Part II: A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part two of a two-part review.

Recently, I provided a summary of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology). Here, I move from that general review into a critique of Fink and Brown’s assertions. Specifically, I examine weaknesses in their generalizations about the educational workforce and their focus on expedient solutions; however, I also recognize the potential they’ve created for further advancement of the topic.

In my earlier post, I mentioned Fink and Brown’s central claim: that prioritization of labor-saving devices in education results in institutional propagation of socioeconomic disparity. The first half of this argument is logical: If mastery of durable dispositions is linked to student-instructor interaction and teacher labor, then those who have the means to afford more individualized education will continue to be privileged by mechanized assessment. By increasing the chances of obtaining further education and attractive employment, such imbalanced academic achievement heightens the odds that those students will repeat the cycle and provide their own children with similar educational advantages. However, the authors’ decision to levy significant guilt for this cycle upon teachers (themselves included) is expedient and simplistic. Their claim that “Education in the United States is not social, human, or empowering, and we can’t blame that on the machine […] We made it what it is” (pp. 28-29) ignores the financial, geographic, familial, and market factors which force educators to acquiesce to the implementation of sub-standard pedagogy.

The negative features of our educational system extend far beyond the situations of individual teachers. Many of the educators Fink and Brown cast as responsible for large-scale reform are likely more concerned with finding, and retaining, jobs. Their tacit consent to the application of inadequate praxis is not born of blindness or ineptitude, but of necessity: Societal and political trends toward slashed budgets and devaluation of education have left them with no other option. Fink and Brown insist upon speaking for these teachers, admitting that “we have continued to […] teach in thoroughly mechanizable ways – without recognizing what we were doing” and “we’ve already made education robotic” (p. 27). Assigning a single voice to “we” teachers ignores this group’s unique backgrounds and innovative pedagogies (both of which hold real potential for combating mechanization). Granted, a short book such as this requires some simplification, but in generalizing teachers as a scapegoat for such a complex issue, Fink and Brown do more harm than good.

As the authors work toward proposing a solution, The Problem with Education Technology addresses a common villain in the composition classroom: the perfunctory paper (pp. 23-26). Fink and Brown contend that papers are ineffective at teaching skills such as argumentation, use of evidence, and rhetorically effective writing (p. 26). Instead, like standardized examinations, these assignments emphasize only the basic dispositions mentioned above, further mechanizing the writing process. This transition is meant to reinforce Fink and Brown’s accusation that teachers are at fault for this progression in assessment, not technology. Specifically, the authors claim companies such as ETS, Pearson, and Vantage did not create the academic battlefield we now face; they just capitalized on an extant situation for which educators are responsible (pp. 26-27). Here, Fink and Brown have the opportunity to parse the differences between liability for current issues and responsibility for their gradual repair, but instead they conflate the two while brushing aside educational realities which force teachers to consent to destructive practices. For example, the authors choose not to explore concepts like negative washback, a phenomenon in which teachers modify curricula to align with and address testing requirements. Such a discussion would likely reveal that these teachers, rather than dictate destructive assessment practices, instead respond to them as best they can. By glossing over such nuanced situations, the authors create a simplistic paradigm that allows them to mop up constrictive, biased policies with a generic call to action.

This problematic strategy is what enables such a small book to endeavor to solve such broad and seemingly-permanent problems. Having accused teachers of creating and perpetuating these issues, Fink and Brown next attack from two fronts. First, they insist the move toward standardization can be disrupted by teachers willing to divert extra effort and time toward crafting intricate assignments with unique rhetorical challenges (p. 31). They offer multiple alternatives to the stereotypical “write a paper” prompt, including asking students to compose and send emails to friends and family, and challenging students to edit Wikipedia in a manner that avoids removal by the website’s editing Bots (pp. 29-32). However, such solutions are like a Band-Aid for a broken bone: They don’t address the larger issue of institutional reliance on assessment systems, which, whether technologically enabled or still reliant on human labor, are mechanized beyond the point of detriment to students. Confronted by the need for systemic change, Fink and Brown introduce their second call to action. They propose that teachers, parents, and students must organize, not in an alignment against all educational technology, nor in panels and presentations at academic events, nor in ephemeral statements and signatures, but in “hordes” and “networks” bursting with people aligned by a common agenda (pp. 35-37). The authors close by noting the majority of educators support their cause, an encouraging sentiment; however, their claim that “the problem is ours to solve” is both daunting and, as I have already noted, unnecessarily troubling for teachers with more immediate personal concerns.

Fink and Brown’s presentation is engaging, but also riddled with complications. The Problem with Educational Technology provides introductory material necessary for readers seeking to engage in scholarly conversation about mechanized assessment, and its minimal length and informality allow for rapid consumption with high retention. However, its final call to action is concerning, as it strays perilously close to claiming that the end justifies the means: “We may not like [our allies…] but we’ll work together anyway” (p. 37). This book is useful in generating awareness about a major educational issue and in its efforts to simplify and contextualize complex arguments within writing assessment for the uninitiated reader, but those same simplifications weaken its overall effects. Despite its shortcomings, The Problem with Education Technology proves itself worthwhile by informing readers about an imminent threat to both teacher and student well-being and by helping ignite critical conversations about the role of united advocacy in finding an effective solution.

Source: jwa

A Review of Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology)

Fink, B., & Brown, R. (2016). The problem with education technology (Hint: It’s not the technology). Boulder, CO: Utah State University Press.

By Justin Vaught, University of Alabama

Note: This is part one of a two-part review.

For the first time in ninety years, students across the country face a fundamentally redesigned SAT. Among changes meant to address the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and “provide a more accurate measure of a student’s college and career readiness” is the replacement of the required essay with an optional, longer prompt focused on textual analysis (Domonske, 2016). The adaptations this infamous exam has made to CCSS requirements bring to light many current conflicts in assessment practice, several of which are addressed by Ben Fink and Robin Brown’s The Problem with Education Technology (Hint: It’s Not the Technology) (2016). The latest installment in Utah State University Press’ Current Arguments in Composition series, this short publication discusses and critiques the mechanical nature of modern education. Fink and Brown explore the computerized scoring systems that have been created to evaluate student writing, and inform readers about some of the most controversial contemporary debates in writing assessment, including the mechanization of human graders, the socioeconomic implications of standardized testing, and the reprehensible conditions with which elementary and contingent faculty must cope. This first post offers an overview of the book; the second will offer my critique.

Fink and Brown ease into these contentious issues by first reviewing two prevailing narratives surrounding technology in the classroom: the “teachers versus technology” binary (p. 4) and its counterpart, the “teachers get offered a break” trope (p. 13). These narratives frame the book’s focus on Automated Essay Scoring (AES) systems, which are described as having the potential to eliminate the modern writing teacher and as labor-saving devices. However, Fink and Brown are not primarily concerned with the merits of these assessment systems. Instead, they use AES as an example of current educational attitudes and practices in their critique.

Noting that in education, “labor saving devices haven’t worked, don’t work, can’t work,” the authors discuss the immense labor investment required of teachers to produce what Bordieu (1990) called “durable dispositions”: enduring and effective ways of observing and engaging with the world (pp. 16-17). Such dispositions help students determine effective, appropriate ways of evaluating and responding to novel, challenging situations. Typically second-nature and often intangible, these dispositions rely more on tacit understanding than stated rules and standards. Modern educators may recognize these “habits of mind” as enumerated in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which features concepts such as “persistence”, “responsibility”, and “metacognition”. These “ways of approaching learning that are both intellectual and practical” are gleaned through observation and emulation, and they are difficult to directly examine; however, students with greater command of such dispositions are more able to apply these abilities when confronted with scholastic assessments.

Less privileged students, in their attempts to replace these dispositions, often turn to alternative means to make up for their deficiency in labor investment. Among these means is the “fake industry” (p. 18), which purports to help students master strategic formulas that “ensure” success on standardized tests. Fink and Brown argue such formulas cannot replace durable dispositions, and instead claim the fake industry illuminates a fundamental flaw in mechanized assessment and other labor-saving educational strategies. Specifically, they demonstrate that in most cases this industry only further enables those who already possess the necessary cultural capital to succeed. Struggling students continue to flounder while those with better command of durable dispositions simply fold new formulas into their extant constructs; in other words, those “who could successfully fake it [are] the ones who [are] already pretty much able to do it for real” (p. 18). This means a focus on labor-saving education and assessment methods results in testing which measures whether students are “privileged enough: lucky enough to have had all the necessary labor invested in [them]” (p. 20, emphasis original). Students fortunate enough to enjoy a more specialized and individualized education are likely to excel in these standardized testing environments, making quantitative markers of success easier to attain while also increasing the availability of future academic opportunities, including collegiate placements and scholarships.

Meanwhile, students of lower socioeconomic status are restrained by these tests. Because of educational experiences that include a lower degree of teacher labor investment, these students have likely encountered fewer opportunities to develop durable dispositions. Systematic examinations implicitly emphasize many of these dispositions by prioritizing formulaic structure and content over unique or creative student responses, and thus exacerbate the labor-related shortcomings of these students. AES is particularly at fault here, as such systems are the worst offenders in this dangerous prioritization. The result is an automatic disadvantage in assessment amplified by mechanization: The more mechanical a system’s methodology, the more it hinders students who are unaware of, or unable to appeal to, systematic features. Although their abilities may extend elsewhere, less privileged students who lack consistently effective means of engagement with examinations are unfairly assessed.

This issue is complicated by the financial benefits of labor reduction: although labor-saving devices don’t work for teachers and students, Fink and Brown recognize that such devices are attractive to the legislators and administrators responsible for making budgetary decisions (p. 22). The authors problematize the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), another labor-saving alternative to the traditional classroom. MOOCs, though attractive for their affordability and accessibility, are academically unsatisfying as they lack both substantial content and constructive interaction between students and teachers, and feature low rates of student completion (pp. 20-21). They, like AES systems, are not an effective shortcut to labor reduction; however, in an observation reminiscent of Bousquet’s How the University Works (2008), Fink and Brown mention “the history of education policy […] is the history of cuts,” and so MOOCs continue to be emphasized in budgetary decisions (p. 22). It is in this discussion of MOOCs the authors reach their central argument: By prioritizing labor-saving devices as cost-reducing alternatives to institutional labor, educators “tacitly consent” to a construct which reinforces and solidifies socioeconomic disparity (p. 23).


Bordieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bousquet, M. (2008). How the University Works. New York: New York University Press.

Domonoske, C. (2016). Students Across U.S. Take New SAT A) Saturday B) Sunday C) None Of The Above. The Two Way: Breaking News from NPR. Retrieved from

Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing (2011). CWPA, NCTE & NWP.

Source: jwa