Edtech and Justice

This morning I woke up to an alert on Twitter. Benjamin Doxtdator (you should read his blogs, they are excellent) had found and shared a blog a wrote over a year ago where I was thinking/musing about the similarities between Silicon Valley and imperialism. It was a nice reminder that I have been thinking in this paradigm for a while now and has given me the confidence to lay some analysis down rather than simply think into the bloggosphere.


In this blog I would like to start exploring the idea of educational technology within a justice framework. When I say justice I mean social justice but usually when social is there as a prefix people can get caught up in what has essentially become pop social justice, which is problematic. I am using the conceptualisation of justice considered by its theorists. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is usually first stop on this journey. His work gives social justice gravitas because he situates it within law (his work reads like it too). Rawls disagrees with the utilitarian view of justice that dominated law making for centuries. Utilitarianism at a glance is about making decisions which best suit the greatest number. It is the basis of laws which allow punishments like the death penalty, the incarceration of refugees, and other decisions about people’s lives that appear to benefit many more people than they do not benefit.

icons-842877_1920Rawls’ conceptualisation of justice in basic terms, asks us to consider how our decisions will affect the person at the bottom of the equality scale. His thought experiment claims that if the person who is at the bottom of the pile’s life is made better (or no worse) then the decision is a just one. Rawls is a pragmatist. He doesn’t assume that society is equal within his conceptualisation.

Recently I have been reading another theorist of justice, Nancy Fraser, a Marxist feminist within the tradition of critical theory . Fraser believes in a dialogic approach to considering justice. In essence she believes first that participation in a socially just society must strive towards participatory parity and that social exclusion is a “grave moral wrong” which differentiates her approach to the more thought experiment flavour of Rawls. She demands that social justice be active.

In its basic form, Fraser sees justice as a balancing act between recognition, redistribution, and representation. She is a staunch critic of a liberal agenda of justice that only considers recognitive justice, or that associated with traditional identity cultural politics. I believe that she would argue that what has become termed White Feminism, is an example of liberal recognitive justice. Fraser argues that if we have a society with too much emphasis on recognising injustice we will have problems achieving justice; just as those who spend too much time redistributing justice will fail to understand how patronising the approach is without a balance towards recognition of difference.


So what does this have to do with educational technology?

To answer this, I am going to read Ben Williamson’s blog on Class Dojo by remediating a  version of Fraser’s model of justice developed for Australian Teacher Education.

Edtech justice

Williamson’s blog focuses on other aspects of Class Dojo, but for my blog I’m going to look at what he says about gamification and behaviour surveillance in Class Dojo. I need to acknowledge that my knowledge of Class Dojo has primarily come through Williamson and those discussing his work; however, at this stage I am simply looking to test Williamson’s suspicion of Class Dojo, to hypothesise whether it is a just piece of edtech. As with all hypotheses, further investigation would be required.


In practice, the app allows teachers to award ‘dojo’ points under default categories of ‘hard work,’ ‘participating,’ ‘helping others,’ ‘teamwork,’ ‘leadership,’ and ‘perseverance and grit’ (though the categories can also be customized)…The awarding and deduction of points becomes a kind of data timeline. Teachers can produce visualizations for each child to show their progress over time, and can also instantly contact parents with photos and text messages. One of the slogans for ClassDojo is ‘happier students, happier classrooms!’

ipad-1140444_1920According to an analysis of Williamson’s blog, Class Dojo does not function within a recognitively just framework. While there is the ability to recognise individual students’ productive behaviour, the default categories are oriented towards the idealised student, rather than a multifaceted person who is interconnected with the world outside the classroom. In this respect, the cultural capital that is being redistributed is that established by the cultural foundation of the school system the school is within. The Western education system is not known for representing the needs of the least disadvantaged, but when it trys it can often build other barriers. If a school does not represent the cultural norms of the most disadvantaged students with in the school, then the use of Class Dojo is not socially just.

For example, Williamson explains that Class Dojo allows students to “game the system” or place value on classroom compliance. If the values of the school do not recognise the values of the multiple identities within the classroom then Class Dojo will not represent the behaviour virtues of all their students and thus become imperialistic because only the school’s version of compliance is seen as a virtue.

Behaviour Surveillance

This imperialist approach to behaviour is supported within the surveillance capability of Class Dojo, described by Williamson.

Class Dojo’s founders … [emphasize] its use for positive behaviour reinforcement. Yet positive reinforcement has always been the aim of behavourist conditioning techniques, and assumes particular norms of behaviour that are inevitably contested.

So even if a school remediates Class Dojo to a point where the multiple identities within the classroom could be acknowledged within the default settings, the public awarding of points can work as a form of social conditioning where the class eventually arrives at a norm for productive behaviour. While such a process might work well for a class teacher, there needs to be care in understanding who’s behaviour norm is dominating the conditioning. For the application of Class Dojo to be just, the teachers must be working towards a parity of participation in what constitutes productive behaviour with all of their students. To invoke Rawls, justice would lie where the least advantaged student in the class is not adversely affected by the decisions made by the system.


By reading Williamson’s analysis of Class Dojo through the justice lens of Nancy Fraser, I hypothesise that Class Dojo is not a socially just educational technology system unless the school that implements it takes the time to mediate the default categories within the system and has a socially just approach to schooling to begin with. As said earlier, this hypothesis is tenuous due to the limited basis for it’s analysis. However, that, as I have reflected in the past, is a legitimate use for academic usage of social media.


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