Two big mistakes in thinking about technology in education

By Robert Talbert

June 27th, 2012

Slate magazine has been running several articles on education this week, including two today that are of interest. This one by Konstantin Kakaes is worth looking at more closely, if only because it somehow manages to gather almost every wrong idea about technology in education in existence into a single, compact article.

The piece proposes that the effort to increase the use of technology in education “is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.” I’m not sure which “effort” Kakaes is referring to, since there is no single push being coordinated from a secret underground bunker that I know of, and some efforts are better-conceived than others. But nevermind.

There are two overriding conceptual errors that drive this article and all others like it. The first, and most common, error is failing to distinguish between technology and the instructional practices that use it. For example, the entire first one-third of the article is spent talking about “putting in new interactive whiteboards in every room” of a school (presence of technology); the forced use of new textbooks (presence of… technology? Are textbooks technology?); and the use of graphing calculators in high schools, which is really a reference to the presence of calculators, since Kakaes does not say a word about how that technology is actually used.

I have said this before, and apparently I need to say it again: Technology neither improves or diminishes learning. It’s the instructional design choices made and instructional practices used by individual teachers with individual students that do this. It makes no sense to speak of technology as if it had some sort of life force of its own, like the weather, facilitating and then inhibiting learning under its own power. But Kakaes does exactly this, when he writes about the “totalizing power of technology” and says that “software packages…did not have a measurable effect on test scores”. Excuse me, did you really say that software packages don’t affect test scores? Well, of course that’s true. It’s like concluding that a $5000 rangetop in my kitchen does not have a measurable effect on the quality of the dinner I make. It’s a statement that is obviously true — but has no information content. Again: Technology does not enhance or inhibit learning. It’s how it’s used. This is a painfully obvious concept; let’s all learn it.

Articles like this, which get much of the landscape of educational technology wrong and demean the great work of thousands of teachers who use technology well, provoke two distinct reactions in me. One is a combination of despair, annoyance, and the overwhelming urge to bang my head against a desk. The other is a feeling of challenge. I read articles like Kakaes and say to myself that those of us who doknow the transformative power of instruction that uses technology well need to do a better job of scientifically documenting the results of our work, a better job of telling our students’ stories, and a better job of casting a positive vision of how technology can be used well. That may eventually provide evidence that critics can’t ignore.   Read More….

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