The Contradiction of Borderless Technology in a Border-Filled World

As I am slowly making my way through an analysis of the mission statements and strategic technology plans of the United States’ largest K-12 public school districts, one thing is becomingly increasingly clear to me — nearly every district is striving to prepare students to be “21st century ready,” but none define what exactly this means. Instead, what they are doing is throwing around terms like “global citizenship” or “21st century economy” to stress the necessity of new investments in pedagogical models (e.g. blended learning) and digital infrastructure.

I’ve realized that education policy discourse (particularly when it comes to education technology) is operating under the assumption that the key feature of the 21st century is a borderless society. This discourse proclaims that borders are becoming increasingly irrelevant when we have digital tools that can connect us to anyone anywhere, and that young people need to be ready to use these tools to work in a globally interconnected context.

The problem with this discourse is that the narrative of a borderless society, while appealing, is woefully far from our reach when considering the global challenges making the news today. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has made xenophobic immigration restrictions, including a proposed wall on the U.S./Mexico border and a ban on Muslims, key planks of his platform. Refugee crises and fears of terrorism are prompting countries around the world to close their borders or retreat from international alliances. And, borders of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexual orientation continue to roil public life and influence life outcomes in everything from health and education to housing and criminal justice.

Schools are crucial mediating sites where students and teachers try to figure out what to do with digital tools that promise to break down borders in a world that continues to erect them. As public institutions, they are swept up in the tides of public opinion and world events, and I believe that much of the murkiness and confusion around what exactly transformative, digitally-enhanced learning looks like can be attributed to these ideological and discursive contradictions.

And, for schools where I live in El Paso, Texas, that are situated virtually on the U.S./Mexico border and where residents experience a transnational way of life, the contradictions are especially stark. This is why I think that the experiences of teachers and students here hold lessons for all of us about what it means to negotiate borders.

I am teaching a graduate course for pre-service and in-service English teachers this semester at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) called “English Education in the Borderlands.” I don’t know if a course of this name exists in universities that are not located near physical borders — I haven’t heard of any — but I think that the relevance of borders (geographic, symbolic, etc.) in all of our lives demands that more of us consider a course like this as we prepare educators for this actual 21st century reality. I am sharing a bit about my course in the hopes of starting an exchange of ideas and resources with other teachers and teacher educators.

Here is how I welcome students to the course:

A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.
— Gloria Anzaldúa (1987), Borderlands/La Frontera

This course is based on what seems like a very simple idea: education does not occur in a vacuum. Our identities, the identities of those who surround us, and the social, cultural, political, and historical contexts that we find ourselves within invariably influence teaching and learning.

In practice, however, this idea is much more complicated; after all, our identities and contexts are multiple and constantly shifting. We may have power and privilege in one setting but face marginalization and oppression in another — or experience both simultaneously. We are always crossing boundaries — ones that we erect ourselves or are imposed upon us by others. And, we are especially attuned to this here on the physical frontera between the United States and Mexico, where we experience the effects of legal, cultural, linguistic, and economic borders on a daily basis in ways large and small.

This begs the question: what knowledge, skills, and competencies do we need as English Language Arts educators to help our students negotiate all of the intersecting borders in their lives in ways that both empower them academically and civically AND make our society more just and equitable?

These are questions that I will be exploring with my students (and sharing possible answers on this blog) in the months to come. But, I ask you, the DML readership: how do you respond?

Banner image credit: Nicole Mirra