“Technology is going to revolutionize education.” If you believe the hyperbole, computation and digital devices will save the students, crafting the future of learning. But it’s unclear exactly what it will save them from; it seems more likely that it will obscure their need for some fundamental educational experiences.
This idea that technology will fix education is not new:
And it’s not just Apple:
As you dig into these articles, and try your best to work through the vapid breathlessness of tech writing, you’ll inevitably arrive at a few key claims of an argument for how technology will fundamentally change the way we think about education.
Claim 1 – Technology leads to personalized learning. It’s constantly assumed that students need to learn content that is specific to them, tailored perfectly to their interests and passions. Handheld devices are very good at being “just for me”, and the same magical algorithms that introduce advertising to us on Facebook can be used to cater the best, most personalized content to optimize our learning. My learning needs, it is said, are drastically different than yours. Technology will solve for this. EdTech magazine describes that “An effective personalized-learning approach successfully threads digital tools into the mix, creating a solid fabric for students heading out into the modern working world.” Presumably, the modern working world will also be personalized just for me.
Claim 2 – Technology is entertaining, and entertainment leads to educational engagement. It’s long been popularly argued that education should be fun, and that enjoyment leads to engagement which then leads to learning. Things on the screen should move. Fun characters should guide us through the learning process. Learning should feel like a game, not a chore, because we like games and want to play more and more of them. Learning without technology is boring. Forbes explains that “Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality are examples of transformative technology that enhance teacher instruction while simultaneously creating immersive lessons that are fun and engaging for the student.”
Claim 3 – Technology gives us learning at scale. Instead of paying teachers such lush salaries as they’ve grown used to, we can fund hundreds of devices for students. Software accessible on and through those devices can spread a single teacher’s expertise to thousands of eager learners. Just as the printing press gave us books at scale, devices will give us textbooks at scale, and bring learning to the corners of the world. The Atlantic describes that “The poor farm kid in Nebraska, the retired grandmother, a young girl in India will all have access to ideas that were beyond their grasp before.”
Claim 4 – Technology gives students access to unique content, content they could otherwise never get. The internet is All Of The Data, and that means that a device opens the classroom beyond the textbook. Now, YouTube videos of rare places and people can be integrated into a curriculum and used to contextualize the rigid curricular requirements mandated by the government. Expensive libraries of textbooks can be replaced by access to expensive digital content repositories. Students don’t want to read, and now they don’t have to: they can just watch videos. From Good Magazine: “… teachers and professors could hand out an assignment or study guide with a QR code printed on it. Once students scan it, they could be taken to additional resources or activities.”
Claim 5 – Technology means that learning is “always on” and self-paced. Learning, it is said, doesn’t happen during the long school day of 8-2—it happens all of the time. With a handheld device, Jimmy can learn at his own rate and at his own whim. When he awakens at 3 in the morning with an urge to work through geometry proofs, he no longer needs to wait anxiously until the morning. Jimmy, who loves math, can finish the whole class without being tied down waiting for the others. Open EduCat gushes that “Without technology, access to the school was limited. But, now it is completely changed. The idea of keeping in touch with assignments, teachers, and fellow students. All the student needs is a device, a tablet, a laptop or a smart-phone to keep connected with an unlimited supply of information. In the end, the school stays with you and it is not the other way around.”
Claim 6 – A familiar delivery mechanism means students just learn better. Students—particularly younger ones—have an almost innate feel for interacting with digital devices. This, evidenced by watching a toddler accidentally purchase apps from the app store on their parent’s iPhone, seems to indicate that they are more comfortable with screens than they are with people. The delivery mechanism itself shapes the quality of the educational experience, and so an intuitive device must work better. An article in Educause describes that “Students are increasingly comfortable using wireless devices to organize their academic work, personal lives, and eventually their professional activities once they graduate into the workforce. We have actually reached the point of no return in usage of such technology.”
Just as there is a Dilbert for every work meeting, there’s a Steve Jobs quote for every aspect of culture, and I find myself repeating this one – from a 1996 interview with Wired Magazine – over and over:
“I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”
A rare moment of humility from a man who also said, “I’m the only person I know that’s lost a quarter of a billion dollars in one year… It’s very character-building.” He’s right. The iPod, iPad, Apple Watch, and iPhone have all failed to deliver material changes in education in any quantifiable way. NAEP reading proficiency scores in the US have essentially remained unchanged since 2001 (hovering crappily below proficient but above basic); similarly, science scores haven’t moved up or down since 2009. High school dropout rates have followed a nearly perfect (albeit slow) linear yearly reduction since 1998, with no material changes in any of the last twenty years of major technological releases. College isn’t much better, as the percentage of four-year college students who earn a degree is about 53%, and hasn’t changed since 1992.
Technology isn’t “fixing education.” It doesn’t seem to be having any substantial positive impact on learning one way or the other.
But there’s a large, large body of knowledge that tells us what actually will positively impact how people learn, and technology has nothing to do with it. These are the things that, at least in K-12 education in the United States, are not being taught and learned (and, from what I gather through my interactions with international colleagues, this is a fairly ubiquitously painted landscape).
Students are not learning autonomy in making decisions. I teach college-level students, and they aren’t arriving into the post-secondary world of real life with any confidence in making definitive, concrete decisions on their own. Autonomy in decision making is a part of what is called “self-determination theory”—a view of how personal motivation is established and maintained. Dr. Valjeaner Ford, a researcher at University of North Carolina, describes that “Self-determination is enhanced when the student feels free to act out of free choice. Autonomy support [in high schools] recognizes the magnitude of structure and guidance, while emphasizing the benefits of giving students freedom, volition, and responsibility for themselves.”
Without learning this ability to have free choice and volition, it’s extraordinarily difficult to take risks and make large, important decisions.
Students are not learning to be rationally skeptical. We’re all aware of the power of “fake news”, but it’s only powerful if people aren’t able to discern between what’s real and what’s made up. A 2016 Stanford study identified that “young people’s ability to reason about the information on the Internet can be summed up in one word: bleak”; for example, of 350 middle school students in their study, 80% believed that an article clearly labeled as “sponsored content” was actually objective, real news. A 2017 study by MindEdge echoed these findings; of the 1000 millennial research participants, only 24% could detect fake news at all.
Rational skepticism is not simply about identifying fake news on the internet. It’s a way of weeding through the increasing amounts of raw data we have access to in our lives and jobs, and of making sense of the complexity of this data overload. This then leads to plausible inferences, which are part of participating in a political, non-objective world.
Students are not learning to think about system interconnectivity. Both human-made and natural systems are complicated, dynamic entities that often hide causality in their complexity. To learn about a system means to see different forces moving at once, to think simultaneously of divergent hypotheses about cause and effect, and to freely zoom in and out from a problem to explore its connectivity to seemingly unrelated problem spaces.
Thinking in systems reflects the ability to cope with the messiness of the world around us. A simple business problem of supply and demand is actually inextricable from issues of diplomacy, regulation, the environment, and so-on. To learn to think in systems is to learn to cope with ill-defined problems, problems that lack boundaries.
Students are not learning the craft of making things. Learning craft (related to, but not the same as “a craft”) means finding satisfaction in details and pleasure in process. Learning craft is about gaining self-confidence. Students who learn to paint first realize that they aren’t very good at it. Whatever they made doesn’t look like what they wanted to make. That feels terrible, because when students look at something they made that isn’t very good, they feel like they aren’t very good either. It is only through repetitive practice that the quality of the made-thing improves and this a cathartic but slow and painful process of self-growth and actualization.
Learning craft of making is not about becoming a virtuoso, a famous painter, a concert pianist. The actual skill itself is largely irrelevant. The growth is in realizing the roll-up-your-sleeves hard work necessary to bring ideas to life. Hard things take time and effort. To learn craft is to realize the skills of perseverance and grit.
What is generally lost in the conversation of education, digitization, and devices, is that the fundamentals that are not being learned (skepticism, autonomy in decision making, systems thinking, and craftsmanship) are the very things that make graduates employable in non-trivial, highly technical jobs. These are paths towards higher salaries and challenging and fulfilling work. Without these skills, humans find themselves relegated to boring, repetitive, demeaning and underpaying jobs. And because these jobs are perfect for automation, it’s inevitable that even these boring jobs will soon begin to evaporate. Elon Musk has proposed a universal living wage, not for any political agenda but instead because he sees it as an obvious need; he explains that “There will be fewer and fewer jobs that a robot cannot do better… I want to be clear. These are not things I wish will happen; these are things I think probably will happen.”
There’s an irony around technology being claimed a savior for mass education, while it in the same broad stroke removes job opportunities at a massive scale. That irony is reinforced by the lack of those fundamentals I’ve described above in education. More and more students will graduate with fewer and fewer of these fundamentals, and these students who lack these fundamentals will find themselves with fewer and fewer job opportunities.
And so rather than watch graduates enter menial service jobs, lose even those jobs to the inevitability of the cyborgs, and then wait for large-scale government intervention, we need to work to “fix” education by teaching those fundamentals.
To teach and learn rational skepticism, students need to encounter contradictory ideas and walk with a guide through a process of contemplation. Students need to be regularly asked to justify their claims, to cite their sources, and to argue and examine opposite perspectives.
To teach and learn about autonomy in decision making, students need to be placed in situations where they must select a path, and all of the choices they have are suboptimal. As they make selections, they need to be prompted to explore and explain their decision. This means having partial control of their curriculum and the structure and behavior in the classroom: making decisions about what they do and learn.
To teach and learn about interconnectivity of systems, students need to model and diagram non-causal-based experiences, interactions that can’t be reduced to a simple if this, then that form of logic. These are typically systems that include people, emotions, culture, and power.
And to teach and learn about craftsmanship, students need to make things with their hands, and to make those things over and over. This takes mentorship – traditional master/apprentice style learning—and applied art, design and engineering need to be treated as first-class curricular citizens.
Some parts of these abilities can be taught by computers, and some cannot. But it is not the computer that will revolutionize anything in education in any meaningful sense of the word. Instead, it is a focus on these abilities that will lead to all of the human benefits we want out of a revolutionized educational system. This is a revolution of pedagogy, and that means an overhaul of both private and public educational norms. Ignore the technology. Focus on the teaching.