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Civic Media Lab

Kouross Esmaeli on Educating Americans for the Digital Age

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On May 3, 2019, AUP’s Civic Media Lab welcomed Kouross Esmaeli – a researcher, educator and media activist, and currently a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut – who spoke to an audience of AUP community members in the David T. McGovern Grand Salon. Esmaeli has produced short and medium-length documentaries for Democracy Now, Al Jazeera, MTV (US) and Press TV, profiling the politics and people of Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and the United States. The topic of the hour was “The ‘Entrepreneur’: Educating Americans for the Digital Age.” The discussion that followed was chaired by Professors Jessica Feldman and Waddick Doyle of AUP’s Department of Global Communications.

Esmaeli spoke about his current book project, Testing Technology: Digital Mediation of Education in New York City, for which he conducted grassroots ethnographic research into how technology is transforming public schools in New York City. Search engines are replacing library research, curricula are personalized to different students, and lesson plans are multimedia, interactive, and viewed and shared by millions. Students engage with the wider world at a younger age and are learning to market their work and themselves. Perhaps the greatest selling point of high-tech learning tools is their potential to equalize; districts that invest in digital learning may see their school systems surge ahead in test scores, regardless of socio-economic status. But do these claims pay off?

While many schools reap the benefits of a modernized classroom, tech companies are making money off of the migration toward digital platforms. This relationship may seem co-beneficial, but Esmaeli explained that companies have the upper hand and are under no obligations to prioritize students over profits. Companies that want to demonstrate their efficacy depend on testing. Not only does increased testing put low-scoring testers on the backfoot, but it can change the way students, teachers and parents recognize progress. Increased watchfulness also brings up questions of surveillance. What’s more, those who are skeptical of mixing business with education, or those financially unable to keep up with technological trends, may fall behind.

Audience members took notes on laptops, tablets and phones, demonstrating the reality of Esmaeli’s research. Many current AUP students cannot remember classrooms without digital devices. While older generations did not accrue an online footprint until much later in life, current elementary school students start generating data right away. Test scores, online searches, school supplies bought online – in many cases, companies know more about students than their parents.

Companies begin farming data on citizens from childhood with the goal of grooming young students to be ideal consumers. Each time a student uses a search engine, clicks on a website or takes an online quiz for class, companies hack into the global zeitgeist, and the line between student and consumer blurs. During the discussion, it was suggested that the antidote to too much tech is becoming an active user instead of a passive consumer; however, Esmaeli reported that those who become users and those who become consumers are often separated by socio-economic standing. He argued that students in low-income districts are taught to be passive consumers of technology, while higher-income district students learn to be active users and entrepreneurs, capable of using and understanding technology.

While most audience questions centered on how children learn, Esmaeli pointed out that tech is also having an impact on those working in education. For many years, national and local debates on teachers’ salaries have fueled the rise of teachers’ labor unions and led to widespread, passionate protests – though raises have been few and often marginal. In lieu of legislative reform, teachers are finding new ways to make money. With Teachers Pay Teachers and other platforms, teachers are able to sell their lesson plans online. Prices per lesson go up to $10, and any number of teachers can buy the same plan. But what makes a lesson plan attractive aside from pedagogical worth? The same as any product: visual attractiveness, skillful marketing and cost. Esmaeli explained that teachers who market themselves and channel that same entrepreneurial spirit are more successful than those who do not.

During the Q&A session, students and professors from diverse fields demonstrated that the topic lay at the intersection of many issues: Do algorithms have implicit bias? Should more classrooms go unplugged? Students asked Esmaeli for a direct evaluation: is he for or against so much technology in schools? Esmaeli responded that technology, algorithms and tools are not inherently beneficial or harmful – their use defines their worth. Key majors at AUP include Global Communications, Entrepreneurship, and International Business Administration; the students raising their hands will soon be key players in media, branding and economics, which means topics like digital influence and surveillance are of utmost importance. How can students critically, consciously and compassionately use digital skills to benefit others? Where will their digital footprints lead? Conversations like these prove that constant and critical civic engagement is necessary when living in a media-heavy world.