Two big mistakes in thinking about technology in education

June 27, 2012, 11:52 am

Slate magazine has been running several articles on education this week, including two today that are of interest. This one by Konstantin Kakaes is worth looking at more closely, if only because it somehow manages to gather almost every wrong idea about technology in education in existence into a single, compact article.

The piece proposes that the effort to increase the use of technology in education “is beginning to do to our educational system what the transformation to industrial agriculture has done to our food system over the past half century: efficiently produce a deluge of cheap, empty calories.” I’m not sure which “effort” Kakaes is referring to, since there is no single push being coordinated from a secret underground bunker that I know of, and some efforts are better-conceived than others. But nevermind.

There are two overriding conceptual errors that drive this article and all others like it. The first, and most common, error is failing to distinguish between technology and the instructional practices that use it. For example, the entire first one-third of the article is spent talking about “putting in new interactive whiteboards in every room” of a school (presence of technology); the forced use of new textbooks (presence of… technology? Are textbooks technology?); and the use of graphing calculators in high schools, which is really a reference to the presence of calculators, since Kakaes does not say a word about how that technology is actually used.

I have said this before, and apparently I need to say it again: Technology neither improves or diminishes learning. It’s the instructional design choices made and instructional practices used by individual teachers with individual students that do this. It makes no sense to speak of technology as if it had some sort of life force of its own, like the weather, facilitating and then inhibiting learning under its own power. But Kakaes does exactly this, when he writes about the “totalizing power of technology” and says that “software packages…did not have a measurable effect on test scores”. Excuse me, did you really say that software packages don’t affect test scores? Well, of course that’s true. It’s like concluding that a $5000 rangetop in my kitchen does not have a measurable effect on the quality of the dinner I make. It’s a statement that is obviously true — but has no information content. Again: Technology does not enhance or inhibit learning. It’s how it’s used. This is a painfully obvious concept; let’s all learn it.

The other conceptual error in this study is a big one, and that’s best encapsulated by this quote:

Though no well-implemented study has ever found technology to be effective, many poorly designed studies have — and that questionable body of research is influencing decision-makers. Researchers with a financial stake in the success of computer software are free to design studies that are biased in favor of their products…. What is presented as peer-reviewed research is fundamentally marketing literature: studies done by people selling the software they are evaluating.

In other words, there’s no good research that shows that technology enhances learning. The key to understanding how otherwise rational people could come up with this is to focus on the word “good”, which means different things to different people.

No doubt there are corporations whose hand is in a lot of research that goes on. The same can be said for pure scientific research. But to cherry-pick those instances and claim that these are representative of educational research on technology is just deliberate ignorance of what goes on in the educational research community. If you want well-designed studies on education that lean toward educational technology, look at the Journal of Engineering Education, PRIMUS, the work of Eric Mazur, the bibliography of Derek Bruff’s book on classroom response systems — and recurse your way through the references. To look at this mountain of evidence and wave all of it off as either irreparably biased by corporate interest, poorly designed, or both is tantamount to living in a parallel universe of one’s own making. And Kakaes not only says this but repeats it at least twice during the article.

Or Kakaes, who has a background in physics, might be looking at legitimate educational research and saying: This doesn’t look like science, therefore it’s not any good. This may or may not be a fair point, depending on what exactly one is looking at. If you are looking at well-designed qualitative research — and there is such a thing —  the mere fact that it’s qualitative may cause a physicist to put the research in the “pseudo-science” bucket automatically. If that’s the case, then this is merely a prejudice that stems from a poor understanding of different methods of research. You can’t simply map physics research techniques onto educational problems — humans are not protons. Pedagogical research won’t generally have the same level of laboratory rigor as physics or chemistry — but this doesn’t mean it’s not scientific.

On the other hand, I will say that there is a good deal of pedagogical research that is not very well designed. It took me so long to become interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning precisely because it seemed like every paper I read amounted to nothing more than “I tried this and my students liked it”. If Kakaes is looking at this kind of study, then I can understand the reaction. But there is good research out there too — dig a little deeper and you’ll find it. (The JEE is a good place to start.)

Articles like this, which get much of the landscape of educational technology wrong and demean the great work of thousands of teachers who use technology well, provoke two distinct reactions in me. One is a combination of despair, annoyance, and the overwhelming urge to bang my head against a desk. The other is a feeling of challenge. I read articles like Kakaes and say to myself that those of us who do know the transformative power of instruction that uses technology well need to do a better job of scientifically documenting the results of our work, a better job of telling our students’ stories, and a better job of casting a positive vision of how technology can be used well. That may eventually provide evidence that critics can’t ignore.


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