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Three Lessons from the History of Education Technology

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Last Wednesday, Audrey Watters joined my class on learning at scale for a great discussion about the history of teaching machines.

I think a lot about the history of education technology as I look towards the future, in no small part because I started my career as a history teacher.

In my view, there are three major findings from the history of education technology that should shape how we look at the future.

First, when teachers have access to new technologies, they use them to extend existing practices. For sure, with every new generation of technology there are pockets of excellence where innovative teachers are doing amazing new things with new devices and opportunities. For the most part, however, most teachers tend to reproduce what they were already doing. The SAMR model, a taxonomy of teacher practices from "substitution" to "redefinition" is based on this observation that teachers go through a developmental process in adapting new technologies, and that development process usually starts with very modest changes. This pattern was recognized decades ago: when Judith Sandholtz wrote about the Apple Classroom of Tomorrow project in the late 80s and early 90s, she saw the same thing happening. She described stages of concern, and one five stage model went from Entry to Adoption to Adaption to Appropriation to Invention. We've known for a long time how hard it is for technology to change teacher practice.

Second, when innovative practices do emerge, they are much more likely to emerge in places serving affluent students. Low income students are much more likely to experience technology as a tool for drill and remediation, and wealthier students are more likely to experience technology as a tool for creation and innovation. Some of the first quantitative evidence of these patterns came from Harold Wenglisky in 1998, and Paul Attewell documented the phenomenon with qualitative research in the late 90s as well (link with paywall). (Annie Murphy Paul has a nice article summarizing some of these issues recently, though I'd take issue with her claim that "Now researchers are starting to document a digital Mathew Effect;" that work started two decades ago).


Finally, each new generation of technology is heralded with two promises: that technology will radically change teacher practice and will level the playing field between affluent students and their less fortunate peers. Audrey's lovely talk last week highlighted some of this recurring rhetoric, from the radio and motion picture onwards to the days of MOOCs. When one hears the claims from the latest software or hardware maker that education is on the cusp of a transformation, they can sound an awful lot like Edison talking about how Talkies were going to revolutionize learning.

With all this, I don't think the new cycles of hype and excitement about new technologies should be dismissed outright. First, in all kinds of industries, major changes do happen, sometimes after long cycles of failure. It had been impossible to fly since Icarus, and then the Wright Brothers did it. So while new claims of possibility should be evaluated critically, they can't be dismissed outright. And second, the most exciting thing about history's cycles is that we can learn from them! We know what will happen if we air drop technologies from the sky into educational systems: a very high bluster to change ratio. Moments of hype, however, open people's minds to new possibilities and opportunities. The trick is to say "we've heard this before, and now we have to take this excitement and approach these challenges differently."

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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