Technology demonstrates its significant value time and time again, from improving productivity in the workplace, to providing a huge range of personalized entertainment opportunities, to making the slogan “Reach out and touch someone” an essentially frictionless reality. Unfortunately, in K12, technology has been a bust. In contrast to the communications industry, the music industry, the accounting industry, K12 has failed to see improvement in student achievement attributable to the use of technology.
As we have argued before, however, it is not technology’s fault that we haven’t seen gains in student achievement. Rather, it is because America’s parents, administrators, teachers, and schools of education insist on continuing to employ a virtually national curriculum and pedagogy that was created in the 19th century and designed to prepare children to attend Harvard College. A curriculum and pedagogy that employs lectures and drill-and-practice learning is highly inappropriate for preparing America’s children for the hyperconnected, knowledge-working, global marketplace of the 21st century.
Inappropriate Reaction #1: Bash ‘Em!
In recognition of educational technology’s failure to impact student achievement, The New York Times recently published a series of articles bashing educational technology. In one article, teaching knitting the old-fashioned way is celebrated, while modern information and communications technologies are excluded completely from the classroom. Talk about throwing the baby out with the bathwater! The community needs reasoned dialogue around technology, not rants. But the former don’t make for catchy headlines.
Inappropriate Reaction #2: Repeat Again, This Time With Video Instead of Text
Salman Khan, a gifted lecturer who has recorded more than 2,000 short videos that millions of children all across the world have learned from, has commented that “teachers don’t scale.” He means that there can’t be enough teachers to populate the world’s classrooms and that we couldn’t afford to pay them even if there were. But not to worry: We can replace teachers with technology!
In the Khan videos, the world’s greatest subject-matter experts recorded the explanations of the most standard elements of the current K12 curriculum. These videos are now stored in the cloud for students to watch over and over … and over again at home. In school, the students will do problem set after problem set on computers while teachers (and eventually, lower-paid proctors) walk around the classroom and help students who have trouble doing the homework, which is now called class work because the classroom has been “flipped.” (Students quickly realize that they don’t actually need to watch the videos at home, since teachers will give them time in school to watch them. So much for “flipping the classroom” and saving school time.)
For some children and for some subjects, the Khan Academy vision may well prove effective. For the media-immersed youth of today, they may well find a video lecture, in contrast to an in-person delivered lecture, to be more accessible. But, Khan’s vision isn’t changing the broken focus on fact-based curriculum and lecture/drill pedagogy. Indeed it is the Khan Academy’s educational vision that doesn’t scale. Frankly, we shouldn’t be surprised: the Khan Academy educational vision is driven more by economics than by pedagogy.
The Cycle Goes Unbroken: Let the Bashing Begin Again
In 24 months or so, when all test scores, measured scientifically, don’t improve—and they won’t improve, since Khan’s approach has not addressed the fundamental underlying problem of an inappropriate curriculum and inappropriate pedagogy—The New York Times or some other news outlet will again bash technology. Sigh. When will we educators learn?
Cathleen Norris is a Regents Professor at the University of North Texas and a past ISTE President. Elliot Soloway is Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan and Chair of ISTE’s Special Interest Group on Mobile Learning (SIGML). For the past 10 years, Cathie and Elliot have been circumnavigating the globe, advocating for the use of mobile technologies in classrooms.