Educational Technology is a false savior

I was a consumer of Educational Technology as a student; I benefited from taking computer classes in school. I started doing BASIC programming on a Commodore 64 when I was in fourth grade. I have a B.S. in Computer Information Systems, have worked in Information Technology for over fifteen years, was an I.T. teacher, and leveraged technology in the classroom.

I was also a producer of Ed Tech as a teacher. My colleague and I set up a Moodle server for our students, and administered tests and curriculum through that interface with positive results.

The most important thing I learned from these experiences is that effective Ed Tech comes from tech-savvy teachers who use tools in their own unique way. These technophile teachers still taught traditionally (myself included); they simply used technology to streamline and improve its delivery.

So let’s be clear: I do not espouse abandoning educational technology, but I think we have to be much more intelligent and methodical about purchasing it. In my own classroom I used technology, but only in ways I felt helped me do my job better, almost never by administrative mandate. In fact, I’ve always suspected top-down mandates and purchases of classroom technology are rarely effective, especially the haphazard way it’s implemented.

This morning, the BBC  reported on a study by the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development that seems to confirm my suspicions:

[The] frequent use of computers in schools is more likely to be associated with lower results. . . If you look at the best-performing education systems, such as those in East Asia, they’ve been very cautious about using technology in their classrooms . . . Those students who use tablets and computers very often tend to do worse than those who use them moderately.”

I believe our recent attempts in the U.S. to measure and quantify Education have exacerbated the issue.

Teachers are evaluated on their use of technology. Their raises and even their employment are at risk if they don’t leverage computers to teach English or History. How many teachers know enough about effective use of computers to use them intelligently? How many teachers are sufficiently knowledgeable about technology to be able to take this increase in funding and translate it to an improvement in student learning? Almost none. Yet all of them are forced to take time away from traditional teaching to leverage these technologies they (quite understandably) don’t know how to use properly.

This well-intentioned but misguided thinking largely applies to how we approach Educational Technology. If a teacher is not extremely comfortable with technology — or if this technology creates more work rather than streamlining existing tasks — it will probably not have the desired result.

My experience as School Technology Coordinator and high school teacher (of Math, Science and Computers) has taught me a few things about Educational Technology. Here is my experience; others may have different experiences or may disagree, and that’s fine. Here is what I’ve observed:

  1. Technology advances are purchased without proper research.
  2. Technology advances are applied recklessly without proper transition or training once purchased.
  3. A significant percentage of technical advances purchased are best described as “solutions without problems”, which are invariably forced upon teachers who neither want nor need them.
  4. I have never seen User Acceptance Testing implemented prior to completion of an Ed Tech project.
  5. Borderline-inexcusable oversights (I certainly hope they’re oversights) like:
    • Issuing computer-based curriculum without making sure there are enough computers to deliver the curriculum to all students using it.
    • Issuing Macintosh-based curriculum to teachers without issuing Macintosh computers to teachers.
    • Issuing a class set of laptops or tablets without Wi-Fi access points that can handle an entire classroom.
  6. Replacing Intensive Reading (“remedial”) textbooks with iPads.
    • iPads are great, but a waste at $500-$700 a pop. Why not, for example, this $99 Kindle for Kids bundle that includes cases (to take the abuse students will inflict) plus a 2-year replacement warranty? And this $99 is a retail price, not a bulk contract price.
    • Again: these iPads were issued to classrooms without installing WiFi hotspots capable of handling 30 wireless clients at once.
  7. Everything is rushed. Superintendents and politicians have short terms, so they have to “do” something or “change” something in order to give the appearance of success.

I think of stories where American Government textbooks were removed and replaced with online curriculum. At any given time, there were always significantly more American Government classes than there were computer labs. And during standardized testing season (which is scattered throughout the entire school year), instruction would grind to a halt, unless teachers prepared their own lessons from scratch. This means the introduction of technology (a.) lowered the quality of instruction for students, and (b.) created extra work for teachers.

Technology should be a tool that makes formerly manual jobs more easily accomplished, and/or with better quality. Too often, it is quite the opposite in my experience. Educational technology is a false savior; we can’t just throw money at it and expect it to work. We have to be intelligent and informed in our purchases. And again, this is not scientific, just an observation that may be flawed. But I think there’s a strong basis of reality beneath the observation.

I can’t help but think that looking at ways to improve how Ed Tech is purchased and implemented would be a very interesting project and might alleviate some of the problems found by this study.

1 Comment

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  • Nancy Mitchell

    Our school district gave students I-pads long before the teachers were trained how to use them effectively for the best educational results. The cart was definitely put before the horse. I felt bad for the teachers, especially those who aren’t tech savvy. My sons — a 7th grader and a 9th grader, aren’t impressed by the I-pads at all. Many parents are easily impressed by them, but my boys think they’re a lot of hype. Nothing can outdo outstanding teaching!