Two Skeptical Takes on Technology and Education

I want to draw your attention to a couple of recent essays on technology in education. The first, “Step 1: give every kid a laptop. Step 2: learning begins?” by Cyrus Farivar, appeared a few days ago in Ars Technica. The second, “Apple for Teacher” by Kieran Healy, was posted at the blog Crooked Timber. I would describe both as reasonably skeptical of two specific approaches to employing technology in the classroom. Farivar examines the success of 1:1 lap top programs and Healy comments on Apple’s recently announced plans for the education market.

I won’t try to summarize either of the pieces, I encourage you to click through and read each if education and technology is of interest to you. Feel free to post your thoughts below if you do.

Here are a couple of interesting excerpts.

Farivar cites Jeff Mao, the learning technology policy director for the state of Maine which operates the most extensive 1:1 program in the country, who makes the following observation:

“Test Scores and one-to-one are tough to link. The deployment of one-to-one technologies alone doesn’t change outcomes. As we discussed, it’s the teaching and learning practices that really make the change.”

This strikes me as an honest and chastened position to take; no hint of techno-utopianism there and that’s a good thing. Here is Mao again on his state’s 1:1 program:

“Since our beginnings, we’ve always looked at notions of creation,” Mao said. “It’s not about consumption of content, it’s about the creation of knowledge.”

Now that, I’m afraid, strikes me as a string of buzz words with little meaning. But perhaps that’s too harsh. I certainly would need to hear what constituted the “creation of knowledge.”

In his piece, Farivar makes the following observation:

“Schools have been down the techno-salvation path before with other kinds of hardware and software. It’s worth remembering just how many technologies we already have that were supposed to transform education beyond all recognition. Radio, the television, the VCR, the personal computer, email, the Internet and the web … All of these have been trumpeted by someone as having the power to make education What It Really Ought To Be. The same goes for smaller developments within larger technological shifts. Chatrooms, MUDs, bulletin boards, blogs, FaceBook, Twitter, on and on.”

It’s good to keep this history in mind. I say that not to diminish the real possibilities that new technologies may offer, but rather to emphasize the importance of smart implementation. The mere appearance of this or that technology will not, cannot by itself transform education. Correction: it may very well transform education, but not for the better. Technology must be paired with the practical wisdom of good teachers if it is to enhance learning.

One last thought. I suspect that our educational dysfunctions are not susceptible to a technological fix. They are linked to the incoherence of our responses to a very straightforward question, What is an education for?

Tacit answers to that question lie beneath and shape most of our discussions about technology in schools, as they do most discussions related to educational policy. At this stage of our history it would probably be impossible to formulate a consensus response that was also substantive. At the very least, though, we should get these more philosophical assumptions on the table rather than bracketing them or otherwise allowing them to remain unspoken.

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Related: The Ends of Learning

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