases, there is an implied deficiency in the user, which the product will remedy. … But the greatest implied deficiency is to be behind the curve of what is ‘recently developed, up to date, latest, current, state-of-the-art, contemporary, advanced, modern, cutting-edge, leading-edge.'” (p 12)

[“III” (p 12) …]

“All of this is background for my main concern here, which is the way that new digital technologies — computers and related mobile devices, software, wireless connectivity, and access to the information resources and communication media of [page break] the Internet — are represented as an unprecedented opportunity for the transformation and improvement of education. This is our latest, and most popular, discourse of educational change.” (p 12-13)

“… new technologies are commercial products too: things to be bought and sold, with built-in obsolescence …” (p 13)

“… governments have gotten aggressively involved in spending for new educational technologies and infrastructure, usually far ahead of any planning about what to actually do with them. … Expensive as these are, the even greater cost is the corresponding need for the continual professional development of educators in using these technologies — and this is where the spending often lags.” (p 13)

“New technologies are neither the key to solving education’s problems, nor a blight that will make those problems worse. How do we think about the potential, and the limitations, of technologies in education without getting caught up in the fetishization of the new?” (p 14)

[“IV” (p 14) …]

“… tools. One is that they can also be used for other purposes different from those intended … The other is that even in accomplishing their original purposes tools often give rise to new possibilities unanticipated by their original intended use.” (p 14)

“What these reflections suggest is that a tool is ‘new’ only for a very short time; its initial newness goes away with familiarity and use, but then over time it can acquire, if you will, new kinds of newness. The ‘new’ is not in essence a temporal quality, nor a status of unprecedented originality: it is a relation between a thing, familiar or not, and the imagination and creativity of the person using it.” (p 14)

“Doing what we have always done, just faster or more efficiently, is not innovation.” (p 15)

[“… 1999, Sugata Mitra …3” (p 15) …]

“… what was even more new was the opportunity to play around with one, without supervision, instruction, or anyone telling them what they could and could not do. What was new was a learning environment that was within their control, individually and collectively. And what was new was the realization that _they could use a computer_, something that many might have assumed was beyond their capabilities.” (p 15)

“Those of us who use a lot of technology in our teaching … prefer something less than state-of-the-art, but durable and dependable, because the last thing you want in a technology-supported classroom is for the technology to be the focal point, the problem.” (p 15)

“‘New’ doesn’t _mean_ ‘improved’ — it means _different_.” (p 15)

“This is a good time to recall that a fetish is literally just that: investing an inanimate object with magical significance. Technologies in education are often like this: literally, fetishes into which we pack our hopes and desires; a wish for simple answers to complex, indeterminate problems; the search for _solutions_ [page break] (a word I am coming to really dislike); seeking remedies for our frustrations and disappointments. Technologies are in fact none of these things.” (p 15-16)

“In this sense, we can see that the discourse of ‘newness,’ and the fetishization of the ‘new,’ is actually an _impediment_ to change. It is an impediment, first, because it mistakenly assumes that the new is inherently an improvement, when it is at most _an opportunity to do other things that might bring about improvement_. Second, especially but not only in the context of new technologies, it misunderstands the dynamic, relational, and not static nature of a ‘tool’ and what is it good for. Third, it misunderstands the nature of change and what drives change: not new technologies themselves, but an interaction between technologies and our own changing practices, aims, and values. What makes technologies ‘new,’ if anything, is what we figure out to do with them. The new is an artifact of our imaginations and willingness to explore the unknown, not a characteristic of things.” (p 16)

Selected Footnotes

  • [1] Tedlow (1996). In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that products can only use the phrase ‘new and improved’ for 6 months.
  • [2] Oxford Dictionary http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english-thesaurus/new
  • [3] http://www.ted.com/talks/sugata_mitra_shows_how_kids_teach_themselves
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