Educational Technology Debate

The Jester wishes he had been the one to write this superb article in Educational Technology Debate (ETD) by Kentaro Toyama! It’s really unfair that a person should have such insight and be a candidate for Brad Pitt’s long-lost more handsome half-brother. The full article, titled “There are no technology shortcuts in education,” is worth reading (incidentally, the Jester applauds the folks at ETD, who have provided a great platform for discussion about technology in education), but here are some juicy excerpts…

“Quality primary and secondary education is a multi-year commitment whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest.”

“While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst.”

“With respect to sustaining directed motivation, even the much-maligned rote-focused drill-sergeant disciplinarian is superior to any electronic multimedia carnival.”

“…efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.”

“We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology).”

“If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.”

“In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents.”

“Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders!”

Toyama has previously written articles that question the value of technology in development (for example, see this Boston Review forum), but he has rarely expressed so much anti-technology sentiment. The Jester thinks that this might be because technology in education is particularly hard to get right and more likely to distract from core efforts towards better teaching and administration. Education also has a longer history of technology failures, whereas, for example, agriculture and healthcare often benefit in tangible ways from technology.

What makes education different? The Jester believes it has to do with the fact that education is so much a social process, where the critical magic happens in the ongoing relationship between learner and the teacher (or parent or guide or mentor or whomever). The magic isn’t about information or knowledge or skill. It’s about inspiration, motivation, encouragement, scolding, etc., all of which involve a social, emotional element, that human beings (even when misguided) can generate far better than any technology on the horizon. Education is very unlike a vaccine, which works automatically after injection.

There are occasional self-taught geniuses, and they seem like counterexamples to the social nature of good education, but they are rare and still likely to have been raised in environments with motivational influences, however fleeting. One nod from a coolly distant father might be all it takes to make a kid work alone for months on a project, but in a poor educational environment, even that timely nod is missing (or lost in other noise)… and critically can’t be replaced by technology.

The question the Jester has for Toyama, though, is whether this kind of rational cornering of dissenters ultimately works to sway them. Among readers, only a very small minority are likely to be persuaded by an opposing view.

Some recent research by Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer, for example, suggests that dire messages about climate change (this will be relevant… stay with the Jester here) can cause some people to shove their heads underground in denial, because the implicit threat to one’s foundational beliefs is so unnerving. A similar phenomenon might happen with people who are already so vested in technology for education, that their own livelihoods or reputations depend on its perceived success. As Upton Sinclair noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.” What is the best way to change their minds? The Jester, for once, is stumped. Any ideas?

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One Response to “Educational Technology Debate”

  1. j Says:

    Well, when you ask for wild ideas … you may get some ;)
    May be the great grand institutions of higher education, producing those amazing kids (I mean development professionals) need to teach them in the end, before they leave the campus labs, that life is more than plain work success.
    That it is not such a good idea after all to invest ones whole identity and meaning in life, into ones’ work in a concrete way … what if the lab learnings are impractical in the slums where they plan to go with missionary zeal to bring people out of poverty, disease, ignorance ? widening of perspective is a life long process but then one can start a little early.. no? A little help from the mentors won’t hurt a lot :)

    Reminds me of Eric Seagal’s The Class… it ends with something like… (just out of an old memory box… quote might be completely off mark) Harvard teaches everything but not how to live…
    Let life take over that learning, but be flexible ;) I’m trying to :))

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