Most Educational Technology Does Nothing to Improve Teaching and Learning

Two friends of mine develop apps for children with autism spectrum issues. Their work is just one of many examples of how educational technology is an unmitigated positive for students with special needs.

You would never know it given the tendency of the Information Technology Zealots (ITZs) to exaggerate the impact of their toys, but ed tech is not an unmitigated positive for elementary, secondary, and university students more generally.

In fact, 80-90% of educational technology does nothing to improve the quality of K-12 and higher education teaching and learning. The problem is, the ITZs nonstop, unfounded assertions about the benefits of ed tech has rendered our critical thinking abilities completely ineffectual. The Ed Tech Emperor often has no clothes on, but odds are you’re skeptical of that because ed tech groupthink is at epidemic proportions.

The problem is there’s no consensus about how to evaluate whether educational technologies improve teaching and learning; as a result, our default is a vacuous falsehood. More is better.

My starting point is Decker Walker’s assertion that “The educative effect is greater when students do something than when something is done to them.” What is it, ideally, that students should do? Students should read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another, respect classmates who think differently than them, learn to be empathetic, and write and speak clearly and persuasively. That’s my liberal arts oriented litmus test for whether educational technologies are additive or not.

What happens if we apply my test to a case study that my esteemed university recently added to its website? I’m calling it Professor Technology.

Here are the highlights, or lowlights, depending on your perspective:

Intro. Professor Technology is a self-proclaimed computer geek. Employment in the financial sector and government opened his eyes to the importance of technology in the workplace. His first experience with technology-based education occurred when the IRS asked him to develop national training courses to be delivered both live and virtually. He realized the challenges involved in developing engaging content and obtaining learning feedback. This opened the door to his exploration of many types of learning tools, including online polling.

What is one instructional technique or project that is particularly effective, innovative, or engaging? “I encourage my students to bring their laptops, tablets, cell phones or anything else. I keep them technologically engaged in a way that they will not have the time or desire to do anything else on their machines during class.[i] Students have cell phones and they will bring them to class. That is the reality of 2014. Why not put them to use? The students are intrigued by the idea of ‘texting for learning.’ [ii] Technology allows us to collect information about behavior. Information is just as precious to a company wishing to market a product as it is to an educator wishing to improve specific areas of performance at the class level or at the individual student level.”

What related tool or strategy do you use that other PLU faculty might like to try in their courses? “Although I have many untested ideas, this semester I relied heavily on a neat PowerPoint plugin called Poll Everywhere. PollEv allows me to embed polls in my PowerPoint presentations. I can create multiple choice questions, T/F questions, or open ended questions and embed them by surprise in my presentation. The students can answer polls though their phones, computers, or tablets. For open ended questions, they can type in their answers. The system tells me how many students are attending the poll and how many have cast their vote. The poll results are updated instantly on the class screen.”[iii]

What are the benefits, for you and your students, of utilizing this tool or strategy? “My experience has been that quality decisions are made through quality information. Plenty of quality information is available to most of us if we only know how to reach it and use it. Businesses are well aware of this competitive advantage and employ technology to the fullest extent they can to maximize profits. . . . PollEv allows me to obtain immediate feedback about my class without having to put the spotlight on one specific student. I noticed that students sometimes feel pressure to participate or not participate or to give a right or wrong answer. PollEv allows everyone to participate without fear and gives me the opportunity to reiterate a certain topic while the content is still fresh. I generally embed 1 poll every 5-6 slides.”[iv]

What advice would you have for someone interested in trying this tool or strategy? “PollEv is very easy to use. You may simply visit their website, form an account, and give it a try immediately. While I enjoy embedding my polls into PowerPoint, that is not necessary. You could simply use their online portal to cast your poll.”[v]

The remarkable thing about this case study is just how unremarkable it is. Stories like this—about the benefit of things like wireless laptops, tablets, smart pens, or smart boards—are so commonplace, we passively accept them.

When will we muster the courage to question the ITZs hyperbolic claims? Instead of being bedazzled, even hypnotized by ed tech bells and whistles, we need to challenge Professor Technology to show us how PowerPoint and PollEv are helping students read and think about challenging topics and abstract concepts, ask open-ended questions, look at and listen to one another. Or how they’re helping them respect classmates who think differently than them, be more empathetic, and write and speak more clearly and persuasively.

These aren’t the only questions, or even the best ones, but I probably deserve some sort of medal for asking them. I won’t hold my breath. I’ll consider myself lucky if I avoid a public tarring and feathering by the ITZ hordes.

[i] How can I put this nicely? Professor Technology is hopelessly naïve. No one is that engaging. Mercy, this is an accounting class. Students are likely texting; emailing; and alternating between Twitter, Tinder, PressingPause, Facebook, Instagram, PressingPause, and ESPN.

[ii] The central assertion that I do not accept.

[iii] A giant leap forward from asking students to raise their hands and/or speak to accomplish the same things?

[iv] If ed tech is a work-around for students too afraid to raise their hands or state an opinion in front of their peers, we have more pressing problems than how to better engage students.

[v] I will respectfully pass on not just PollEv, but PowerPoint. Why did Steve Jobs, every time someone used PowerPoint to pitch him a product idea, stop them before the second or third slide?

5 thoughts on “Most Educational Technology Does Nothing to Improve Teaching and Learning

  1. If you’re selected for the February edition of the “Faculty Spotlight Series,” I hope it will include a link to your blog. Is there a way for me to put your name in nomination?

  2. Pingback: This Week’s Links « Timothy Siburg

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