Day: March 21, 2011

education & learning

Asking if Technology Can Reinvent Education is the Wrong Question

Harvard Business Review is running a multi-part series looking for answers to the question: Can Technology Re-invent education? While there are lots of answers, perhaps more importantly is considering whether that is the right question in the first place.

Technology captures our collective attention like few other social and technical artefacts. Whether it is robots, flying cars, jet packs, cold fusion, or sub-orbital rockets, we love our technology and expect that it will solve all kinds of social problems. Except, most often, these predictions of utopia are far off the mark.

Computers were supposed to make our lives easier, yet I don’t know many colleagues that find their lives easier — rather the opposite has come true: we live much more complicated lives, which are impacting our hearts and our health (even for public health professionals). Our faster computers do allow us to do more with less energy, yet somehow we manage to fill the time saved with more work (PDF), leading to an overall increase in work rather than a decrease.

So it is not a surprise that Harvard Business Review is asking the question about whether technology will reinvent education. If we could just use education the “right way” and to its fullest potential, imagine what we could do? Imagine how much time we could save? What kind of productivity gains we could achieve? It would be amazing.

It would be amazing, because it is unlikely that we are going to see much in the way of improved learning because of technology. We might be better at gathering information, distributing it, sharing it, and reaching people in new ways, but I am skeptical that we’ll see any real “reinvention” of education through technology. Do things different? Absolutely. Better? That’s not the right question.

To be fair, the author of the lead post in the Advanced Leadership Initiative for HBR, Robin Willner, doesn’t believe in a techo-utopia and, remarking on the success of Watson the computer against human Jeopardy champions,  states:

It’s time to think systemically about the long standing barriers to school improvement and education reform.

Technology alone is never the answer — that’s the main lesson from Watson’s Jeopardy win. Technology supporting innovative teachers and school leaders will be the solution for our students.

Yet, the title of the series belies at least some faint hope that the problem of learning and educating can be solved with technology. If we just implemented the right tools we could solve the problem. Willner is writing on the issue of school improvement, not education and it is an important distinction.

As I’ve discussed before, the current model for schools do little to support learning relative to the apprenticeship-style models that they replaced. Most of this is due to a conflation between information provision and education. Computers and technology are excellent at providing information, and even displaying it in ways that enable learners to interact with it. Technology does not provide great opportunities to take content into social contexts where we apply lessons with real people or physical artefacts that are not machines. The complexities of the encounters — having conversations for example — are not easily mimicked by computers and thus, provide only weak substitutes. In short: technology is not about eduction, just better information delivery.

Simulations, one of the areas where technology offers much promise for learning, are often designed for particular purposes, thus enhancing specific skills, but less about general ones. But this is only one narrow use of technology for education, although certainly promising.

But all of this gets us away from the question itself, which focuses on technology’s ability to reinvent education. Education is a human endeavour and a social one at that. Technology may aid in our strategy development, implementation of certain tactics for teaching, but it will not provide the grist for improving the social component of learning. Just as Facebook friends are (mostly) extensions of the friendships we create in everyday life without technology, so is learning. Technology is an aid, not the purpose and thus, focusing on the aids as the means for reinvention sidesteps whether we’re educating effectively in the first place and risks us doing what Russell Ackoff calls doing the wrongs righter. Without questioning the very system in which that technology is deployed, we will continue to do just that and this is where asking new, bigger questions comes into play.