There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education
There are no technology shortcuts to good education. For primary and secondary schools that are underperforming or limited in resources, efforts to improve education should focus almost exclusively on better teachers and stronger administrations. Information technology, if used at all, should be targeted for certain, specific uses or limited to well-funded schools whose fundamentals are not in question.
(Caveat: Because this article was written for an audience most interested in government-funded primary and secondary education in developing countries, words like “wealthy,” “average,” and “typical” should be read with that context in mind. But, the conclusions are relevant for a broad class of primary and secondary schools in developed countries, as well.)
To back these assertions, I’ll draw on four different lines of evidence.
- The history of electronic technologies in schools is fraught with failures.
- Computers are no exception, and rigorous studies show that it is incredibly difficult to have positive educational impact with computers. Technology at best only amplifies the pedagogical capacity of educational systems; it can make good schools better, but it makes bad schools worse.
- Technology has a huge opportunity cost in the form of more effective non-technology interventions.
- Many good school systems excel without much technology.
The inescapable conclusion is that significant investments in computers, mobile phones, and other electronic gadgets in education are neither necessary nor warranted for most school systems. In particular, the attempt to use technology to fix underperforming classrooms (or to replace non-existent ones) is futile. And, for all but wealthy, well-run schools, one-to-one computer programs cannot be recommended in good conscience.
All of the evidence stands on its own, but I will tie them together with a single theory that explains why technology is unable to substitute for good teaching: Quality primary and secondary education is a multi-year commitment whose single bottleneck is the sustained motivation of the student to climb an intellectual Everest. Though children are naturally curious, they nevertheless require ongoing guidance and encouragement to persevere in the ascent. Caring supervision from human teachers, parents, and mentors is the only known way of generating motivation for the hours of a school day, to say nothing of eight to twelve school years.
While computers appear to engage students (which is exactly their appeal), the engagement swings between uselessly fleeting at best and addictively distractive at worst. No technology today or in the foreseeable future can provide the tailored attention, encouragement, inspiration, or even the occasional scolding for students that dedicated adults can, and thus, attempts to use technology as a stand-in for capable instruction are bound to fail.
With respect to sustaining directed motivation, even the much-maligned rote-focused drill-sergeant disciplinarian is superior to any electronic multimedia carnival. (In an October 2009 ETD article, James BonTempo also highlighted the importance of motivation. But, while BonTempo suggested that we should seek technologies that motivate both teachers and students, I believe today’s technology is not up to the task. [Note: The author retracts this statement and agrees with BonTempo, as his articles actually suggest that even this is not possible if neither teachers nor students are motivated to begin with.])
The Repetitive Cycle of Technology
For anyone concerned with high-tech in schools, two books are required reading as histories of technology and education. The first is Larry Cuban’s Teachers and Machines: The Classroom Use of Technology Since 1920, which overviews the history of films, radio, television, and computers in American education up to the early 1980s. The second is Todd Oppenheimer’s The Flickering Mind: Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology. Oppenheimer also focuses primarily on US education, but updates and expands on Cuban’s findings for computers in schools through the early 2000s. Both authors consider the record of technology in schools and find it wanting. They reveal that while technologies can have positive educational impact in restricted instances, successes pale in comparison to failures overall. By not knowing this past history, we seem condemned to repeat it over and over and over.
One point that both authors make is that there is a repetitive cycle of technology in education that goes through hype, investment, poor integration, and lack of educational outcomes. The cycle keeps spinning only because each new technology reinitiates the cycle. In 1922, Thomas Edison claimed that movies would “revolutionize our educational system.” In 1945, William Levenson, a Cleveland radio station director, suggested that portable radios in classrooms should be “integrated into school life” alongside blackboards. In the 1960s, governments under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson invested in classroom TV. In an irrational leap of reasoning that is symptomatic of technology in education, Johnson went from a valid lament, “Unhappily, the world has only a fraction of the teachers it needs,” to a non-solution… to meet the challenge “through educational television.”
The hubris and failures of technology projects are detailed by Cuban and Oppenheimer, but with hindsight available to all of us, we know that none of these technologies has delivered on their promises. If anything, we have become wary of their educational power. For example, on the one hand, television excels as a medium for delivering information. Seduced by this capacity in 1964, Wilbur Schramm, the father of communications studies, asked “What if the full power and vividness of television teaching were to be used to help the schools develop a country’s new educational pattern?” He was thinking, in particular, of mass media’s potential to transform education for developing countries.
The transformation never occurred, probably because as motivational as television can be, it still falls far short of generating the motivation required for education. For every person who falls prey to Madison Avenue’s latest advertisement, hundreds of others just ignore it or turn the channel – if that’s true of the most persuasive television commercials, why should we expect television to be able to regularly sustain the motivation (and not just the attention) of easily distracted children to do the cognitive push-ups that education demands?
In the meanwhile, many of us have come to sense television’s shortcomings. Educated parents restrict their children’s time in front of the TV, and many households ban television altogether – at its best, television is considered a cheap babysitter to hold a child’s attention when adult attention is scarce; at its worst, television caters to our weakest impulses, glamorizes materialism, desensitizes us to violence, and lulls us into a zombie-like trance. As a result, most people today would laugh at a school system based on watching broadcast television programs, however educational. Yet, that was exactly the idea behind an experiment in American Samoa in the mid-1960s, where the “education” of 80% of students was based on watching educational telecasts. The program was dismantled several years later as teachers, administrators, parents, and even students expressed dissatisfaction with the students’ academic performance.
Computers: The Latest Technology Cycle
Today, computers and mobile phones are the shiny new technologies, and they offer an even more seductive promise. One argument goes that it was the passiveness of older technologies that was the problem, so today’s interactive digital technologies are the perfect solution.
Patrick Suppes, a pioneer in computer-aided learning suggested in 1966 that computers can “adapt mechanical teaching routines to the needs and the past performance of the individual student.” But, neither interactivity nor adaptive capacity are sufficient – the key challenge in education remains the long-term, directed motivation of the student – something which no technology today can deliver on its own, but which good teachers deliver regularly.
Of course, computers are different from radio or television, so if they are able to prove themselves in education, we should use them. Alas, the research on computers in education consistently arrives at a single conclusion, which at its most optimistic could be stated as follows:
Computers can help good schools do some things better, but they do nothing positive for underperforming schools. This means, very specifically, that efforts to fix broken schools with technology or to substitute for missing teachers with technology invariably fail.
Mark Warschauer, the foremost authority on technology in American classrooms, has spent countless hours studying computer projects. He writes of underperforming US schools, “placing computers and Internet connections in low-[income] schools, in and of itself, does little to address the serious educational challenges faced by these schools. To the extent that an emphasis on provision of equipment draws attention away from other important resources and interventions, such an emphasis can in fact be counterproductive.”
And, as for technology’s capacity to even the playing field of education, he says, “the introduction of information and communication technologies in [...] schools serves to amplify existing forms of inequality.” This is a specific instance of a broader thesis I argued recently, of technology’s role as an amplifier of existing institutional forces.
In the international arena, and using experimental methodology, economists confirm these findings. In rigorous large-scale studies in both India and Colombia, Leigh Linden at Columbia University found that while PCs can supplement good instruction, PCs are a poor substitute for time with teachers. Furthermore, large-scale computer roll-outs in these countries showed no significant educational outcomes compared against students who didn’t receive computers. He suggests that one problem is that teachers don’t successfully incorporate computers into their curricula. (Nor are teachers to blame – technology programs routinely fail to account for teachers’ needs.)
Ana Santiago and her colleagues at the Inter-American Development Bank find a similar story for a Peruvian One Laptop Per Child program. Three months after a large-scale roll-out, and despite teacher, parent, and student excitement around the technology, students gained nothing in academic achievement. Santiago also notes that even during the initial three months, the novelty factor of the laptops appears to wane, with each week seeing less use of the devices.
None of these results run counter to the few research studies that show how computers can benefit education in limited ways. But, all positive instances of computers in schools are built on strong institutional foundations that are exactly what is deficient where technology is expected to save the day. Without the institutional base, technology’s impact is zero or negative. This should immediately cause anyone hoping to fix an underperforming classroom to cross off technology as any part of the “solution.”
As Wayan Vota notes in a May 2009 ETD article, unless the institutional foundation of teachers and administrators is built and funded properly, technology is pointless. With the lens of motivation, it’s easy to understand why. Bad schools are unable to direct student motivation towards educational goals. Since technology itself requires proper motivation for its benefits to accrue, any school that can’t direct student motivation capably will fail to do so with technology, as well (or worse, allow technology to distract students).
The Cost Implications of Technology Investments
Educators often parrot that “technology is not a panacea,” by which they mean either:
- that technology doesn’t cure all educational ills or
- that technology alone is insufficient as a solution.
Though these acknowledgments are far better than a blind faith in technology, they still belie hidden, unjustified expectations of technology. The first interpretation suggests that technology cures some maladies in education. But, this is exactly what doesn’t happen – the prevailing evidence shows that technology does not cure unhealthy educational systems; at best, it only augments healthy ones. The second belief is more dangerous because it is factually correct but misleading for policy. It implies that technology can be a good solution as long as other investments are also made; what it leaves out is that if alternate investments of the same magnitude were made to support education directly (and not indirectly to support technology), the educational results could be far greater.
The issues here are cost-effectiveness and opportunity cost. Of course, if the net impact of a technology solution is zero or negative, it’s pointless to implement it however low the cost. But because many educators are tempted by technology’s supposed ability to lower costs, it’s worthwhile to consider actual costs of well-implemented technology.
The most common error in computing costs is to assume that hardware and software are the dominant costs of technology. In reality, the total cost of ownership (TCO) for information technology is comfortably several times the cost of hardware, with a range of 5-10x being a good rule of thumb. Beyond hardware, necessary costs include costs of distribution, maintenance, power infrastructure, teacher training, repair and replacement, and curriculum integration. (In a May 2010 ETD article, Sam Carlson, who unlike me believes in technology for education, nevertheless highlights just how much of an investment teacher training requires.) Additional costs often include connectivity, software development, content production, and end-of-life costs. One analysis by Vital Wave Consulting shows the TCO of an ultra-low-cost PC to be in the $2000-3000 range for developing country schools. A similar analysis by OLPCnews suggests $972 over five years for OLPC (the very optimistic advertised lifespan of an OLPC laptop), and $753 for an OLPC implementation in Nepal (cf., OLPC’s current cost of $188). These figures are per unit, so a one-to-one laptop program would incur these costs per-student.
Though figures like the ones above show otherwise, technology providers eagerly feed technology-cost misconceptions. Nicholas Negroponte, founder of OLPC, has been recently touting a $1-per-week total cost for his laptops. But, a dollar a week doesn’t even pay for the device over three years, which many observers agree is a reasonable estimate of its lifetime. It appears his accounting skills are not on par with his salesmanship. Even at $1 a week, though, the price is out of proportion for many developing-country budgets. The government of India, for example, spends no more than $200 per student per year for primary and secondary school, and most of that expense goes to teacher salaries. And, while literacy rates in India are rising, they remain around 60%. Many other developing countries spend even less, with worse results. Does it make sense to take a quarter or more of a struggling school system’s budget and allocate it to technologies that haven’t even proven themselves?
With respect to costs, it’s worth keeping in mind the opportunity cost of technology. For example, research by economists Ted Miguel, Michael Kremer, and others has conclusively shown the value of 50-cent deworming pills for education. The pills free children of parasites and eliminate one of the dominant reasons for student absenteeism in many developing countries. At a cost of only $3.50 per student (over several years), countries with high incidences of parasites can effectively add the equivalent of an extra year of schooling. Similar results can be had from provision of midday meals, iron supplements, and teaching assistants, and all at a much lower cost than that of computing technology.
As for better teaching, educator Doug Lemov enumerates a series of instructional techniques in his book Teach Like a Champion. The techniques were compiled by Lemov after studying hours upon hours of video of teachers who systematically outperform their peers. Most of the techniques are conceptually simple, but have a dramatic impact on the teacher’s effect in the classroom. For example, when asking a question, Lemov’s recommendation to teachers is to pose the question to the class at large, allow some time to think, and then to randomly call on a student. The technique motivates all of the students to think, since any of them could be put on the spot. In contrast, calling only on students who raise their hand or calling on a student before asking the question allows other students to ignore the question entirely. Such techniques require no additional technology and could easily be incorporated into existing teacher training programs with marginal additional cost.
Speaking of teachers, it should be emphasized over and over that they are the primary agents of good formal education. Without good teachers, education fails; with good teachers, education succeeds. Technology is largely irrelevant to this equation. As evidence, we only need to consider world-class school systems that consistently churn out high-performing students. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is the OECD’s latest instrument to measure student performance across countries. 15-year olds are assessed on their reading, math, and science abilities, and the test attempts to measure not just rote learning but some degree of deeper comprehension and critical thinking ability.
Finland is among the countries that routinely perform at the top on PISA, and it is renowned for its low-tech, high-touch approach that emphasizes educational basics and relatively few hours of school or homework. There are also school systems like that of South Korea that use a lot of technology and also do well, but analysis of PISA results fails to show any meaningful correlation between technology use and student performance. (Tim Kelly attempts to use Korea as an argument for technology in schools in a May 2009 ETD article, but that seems an unfortunate confusion of correlation with cause.) Rather, PISA summary documents highlight that the best-performing nations have a political commitment to universal education, high standards for achievement, and quality teachers and principals. Notably absent is any mention of technology as a critical element of a good school system, even though the PISA survey includes data on computers and other educational resources.
None of this should be a surprise. The world had amply demonstrated well before the invention of the personal computer that good education is possible without information technology. Most people born in the 1975 or earlier had no computing in their classrooms, and it would be hard to argue that they suffered as a result; many now lead the world in their respective spheres. Are we to believe that today’s Nobel Laureates, heads of state, and business elite received an inferior education because they were without information technology when growing up?
When Technology in Education is Justified
In order to avoid misunderstanding, I should clarify that some uses of computers in education can be justified, although with the ever-applicable caution that while technology can augment good schools, it hurts poor schools.
- First, in those cases where directed student motivation is assured, technology may lessen the burden of teaching. Some cases of tertiary or adult education may fall into this category.
- Second, targeted use of computers in schools, for example, as an aid to teach computer literacy, computer programming, or video editing, etc., are important as long as those uses are incorporated only as a small part of a well-rounded curriculum.
- Third, technology can help with the administration of schools – record keeping, monitoring, evaluation, etc. – as long as the school system is able to fully support the technology.
- Fourth, in richer environments, where the cost of educated labor is relatively high, careful use of well-designed software may have value in fundamental education, particularly for remedial or drilling purposes. Solutions offered by, for example, Carnegie Learning fall into this category, although it should be noted again that effective use of these kinds of technologies must occur in the context of an otherwise well-run school system.
- Fifth, again in rich environments, where the basics of education are assured, where teachers are facile with technology, and where budgets are unconstrained, widespread use of technology, even in a one-to-one format, might benefit students. Warschauer does find that certain uses of computers enhance computer literacy and writing skills, but these outcomes are limited to well-run, well-funded schools; they are notably absent in underperforming schools, even in the United States.
I underscore that the last two cases are specific to very wealthy, well-run school systems (as a benchmark, the value is unlikely to emerge for school systems spending less than US$8,000 per student per year), and that none of the positive instances above pertain to underperforming schools or to broad dissemination of technology to students.
9 Myths of Technology in Education
I’ve so far argued that technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools); that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and that quality education doesn’t require information technology.
Though I’ve only presented a smattering of the evidence above, the conclusions are clear. Put together, the strong recommendation is that underperforming school systems should keep their focus on improving teaching and administration, and that even good schools may want to consider more cost-effective alternatives to technology when making supplementary educational investments.
Unfortunately, all of this evidence doesn’t provide the gut intuition required to reject seductive rhetoric. So, I end with a point-by-point refutation of frequently heard sound bites extolling technology in schools.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 1: 21st-century skills require 21st-century technologies. The modern world uses e-mail, PowerPoint, and filing systems. Computers teach you those skills.
Reality: This is bad reasoning of the kind that, hopefully, genuine 21st-century skills wouldn’t allow. What exactly are the “21st-century skills” that successful citizens need? Some people define them as the 3 Rs and the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity). But, aren’t these the same as 20th-century skills? The skills haven’t changed; only the proportion of people requiring them.
Of course, the tools that people use at work and at home have changed, but the use of these tools is easy to learn compared with the deep ability to think and work effectively. As far as I know, not in the 500+ years since Gutenberg invented the printing press did anyone suggest that every school, to say nothing of every student, needed a mini-printing press to learn printing skills. (From the 1960s through the 1990s, schools incorporated typing half-heartedly into their curricula, but even that was relegated to a one-year elective.)
Today, any idiot can learn to use Twitter. But, forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium – SMS text messages, PowerPoint, e-mails, or otherwise – requires good thinking, writing, and communication skills. Those skills might be channeled through technology, but they hardly require technology to acquire. Similarly, any fool can learn to “use” a computer. But, the underlying math required to do financial accounting or engineering requires solid mathematical preparation that requires working through problem sets – Einstein didn’t grow up with computers, but modern physics would be delighted to have more Einsteins.
We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology). Based on my own experience trying to teach undereducated English-speaking adults how to use Google, I’m quite certain that what limited their ability to capitalize on the Internet was reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, not computer literacy skills.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 2: Technology X allows interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, [insert educational flavor of the month (EFotM) here] learning.
Reality: All of that may be true, but without directed motivation of the student, no sustained learning actually happens, with or without technology. Good teachers are interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, and capable of EFotM, but on top of all of that, they are also capable of something that no technology for the foreseeable future can do: generate ongoing motivation in students. If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 3: But, wait, it’s still easier for teachers to arouse interest with technology X than with textbooks.
Reality: Maybe a little bit at first. But, the novelty factor of most technologies quickly wears off, and those which don’t tend to turn viewers into zombies rather than engaged learners.
In addition, this comment is a real insult to good teachers everywhere. Good teachers are exactly those who can engage students creatively, regardless of the aids available to them. Technology might amplify the impact of good teachers, but it won’t fix bad teaching.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 4: Teachers are expensive. It’s exactly because teachers are absent or poorly trained that low-cost technology is a good alternative.
Reality: Low-cost technologies are not so low cost when total cost of ownership is taken into account and put in the economic context of low-income schools. Furthermore, technology cannot fix broken educational systems. If teachers are absent or poorly trained, the only proper solution is to invest in better teachers, better training, and better administration… even if it’s expensive. As they say in KIPP schools, there are no shortcuts!
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 5: Textbooks are expensive. For the price of a couple of textbooks, you might as well get a low-cost PC.
Reality: Anyone who says this is using American predatory pricing of textbooks as a guide. In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents. For $1-3, you could buy all the textbooks a child will need for the year. It can be more expensive in other countries where printing costs are not as low as in India, but there is no reason why a textbook needs to cost more than a few dollars. Please, let’s stop propagating this myth.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 6: We have been trying to improve education for many years without results. Thus, it’s time for something new: Technology X!
Reality: Technology has never fixed a broken educational system, so if anything is getting old, it’s the attempt to patch bad education with technology. If other efforts aren’t working, maybe the school system needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from the ground up, as Qatar recently did with its education ministry. There are plenty of new things to try that don’t require new technology. (Though, novelty for its own sake doesn’t make sense, either. There are plenty of old examples of good education, too.) It should be cautioned though, that efforts to improve teachers and administrators is itself a multi-year, if not multi-decade effort. Again, there are no shortcuts!
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 7: Study Z shows that technology is helpful.
Reality: Technology can be beneficial. But, it’s always worth looking at two things more carefully: First, how good was the educational environment in Study Z without the technology? Invariably, it will have been good; often, very good. This means it was secret-sauce + technology that caused the benefit, not technology by itself. Second, what was the total cost of the technology (including training, maintenance, curriculum, etc.)? Inevitably, it will be a factor of 5-10 more than the cost of hardware. Both issues suggest that for ailing schools, technology is not the answer.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 8: Computer games, simulations, and other state-of-the-art technologies are really changing things.
Reality: This article was written with current and near-term technologies in mind. It’s possible that future technologies will not fit the theses. Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders! More realistically, it’s likely that sophisticated software could become richer in the range of things they can teach and the degree to which they sustain motivation. But, any such advances should pass lab trials, pilot runs, controlled experiments, and cost-effectiveness analyses before anyone starts advocating them for widespread use. So far, no technology has met this bar – computers running existing software certainly haven’t.
Pro-Technology Rhetoric 9: Technology is transformative, revolutionary, and otherwise stupendous! Therefore, it must be good for education.
Reality: This myth is pervasive because it is so easy to believe and because we want to believe it so badly. After all, with computers, we can publish our own newsletters, buy gifts in our pajamas, and find the best Italian restaurant in town. And, it would be nice if all we had to do was to sit every child in front of a computer for 6 hours a day to turn them into educated, upright citizens.
But, why do we believe this? It makes no sense. We don’t expect that playing football video games makes a child a great athlete. We don’t believe that watching YouTube will turn our kids into Steven Spielbergs. We don’t think that socializing on Facebook will turn people into electable government officials. And, if none of those things work, then why do we expect it of writing, history, science, or mathematics?
A good education is second only to parenting in the importance it has in raising capable, upright members of society. We would never think to replace parenting with technology (and when we do at times, we do it with shame, and only because we’re too damn tired to parent, not because gadgets are superior to us). Why do we keep trying to replace teachers?
Honesty in Technology Failure
As if to underscore these points, last month, the Azim Premji Foundation, a well-funded non-profit in India and arguably the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to working with computers in education, made a startling – and courageous – confession. They had worked for over half a decade with tens of thousands of schools, providing computers, training teachers, designing whole software libraries in 18 languages, and integrating material with state curricula. Aspects of their programs and their software could be criticized, but their methods were as thoughtful and as heartfelt as any technology-for-education effort I have witnessed, with frequent research and evaluations to confirm outcomes. Their conclusion?
“[W]hen we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that [our whole effort in computer-aided learning] was at best a qualified failure… there was practically no impact in a sustained, systemic manner on learning.”
Anurag Behar, co-CEO of the foundation cited a number of issues (the full article is worth reading), but chief among the problems were that any deficiencies in administration and teaching were not overcome by technology. He notes: “At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, ‘why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher’. This perspective is lethal.” He concludes with a paraphrasing of what he learned from education leaders in Finland and Canada (two countries who consistently do well on PISA): “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building.”
In short, there are no technology shortcuts to good education.
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