Aug 20

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.