It’s Time to Ditch the Idea of Edtech Disruption. But What Comes Next?

Opinion | Education Research

It’s Time to Ditch the Idea of Edtech Disruption. But What Comes Next?

By Tanner Higgin     Apr 12, 2024

It’s Time to Ditch the Idea of Edtech Disruption. But What Comes Next?

COVID-19 was edtech’s big moment, and while digital tools kept learning going for many families and schools, they also faltered. A great deal of edtech purchases went unused, equity gaps widened, and teachers and students were burned out. Combined with sobering reports on the persistent lack of strong evidence for edtech, it’s no wonder why the notion of using technology to “fix broken schools” has fallen out of most startup pitch decks and education TED Talks. Yet it seems the reckoning has been cut short.

The emergence of generative AI has brought the term “disruption” back to headlines and along with it, the idea that education is stuck in the past and needs tech to drag it into the future. For those of us that have been in edtech awhile, it feels like we’re stuck in a loop. While tools, marketing strategies and messaging might change, the underlying philosophy behind the idea of disruptive innovation remains.

So what is this philosophy? I’d say it’s technocentrism, a concept introduced by Seymour Papert, renowned mathematician, learning theorist and edtech pioneer. It’s defined by scholars George Veletsianos and Rolin Moe as the fusion of technological determinism, the view “that technology shapes its emerging society,” and technological solutionism, the view “that technology will solve societal problems.” This way of thinking about technology has been core to many pitches made by edtech providers to schools and, I’d argue, it has outsized influence on how most of us think about edtech.

We Need to Stop Treating Education Like a Sickness and Edtech Like Medicine

To illustrate, let me use an analogy. Within this technocentrist frame, education is sick and edtech is like medicine. Entrepreneurs and developers try to make the best possible drug to treat students, while administrators and researchers (myself included) stand guard, testing and validating the treatments. Students take the medicine, their bodies respond, and hopefully a positive change takes place. It’s a perspective shared so widely it travels as common sense. Even our pedagogies model this thinking. Take the concept of tech-enhanced learning, for instance, which views digital tools as key to supercharging learning: just integrate a particular technology and off-you-go, soaring up Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Papert diagnosed this issue back in 1987. In response to research claims that Logo, a programming language for children, didn’t work for learning, Papert wrote:

This [technocentric] tendency shows up in questions like “what is the effect of the computer on cognitive development?” or “does LOGO work?” Of course such questions might be used innocently as shorthand for more complex assertions, so the diagnosis of technocentrism must be confirmed by careful examination of the arguments in which they are embedded. However, such turns of phrase often betray a tendency to think of “computers” and of “LOGO” as agents that act directly on thinking and learning; they betray a tendency to reduce what are really the most important components of educational situations — people and cultures — to a secondary, facilitating role.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a different way of thinking about learning, one that involves technology but doesn’t see it as the key agent of change or source of learning. According to Papert: “The content for human development is always a culture, never an isolated technology.” This is what some might call a systemic view of technology where learning is an emergent — and slightly unpredictable — property of the interaction between humans and tools in an environment. I like to think of that system as an ecology. In opposition to technocentrism, an ecological perspective views tech not as medicine, but rather as soil, air or water. It’s a shift away from thinking of tech as an independent factor that influences the learning experience, to viewing it as a more dynamic force. This means considering how tech impacts students and teachers — and how students and teachers shape the learning possibilities that tech provides.

Why Edtech Research Should Move Away From a Technocentric View of Learning

These ecological dimensions to learning are why it’s been hard to demonstrate more than small or moderate positive effects of edtech products or interventions. In the last decade, this has been documented by several meta-analyses covering the more modern era of edtech, dating back to the 1960s. Even if we look further back to the early twentieth century, as professor and author Larry Cuban has in his book “Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920,” the same problems persist.

So much is happening when learning takes place that while we might connect it with a tool, and build evidence of efficacy, context matters. There are so many forces that contribute to a learning experience and its outcomes — the time of day, whether a student has or has not eaten, how they’re feeling physically and emotionally, whether they have a device in their pocket and what training their teachers have had. The potential of technology is significantly affected by the humans that use it and their context.

Papert, operating from an ecological mindset, observed how learning was highly situational and contextual. He saw learning environments “as a web of mutually supporting, interacting processes.” This complex web of interactions makes it hard to isolate and prove the direct impact of a technology on learning as one does in efficacy studies.

This doesn’t mean this kind of research should stop. Instead, we need to be much more vigilant about opening the aperture of our research, and thinking critically about our own assumptions and methods. We should continue to pursue rigorous clinical trials, but we also need to lean into evidence-based design, such as logic models, as well as formative research, such as usability and feasibility studies. Most importantly, we need to develop new research methods that are in line with an ecological, rather than technocentric, way of thinking about learning and technology. If each classroom has its own ecology, and edtech is more like soil or water, we need a model more similar to an environmental impact study of learning with technology.

What Edtech Developers and Schools Can Do

There have been efforts to move us in this direction for years, such as climate surveys; initiatives promoting digital well-being, human experience and digital thriving; research into the contextual factors that impact edtech effectiveness; and calls to shift from tech-enhanced to tech-enabled learning. Still, there’s room for so much more, especially approaches that foreground theory (which is woefully underused in education research).

Beyond research, we need to rethink edtech development and how we might incentivize and support the creation of tools that nourish positive, prosocial classroom culture no matter the content. Edtech developers could start by engaging teachers in the design process and by incorporating radical ideas like convivial design, or creating tools that both give people agency and build social bonds, and digital de-growth, meaning, exploring how we might scale back tech and its aims and bend toward sustainability. Culturally responsive learning and universal design for learning could only help these pursuits. We can also expand our evidence portfolios to honor the goals and outcomes of these approaches which would affect the tone, tenor and rhythms of a classroom just as much as academics. If we’re truly to escape the quagmire, though, venture capital firms and other funders need to revisit their investment expectations and impact measures.

Importantly, we must supply schools with resources they can use to make sure technologies are supporting the goals they have for classroom culture, not just academic outcomes. This requires a new framework for vetting, selecting and evaluating technologies — one more attuned to how tech changes the feel of a classroom and how particular classrooms change the possibilities of a tool. Basically, we need to help schools think about creating balanced classroom ecologies where tech serves teachers’ and students’ goals and supports their agency and creativity.

These are all approaches that I believe will help clear out the fog of technocentrism, which distracts us from the real source of learning and innovation: not technologies, but thriving classroom cultures. It’s not about ditching tech altogether or pursuing the perfect tool. It’s about better understanding the alchemy of meaningful learning with technology.

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