Vanquishing the Nightmare of the Edtech 'Zombie'

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Vanquishing the Nightmare of the Edtech 'Zombie'

Technology is not a silver bullet in education--but neither is it a zombie

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Nov 20, 2012

Vanquishing the Nightmare of the Edtech 'Zombie'

This article is part of the guide: Education Technology 101: From Assessments to Zombies.

In a recent post titled "Zombie Ideas and Online Instruction," prolific edtech blogger Larry Cuban points to what he calls a zombie idea in education--namely, a bad idea that keeps coming back. Cuban's zombie: that "new technologies can cure K-12 and higher education problems of teaching and learning." The newest face of Cuban's zombie is online instruction in K-12 schools.

Cuban identifies four age-old challenges in education:

  • teaching whole classes in an individualized way
  • engaging disaffected and underachieving learners
  • connecting students with the world outside of school
  • reducing the costs of schooling

He's dead right in saying these issues are at the center of what fans of education technology hope to address. Cuban doesn't hold out much hope, however. He cites enthusiasm for television (1950s), distance education (1960s), computers in schools (1980s) and laptops in schools (1990s) as instances in which technology has fallen short. He concludes:

"Again and again, new technologies in schools are promoted as solutions to grave educational problems. The evidence of past failures of technology transforming teaching and learning in schools didn’t happen then and, yes, here we are again welcoming the return of a zombie idea."

I'd agree with Cuban that we need to ask some tough questions about the effectiveness of pure online instruction, where students are left on their own to navigate through tutorials presented online. More broadly, no one should believe claims that serious problems, especially those rooted in deep social ills such as poverty, can be "cured" with a dollop of silicon chips and touch screens.

But thoughtful criticism of badly designed programs doesn't mean we should chuck technology out of school altogether. The monster lurking under the zombie disguise isn't technology--but the gaping disconnect between technology development and what we know about teaching and learning.

English teacher, technology specialist and blogger, Krista Moroder nails the problem precisely in her recent post. Stop talking about technology, she says:

"..using technology does not necessarily make a teacher effective. I am going to repeat that, because I want this to be very clear: technology is not pedagogy."

In other words, giving a laptop to a teacher doesn't make him or her a great teacher. A great teacher with the right tools can be remarkable powerful.

Moroder describes two scenarios of how a teacher could deliver an English lesson. The more effective teacher, she notes:

"...was effective because she was giving students instant, formative feedback. She was effective because she was individualizing and differentiating her instruction. Technology was only a tool that was helping her be more efficient in doing that."

When anyone--educators, parents, or reformers themselves--expect technology to "solve" a problem, they're asking the wrong question. As the recently issued "Decoding Learning" report from Britain's Nesta notes:

"The education sector has invested heavily in digital technology; but this investment has not yet resulted in the radical improvements to learning experiences and educational attainment."

But here's the most haunting point:

Throughout this report, we have been continually reminded of the significant disconnect between educational technology’s key partners – industry, research, teachers and learners. Too often, researchers operate in isolation from the developers whose products grace our schools and homes. This situation makes little sense.

We've got to bring the technology and pedagogy together.

There are scores of reasons why, all too often, educators and developers have been at odds: Educators need to be given more credit for understanding how students learn--but they also need to be open to learning themselves. Developers need to be humble about what they do--and tireless in their efforts to build tools that work not just once but again and again and again.

Forget the mythical beasts. It's time to figure out how educators and developers can work together to address life's really monstrous challenges.

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