A critique of pure educational technology

This week, I attended the Lousiana Association of Computer Using Educators (LACUE). The contrast to the APH conference I attended last year was marked; even given the fact that LACUE is mainstream and includes representation from a majority of schools in the state, the noticeable difference in funding by private entities was quite significant.  The conference showroom looked like a huge casino floor, complete with flashing lights, games, carnival barkers, etc. This demonstrates the neglect, even though benign, of special needs students in general and the visually impaired specifically as I was the only presenter that directly addressed special education directly and specifically, as far as I could tell, except for an ESL session I attended. There were approximately 20+ concurrent one hour sessions going on over three days from 8-5.   

Besides the obvious difference in funding and interest, even by profit seeking private interests, the conference highlighted a few extremely important points about technology in education. Firstly, the vast majority of sessions I attended over three days were in a visual mode, demonstrating that the field of educational technology is overwhelmingly a visual one. Most of the various software and hardware learned about could only be applicable in a sighted environment and although it might be possible to use this technology in a visually impaired environment, the work required for modifications to enable this technology in a VI environment may not be worth the investment in time or in outcomes, even disregarding the financial aspect.

This brings me to a second point: the most enlightening seminar I attended was one done by Steven Anderson, who is an educational technology consultant, helping determine the efficacy of technology for school districts. His premise (and one I have always agreed with) is that too much emphasis is on technology for technology’s sake that ignores educational effectiveness. In fact, one of the parameters he uses for determining the effectiveness of an educational technology is to ask the question, “Can this be done just as well or better without technology?”. The point I came away with from his talk is that profit seeking entities have been making fantastic claims about the educational effectiveness of technology for decades but, in terms of educational effectiveness (re: student cognitive achievement) there is little evidence and research to support those claims. However, the fact that technology as a tool has obvious benefits in terms of productivity cannot be disputed. It is only when it is claimed that technology contributes to cognitive gains better and in lieu of other methods should the buyer and user beware.

Finally, Mr. Anderson does agree (with me) that assistive technology and technology directed toward enabling the disabled are marvelous equalizers of the playing field and funding and research towards this end should continue and even increase.

Comments on and discussion of the points made above will be appreciated; it is and always has been my perspective that educational technology is merely a tool like a pencil, albeit more powerful. The many fantastic new technologies being peddled are so much fluff if they are being presented as the next big enabler of student achievement. The history of educational technology claims proves otherwise. There is much research to demonstrate the veracity of my statements, but R. E. Clark, a guru of educational technology skepticism, prophetically suggested years ago that  the principle of caveat emptor (buyer beware) should apply  when considering claims of the effectiveness of educational technology on cognitive gains (Clark, 1994). In fact, a case might be made for the opposite.

Clark, R. E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational technology research and development, 42(2), 21-29.


Posted by Ed SummersDec 01, 2018

Hi George,

Thanks for your thoughtful post on this topic. It is timely for me because I recently reread Socrates' critique of the new-fangled educational technology of his day ... written language.

I understand the scope of your post is primarily limited to the context of learning fundamental concepts in the classroom. That said, I think we should also consider the context in which graduates will use those concepts, i.e. the business world and society. In other words, should graduates leave the academy with the technical skills required to make a contribution to the economy and society?

Speaking as a hiring manager in a global technology company, I would say "yes". However, I'm willing to trade technical skills for insatiable curiosity and a strong desire to create/innovate.




Posted by George S. ThompsonDec 03, 2018

Hello Ed,
Thanks for the Socrates reference, I will make a point to find and read it. I certainly heartily agree that technology proficiency is a necessity in the modern world and for special needs students, technology is a powerful equalizer, even despite the fact that I make a living as a proponent. However, many of the technologies I witnessed at the above conference were more about gimmicks, reinventing the wheel and chasing public money and I saw little that would really have an effect on student achievement. I do think coding classes may help foster deeper logical thinking better than creating pretty Powerpoint demos but it does concern me the effort that is put into parting taxpayers with their money. I think that the same thing is happening with the charter school movement, an idea with original good intentions but now hijacked by profit seeking interests. Sadly, I believe that the interests of students have and are being marginalized in favor of profit.