The Seductive Allure of Edu-Tech Reform

Michael Horn was on Fox News tonight, and according to one of the tweets he retweeted, he said, “Let computers do what computers do best and teachers do what they do best.” I’ve been on panels with Michael, and he’s been to EduCon, and he is a master of the ten-word answer. To his credit, he’s got more than ten words in his white papers and such, but when he’s on a panel, he’s really good at those ten words.

And “Let computers do what computers do best and teachers do what they do best” is one of his best. How can anyone disagree with that? Why would you? But what strikes me about the statement as we unpack it a bit further is that it is drawing some very strange dividing lines, and making some equally strange assumptions about students, learning and schools.

First, it assumes that computers somehow work independently of teachers. That takes most of the ways that kids and teachers can work together using technology out of the equation. What leaves behind is automated software that guides student learning in deeply prescriptive ways. A few months ago I wrote about what I saw was a very dangerous use of the term personalization in the world of educational technology, and I think that dangerous use is what Michael is speaking about — and perhaps advocating for — here.

It’s really seductive to think that we can design the right software, something that is engaging enough, thorough enough, with enough bells and whistles to report back to the adults (of which would we now need far fewer) and suddenly kids will magically learn. It is this strange dream of technocrat lefties and anti-government, anti-union, pro-privatization business types that is driving this fascination with technology somehow replacing much of what teachers do.

And of course, there’s just enough promise and just enough truth to make the fantasy stick. Teachers need never grade a multiple-choice quiz by hand ever again. Much of the minutia of record-keeping and data collection has indeed been taken up by computers. I honestly don’t know why a teacher would keep the paper gradebook anymore, not when so many products out there like Easy Grade Pro exist that can do that better.

And if technology can build a better grade book, and Khan Academy can publish a better lecture – complete with the multiple choice quizzes as soon as you’ve finished watching the lecture, why do we need all these teachers in the first place? We can do what Rocketship Education does and hire Individualized Learning Specialists at $14 an hour, they won’t even need bachelors degrees because the computer will do the work for them. For some folks – and it is a strange alliance of left and right driving this – removing the human element of teaching and learning sounds like the right idea. It’s cheaper, it can be far more controlled, and computers rarely ask for a pension or even summers off.

But teaching is so much more than quizzes, lectures and data collection. And the promise of technology isn’t that can automate the rote tasks of teaching – in the end that’s low hanging fruit. The promise of technology is rather the way that it can allow teachers and students to work together to do more, create more, research more broadly, share more widely, learn more deeply.

While it may be seductive to think that rooms of children on computers, each following some computerized instruction at their pace, monitored by school aides, with a handful of teachers around when things get particularly tough is a solution to both the educational and fiscal crisis we find ourselves, we need to understand that it’s fools gold we would be chasing.

Educational technology doesn’t make it cheaper to teach the kids. It will transform what we do as teachers and as learners. And certainly there are moments where technology can build us a far better textbook than we ever had. But just as the textbook wasn’t enough, neither is the computer. Technology can should and will cause our profession to evolve, but the promise of technology should never be that a computer can replace a teacher, but rather how it can enhance what teachers and students can do and learn together.

16 thoughts on “The Seductive Allure of Edu-Tech Reform

  1. A lot of folks have a hard time understanding the real value of technology in education is how it has completely changed how students and teachers can interact with you. Trouble is that you can’t easily measure the impact of that and you certainly don’t see the efficiency and cost savings that bringing technology into other businesses will realize. Newer technologies in education often cost us more in terms of support and time to learn. How they work best in the clasroom, but can yield exponentially better results when it comes to developing our students into meaningful learners. This, however, is not what most of us are familiar with from growing up where at best computers automated some drills we may have otherwise done on paper (and let us play Lemonade Stand and Oregon Trail). With no personal experience in our own education or in other industries, it’s tough for a lot of people to “get” what our students can get out of today’s technologies, so falling back on the familiar idea of automation is easier for more people to grasp. Unfortunately, for many (including a lot of teachers and administrators) that is what technology in education means to them, which makes our job of articulating the more valuable benefits even more important.

  2. Relationships and collaboration are lost in the individualized model of education you describe. Kids need to learn more than skills and content – they need to learn to operate as productive citizens of the the world. This starts at home and in the classroom, with parents and teachers.

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  6. I love your post. After reading it, I was drawn to something I once read regarding a ‘new technology’ that would forever change education for the better – “the chalkboard”. At one point in history the chalkboard was considered revolutionary. Fears of how it could replace the teacher spred like wild fires through communities…think of how absurd that sounds today. Today, we find it hard to imagine there is anything bold about a simple chalkboard, a “Smartboard” perhaps but not a chalkboard. But it was. So I offer this, whatever the “tool” is we must remember that is all it is. A “tool” is only as valuable as the teacher using it. If it allows the teacher to communicate the learning objective with his/her students than it is a valuable tool – put an Ipad (or insert any number of new devices) into an untrained hand its worthless. I once took on the experience of laying an EP Henry patio in my first home (mostly because I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do it). My friends and I ordered pallets of brick, I rented the top of the line water-cooled saw, and set out to build our patio. What we quickly realized was regardless of how ‘state of the art’ the saw was – none of us had a clue how to use it properly. Thank goodness for my father (a man who can fix anything)…but the point remains, district leaders – or boards of education who want to purchase new technology because it is in right now miss the importance of training those who will use it. Not to mention, we must first explore a difficult question “will this new tool really enhance the learning process?” I believe the core of your post is that teaching is a profession, just like being a physician, and although new tools will come and go what you pay for is the professional operating the tools.

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  8. Educational technology does not make it cheaper to teach kids. It SHOULD make it cheaper to parse out a portion of what teachers do inefficiently, leaving them more time to do what they do well. Will that lower total cost over time? I have run a school for a lot of years and my answer is no. Having said that, I think we need to challenge ourselves to REALIGN some $$ to leverage computers for what they do well and teachers for what they do well. One example: every school should take 80% of $$ spent on vendor textbooks and pay that in PD to teacher-student teams to create their own texts. Same dollars; big bang.

  9. Michael Horn is not our friend. He is a lobbyist for the school privatization movement and has receive a great deal of money from The Gates Foundation. He is also one of the people who advocates for larger class size. The “blended learning” model he embraces is at best “blended teaching” and turns urban classrooms into 200 kids, 200 terminals and a security guard.

    His latest column ( is little more than another attempt to sell his dubious book and visits great violence on poor children and heroic educators doing important work. He demonstrates a profound ignorance of the mission and success of OLPC. i fear that such dubious critiques will deprive other people’s children of opportunities we take for granted for our kids.

    I challenge Mr. Horn to debate his educational views in any venue at any time that is mutually convenient.

  10. I am truly troubled by Mr. Horn’s outrageous attacks on the OLPC project in Peru, based on hearsay from another publication.

    OLPC has NOT failed in Peru. The metrics are all wrong and I will not accept that giving a poor child a computer is a bad thing even if their teachers don’t embrace it. When I bought my children laptops, nobody demanded test score increases or accountability. This is the view of rich White Dickensian shopkeepers. Should we send standardized tests to poor countries before we introduce the tools of modernity?

    Normally, Americans don’t give a rat’s ass about Peru. They can’t find it on a map and they certainly don’t know how much my friends and colleagues there have done to change the world for their kids. Why all of the sudden interest in what sort of computers they bought? Could it POSSIBLY be because the US high-tech industry hates Papert’s view of education and student empowerment at a low price-point?

    If kids are programming their own software on a durable inexpensive OLPC computer that could interfere with the profit motives of high-tech and publishing companies selling a handful of magical interactive beans.

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  15. 1000% behind you. Pick 3-5 standards and write a 4 week unit. Show how that unit also peripherally teaches half a dozen more standards. In large districts an entire year of curriculum could be written twice over each year.

    We could change the face of education because the year is broken into 4 week units. If students don’t master those standards they can retake those standards the next quarter (if it is scaffolded like math) of later in the year. Grade levels become meaningless as students are assigned to classes based on the standards they need or want to master during the next month.

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