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What Is Educational Technology Good for?

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In this post, Jack Schneider and Paul Reville discuss the role of technology in public education, looking specifically at why schools have been so resitant to change.

Schneider: In reform circles, there's a lot of faith in the power of technology to transform education. Some believe that new devices—smartphones, tablets, and laptopswill transform the nature of learning. Some believe that new softwarelike that employed by the Rocketship network of charter schoolswill transform the nature of teaching. There is great enthusiasm for flipped classrooms, MOOCs, and e-textbooks. Virtual schools have sprouted up. Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, is doing Super Bowl commercials.

But as a student of educational history, I have trouble seeing the light with regard to technology. Radio was supposed to revolutionize education. So was film. Television, too. My mentor Larry Cuban wrote a great book about computers in the classroom, with the self-explanatory title of Oversold and Underused. The list goes on. In short, there is virtually no evidence that the unbridled enthusiasm for educational technology has ever lived up to expectations.

As former Secretary of Education for Massachusetts, maybe you can speak to this a bit.

Reville: While technology has great promise and has revolutionized the world outside of schools, it has only very slowly penetrated the world of K-12 education. For example, we can see that the internet and other technology tools are having a profound impact on higher education which, because of its structure and financing, is more receptive to technological change than our still monopolistic K-12 system which is much harder to penetrate. Your observations on educational history are accurate, but the big questions are "Why has ed tech had so little impact on the way we conduct education?" and "Should it?"

Because of our lack of any real human resource development system in education, we have never paid adequate attention to providing education leaders and teachers with proper professional development and training to enable them to embrace and effectively utilize technology in the classroom. We've not taken a systematic approach to adopting technology. It's been hit or miss. Some teachers, schools and school systems have been highly adept at harnessing the power of technology to advance student learning while others, literally or figuratively, have never unpacked the computer boxes. Typically, systematic technology adoption happens only when it's a priority of top leadership in a school or district.

Technology has actually had a bigger impact on school administration, educational assessment, and the utilization of data to guide instruction than in the actual delivery of instruction. I am hopeful that educators will use technology to achieve greater equity in education, to break down the barriers of time and space that keep education locked in the four walls of schoolhouses and confined to the arbitrary limitations of our agrarian school schedule and calendar. Ed tech can definitely assist us in personalizing and customizing education, enabling us to move away from our obsolete "one size fits all" approach to education.

"Anytime, anyplace" learning has great appeal but inequities in access to hardware and software do pose significant challenges. We can't walk away from those challenges because the potential of the tools is too great, but we should proceed carefully and deliberately. Failing to do so may well mean that our outmoded system of education becomes irrelevant to a generation of young people who simply zoom past their teachers and schools and enjoy access to continuous learning and entertainment in our already ubiquitous high-tech environment.

In the end, ed tech provides tools for learning.  Generally speaking, these tools are a means to an end not an end in themselves. However, it's important to recognize that our world is now being run with these tools, and our students need to be empowered to use them. We, as educators, can ill afford to minimize the use of these tools in our work.

Schneider: Technology has absolutely transformed so much of what we do in education. From the educational data we can now access in our homes, to the way parents and teachers now communicate, to the way districts handle details like payroll, technology has had a powerful influence on the field. So I'm not sure it's sufficient to say that it happens only when it's a top priority. I think it's more accurate to say that technology has transformed what it can transform.

But the instructional core presents a different challenge.

Consider Dick Elmore's definition of the instructional core—as a relationship among the teacher, the student, and the content.

The key word there is relationship.

If the instructional core consisted only of the teacher, the student, and the content, MOOCs would be a totally sufficient alternative. A single instructor could pre-record lectures and beam them out to throngs of students. Children could be plunked in front of computer terminals to pursue individualized curricula, and to move through courses at their own speed.

But technology doesn't improve relationships. And relationships are fundamental to teaching and learning.

Now, I think you're right that technology could be integrated into the curriculum in a more robust fashion. More kids could be learning to code, gaining new skills for high-tech jobs, etc. That makes a lot of sense.

Yet generations from now it will still be true that the best education will be delivered through decidedly low-tech relationships—between great teachers and eager students.

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