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Technology as "Hamburger Helper"

Just recently, Forbes magazine engaged in another bit of embarrassing hyperbole, titling a cover story on the Khan Academy, "One Man, One Computer, 10 Million Students: How Khan Academy Is Reinventing Education." Sigh... It reminded me of so much overzealous commentary on ed tech.

Technology has long been offered as the miraculous balm that will transform and improve teaching and learning. Enthusiasts have said this about iPads, laptops, the Internet, desktop computers, televisions, videotapes, well . . . you get the idea. And, in most sectors, technology has indeed yielded huge savings and delivered massive increases in productivity. In education, though, it's been a different story. With each new advance, districts spend heavily on nifty new gizmos, make grand promises, and get lots of enthusiastic press. And then, each time, nothing much changes. If anything, technology always seems to make schooling more costly. Here's the thing: technology is a powerful tool for driving productivity and quality, in schooling as elsewhere; the problem is not with the technology, but with how we've used it.

As I argue in Cage-Busting Leadership, due out early next year (you can check out the book page here), it's more useful to think of technology not as a solution but as "Hamburger Helper." Except for the occasional cash-strapped graduate student, Hamburger Helper isn't an alternative to ground beef; it's something that you stir into the pan so that the beef goes further. The key is to regard technology as the means to the end you'd like to achieve, rather than an end in itself.

Enthusiasm for "disruptive innovation" has sometimes blinded us to the fact that, 99 percent of the time, the biggest impact of technology is optimizing familiar tasks and routines--freeing up talent, time, and dollars for better uses. If teachers with one-to-one devices can, each day, spend ten minutes fewer entering data and grading quizzes, ten minutes fewer passing and collecting texts and papers, and ten minutes fewer walking students to the library or accessing student data, they will save eighty or ninety hours a year. That's like another 15 instructional days that they can devote to instruction, mentoring, or lesson design.

Too often, rather than using new tools to free up time or make better use of talent or money, we've ladled them over what's already in place. Steve Hockett, principal of Colvin Run Elementary in Fairfax County, Virginia, and former principal in residence at the US Department of Education, says, "People want the fastest, the best, the newest. I've gone into schools where they say, 'We have smart, interactive whiteboards in every classroom.' And then I'll go visit classrooms and they're basically using the whiteboard as an overhead projector where the print can't even be seen in the back of the room. So it's not interactive and it's not even a very good overhead projector, yet it costs $2,500."

Hockett explains, "School technology is really a vehicle and a tool. People are basically spending lots of money to own a Ferrari to drive a block to the store and back every day . . . They just felt that they had to jump and buy the next best iteration, but yet aren't even utilizing what they have." Ann Bonitatibus, associate superintendent of Maryland's Frederick County Public Schools, sounds a lot like Hockett, noting that principals will "spend a couple thousand dollars on SMART Boards and then there won't be a teacher in the building trained to use one. The high-tech board becomes nothing more than a glorified whiteboard, which is a waste of a resource and taxpayer money."

Technology can be a powerful lever for rethinking schools and systems. But it's the rethinking that matters, not the technology. Technology provides tools to help solve problems smarter, deliver knowledge, support students, extend and deepen instruction, and refashion cost structures. Unfortunately, too many educators, industry shills, and technology enthusiasts seem to imagine that the technology itself will be a difference maker.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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