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.

7 thoughts on “Asking if Technology Can Reinvent Education is the Wrong Question”

  1. Technology may not re-invent education, but it may compel education to re-invent itself. If we continue to treat education as information delivery, then we’re going to be 0ut-delivered by the likes of the Khan Academy and other open educational resources. Since technology can do information delivery better, faster, cheaper, we’ll need to refocus our efforts on the human, social component of education, or risk being seen as irrelevant.

    Your analogy of technology to Facebook, helping us to more of what we’re already doing, is interesting. However, if we compare technology to Twitter, where many people connect with and follow people they didn’t already know, we get a different view of technology, one that speaks to its potential for supporting the human, social component you describe here.

    1. Derek,

      Thanks for your comments. I agree that Twitter poses an interesting case in terms of how it enables connections that we couldn’t have imagined through another means. I am a big fan of Twitter and would rather give up almost any other networking tool to keep it, but I see it as a connector and tool that points to content and less as an educator. In most cases, the technology serves to augment good educational practices and learning environments, rather than create them on their own. I do, however, see this on a spectrum and acknowledge that there are places where technology — particularly with simulations — can do a great job in education.

      What inspired this post is a frustration of seeing over and again people trying to “tech” their way out of doing things that support relationship building, practical experience, mentorship, and peer learning that mostly needs some kind of interaction that isn’t all technology mediated. I find IT serves as good tools for content delivery and maintaining relationships, but not growing them and that is what I see as an important part of education.

      Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.

      1. I think I’m beginning to see your point here, that education can’t be reinvented because it is what it is. What can be reinvented is how we go about education, and that’s where technology can play a role. I guess I would argue that technology can help us “do” education better, perhaps even significantly better.

        You wrote, “I find IT serves as good tools for content delivery and maintaining relationships, but not growing them and that is what I see as an important part of education.” Here’s a counterexample: That’s a blog post I wrote describing the use of Twitter by English professor Gardner Campbell and librarian Ellen Filgo as a “backchannel” during class discussions. Ellen wasn’t physically present in the room, but she did participate in the backchannel. One result worth noting: Ellen found that the students sought her out much earlier in the research process than students typically do because she was a part of their class discussions (online, at least) from the very beginning.

        This is the value I see in technology: not in changing the fundamentals of education, but helping us accomplish those fundamentals in new ways, often ones that aren’t quite possible without the technology.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I have colleagues who feel that they gave transformed their teaching because they use technology, namely clickers. But clickers only promote learning when implemented by an instructor – a person – with some pedagogical content knowledge.

    Like you, I avoid most simulations. They’re not much better than videos. Except for the new breed of sims developed by people with content knowledge and PCK, like the PhET physics (and much more) sims and the NAAP astronomy sims. Even these, though, are not stand-alone. To be promote learning, students need to be shepherded through them, that is, gently guided with a goal. And I don’t think Watson can do that.

    1. Hi Peter,

      Thanks for your comments. Watson might be winning lots on Jeopardy, but I don’t see any of us teachers being replaced soon.

      With regards to comments on the use of technology to support learning, there are those who can work with the technology well and those who can’t. PowerPoint, too often used as a crutch, can be a deft tool for displaying information in the right hands, but in both cases it is about the instructor not the tech.

      1. I agree that there are good uses of particular technologies (PowerPoint, clickers, etc.) and poor uses. However, I also believe that some technologies can help us do things as teachers that are difficult or impossible to do without those technologies. I can’t poll my students on a question in a way that allows for independent student responses and an immediate summary of those responses without using clickers or a similar technology. And the capability to poll my students in that way opens up the classroom to different kinds of interactions and dynamics. I still need to ask good questions, lead discussions well, and have some pedagogical content knowledge, but the technology lets me leverage those stills in new ways.

  3. Derek,

    All good points. I agree wholeheartedly that the tools you’re speaking of enable you as a teacher to engage your students in ways that would be much more difficult without it. I love clickers and think its done marvels for classroom lectures, but I wouldn’t say that its reinvented the classroom (and I’m not suggesting you are either). We can still poll and sum things and show the results, the tech just makes it a lot easier to do so.

    I’d also be one of the first to complain about not having the technology as I employ it a lot in my classes, but I do it as a means of traversing boundaries created by large class sizes and overflowing curriculum demands, and less because I think they’re superb tools. The reinvention of education through technology will come when we can extend learning into realms never before realized or deepen students knowledge and experience in ways impossible without it. Right now, too much is being placed on doing the same thing in a different way without asking these bigger questions about why we need the tools in the first place.

    If we can get to asking more about the “why” we’re using it, the questions about the “what” and “how” will be a lot more engaging and productive. My concern is that we’re only asking the latter.

    Thanks so much for your comments and engaging discussion. This post certainly struck a chord and I think so many of us working in education struggle to do the best and innovate with the technology and its always nice when we can stretch boundaries with it rather than simply use it to prevent further contraction.

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