EdTech Supports Old Pedagogical Practices Rather Than Really Changing Things: Interview with Hack Education’s Audrey Watters

Audrey Watters

Our interviewee this week is Audrey Watters, a self-confessed literary geek, technology enthusiast, mother, and journalist with 15 years of experience in the education field.

Her articles can be found on websites such as MindShift, Inside Higher Ed, Edutopia, and of course her own blog Hack Education, which covers everything from MOOCs to educational apps and resources to tech-ed startups.

Shortly after beginning her career as a technology journalist, Watters became frustrated with the lack of coverage of education technology in both technology and education publications. This led her to devote her spare time towards creating the type of blog she would want to read herself.

Her insightful and honest posts, as well as her no-nonsense writing style have earned her a spot as one of the most influential education-technology bloggers on the Web today.

In her own words; “To “Hack Education” isn’t something that just technologists should do or care about. Nor is this just a concern for teachers, administrators, parents, or students. We all should weigh the implications of technology on how we teach and learn.”

Here she discusses why she’s passionate about EdTech, how she built up her career as freelance writer and blogger and why technology has affected education in both positive and negative ways.

Q. You mention in your “About” section that you once took an aptitude test that suggested freelance writing as a career option, but was this always something you wanted to pursue?

I’ve always loved to write. But I remember receiving the results of that junior aptitude test — the one that suggested “freelance writer” as my only option — and wondering how I’d ever manage to make a living doing that.

So I pursued other things instead, including a lengthy stint in grad school, where — you guessed it — I was happiest when I was writing.

Q. What attracted you to education technology in the first place?

I was privileged enough to have a computer at home when I was a kid (a TI-99, which dates me). So I’ve always enjoyed tinkering with technology.

But I never really thought about the role that technology could play in education until I found myself a young mother (I dropped out of college and had a baby when I was 20) wanting to complete her college degree and having to take advantage of technologies in order to do so.

It wasn’t “online learning” per se at the time. But I’ve always been both grateful and critical of the ways in which education technology opens certain doors to certain people under certain circumstances.

Q. You worked as a teacher for many years as well. What was the most difficult thing about the transition from teacher to journalist and blogger?

The transition wasn’t that difficult, truth be told. In fact, one of the things I struggled with most as a PhD candidate was finding my students to be far more compelling than my dissertation.

The transition wasn’t that difficult, truth be told. In fact, one of the things I struggled with most as a PhD candidate was finding my students to be far more compelling than my dissertation.

The cursor would blink on an empty page, whereas my students were a vibrant and responsive bunch. I like blogging because it taps into that responsiveness in a way that academic writing never does.

Q. What in your opinion are some of the most important things that technology has brought to the education industry over the past few years?

I believe that the World Wide Web — and specifically the read/write Web — is one of the most important technological contributions of recent years. It has profound implications for education in terms of access to information and expertise, as well as collaboration and communication.

But I think too that the development of various education technologies is forcing us to have serious conversations about what good teaching and learning looks like.

Are these technologies merely more efficient “content delivery systems”? Does videotaping a lecture and putting it on YouTube really count as an innovation in pedagogy? And so on.

Q. In one of your posts you mentioned that you try to shed light on both the good and the bad in education technology. Could you give a few examples of some of the downsides of technology in education?

I think that technologies have an enormous potential to reshape how we teach and learn and what we teach and learn. But I think too that many businesses see this as an immense opportunity to sell schools and students a whole new swath of products and services (products and services that do not necessarily reshape much at all except how our education dollars are spent).

I’m working on a book right now on the history of education technology as a long-running drive to automate education.

Automated essay graders, adaptive learning software, MOOCs, standardized testing, and of course, B F Skinner’s teaching machine. These should all prompt us to ask questions about why automation and efficiency are something that we’d want to pursue.

Q. Have your views towards technology and education changed much over the 15 years you’ve worked in this field?

Yes definitely, my views have changed a lot. And yet I always remark on how much the conversations about education technology have not changed at all.

It always seems to be the “hot new thing,” always with the promise of “revolutionizing education” — even though EdTech has a lengthy history, much of it supporting old pedagogical practices rather than really changing things.

… even though EdTech has a lengthy history, much of it supporting old pedagogical practices rather than really changing things.

I’ve certainly become increasingly disillusioned about some of these big promises about education technology and its transformational potential.

Q. Your blog was shortlisted for the Edublog awards last year and has also featured on lists of the most influential blogs in the education industry, so it’s safe to say that it has been successful. Where did your inspiration for the blog come from and how did you go about launching it?

When I started Hack Education, I was working as a tech blogger for ReadWriteWeb. I was frustrated that my editors discouraged me from writing about education technology. They said no one was interested in these stories.

But I knew they were wrong, as I was witnessing a renewed interest in the industry — lots of new startups as well as established companies moving to digital. So I decided that I’d just start my own blog where I’d write about my thoughts on EdTech and cover the sector.

I bought the hackeducation.com domain (I can’t believe it was available), and the rest as they say is history.

Q. Finally, with everything you know now, and the experience you have gained, what advice would you give to other aspiring freelance writers and bloggers?

My main advice for writers is simply “write.” Write daily. You needn’t publish everything you write online, of course. But you needn’t fear doing so either.

The somewhat informal writing style of blogging and the ways in which it makes your writing available immediately to readers should make it easier for writers to feel comfortable publishing things, even when the ideas and the phrases are still half-baked.

Engage with other writers’ ideas. Write responses. And write on your own blog. Even if you end up freelancing for other publications, you need to “own your own domain” — a place where you control your digital identity, your data, and your writing.


Marianne Stenger is a freelance journalist with over four years of experience in writing for publications, online resources and blogs in the education industry. She believes that online education is the way of the future and is passionate about promoting online learning tools and the use of new technologies in the classroom.

You can find her on Google+ , twitter and by email at marianne.stenger @ oc.edu.au.

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