The Limits of Educational Technocracy: Change As No More of the Same

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

John Adsit’s recent comment on the limitations of imagination with regard to change points to arguably the greatest obstacle to reformation of schools and colleges in the U.S. and the world. Educators, as a group, seem to be incapable of thinking outside the box. Asked to imagine different ways technology can be used to improve the ways in which we teach and learn, the results are almost always dismally familiar. Rather than changes that are surprising, fresh, new, different, outside-the-box, sustainable, and cost-effective, we come up with more of the same, with an emphasis on more. That is, we need more smart classrooms, more tech specialists, and more dollars to do more of the same.

One of the reasons for this lack of imagination is our choice of change agents. In the vast majority of colleges, when change and technology are the topics, the faces around the conference table belong to technocrats: administrators and staff from information technology and distance education departments. If subject-area teachers are included, they are more than likely present because they have earned part-time or associate status in the technocracy.

Given this membership, is it any wonder that any change, however big or small, must include, as a given, the cost of the college’s technocracy? To a person, everyone at the table begins with the premise that the change must not only originate with the technocrats but must also fall under the direct maintenance, distribution, and supervision of the technocrats. They will select the technological tool or service, manage and maintain it, distribute it to the teachers, and provide ongoing in-service workshops. Thus, to the cost of the product or service, we need to add the substantially larger cost of the technocracy — their offices, staff, maintenance, utilities, countless trips to conferences (with other technocrats), slick self-promotion publications, workshops, state of the art equipment, etc.

If the innovation is successful, guess who takes the credit? You guessed it. The technocrats. And in their glossy, end-of-year fiscal reports and multimedia presentations, they remind everyone about the marvelous work that they’re doing.

This, in a nutshell, is how the vast majority of colleges are going about assimilating the latest instructional technology on their campuses.

Given this organizational approach, colleges have bought into a system of change that translates into an additional layer of bureaucracy that cuts deeply into already limited technology budgets. We’ve created our own “middlepersons” who represent a permanent hidden drain on our budgets.

What about educators who have decided to bypass the technocracy altogether in implementing internet technology in their work? The answer is simple and not unexpected. They’re ignored. They don’t appear in the technocrats’  flashy “Our Campus Technology” presentations and are ignored in their published reports. They receive little or no funding because most of that is controlled by — you guessed it  — the technocrats. To the college and the public, they are invisible. They don’t exist.

But the technocratic veil is beginning to tatter, and a few non-technocrats are beginning to not only see but act on the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Earlier this month, Jeffrey R. Seemann, Texas A&M Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies, announced the university’s move toward decentralizing its management of distance education, eliminating the Office of Distance Education. (Click here for more.) As expected, the uproar among the majority of technocrats has been deafening.

Who’s to blame for this state of affairs? It’s easy to point our collective finger at the technocrats, but this wouldn’t be fair, especially when we gave them a blank check and asked them to take us to the promised e-land. They’ve done what we’ve asked, and they continue to act on our original dispensation.

The tough realization is that we’re the culprits. We shucked the responsibility of learning and applying the new technology and, instead, dumped it on hired technocrats. We built our kingdom on the backs of mercenaries, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they are now controlling us.

All of us — teachers, staff, and administrators — have had ample time to become familiar with if not master most of the latest internet technologies that apply to teaching and learning, and most of us realize that it’s really not, after all, rocket science*. With increasingly less assistance from technocrats, we can begin the journey toward believing that we’re fully capable of taking our class, department, and college’s technological future in our own hands and guiding it toward changes that are unimaginable under present conditions.


* Added 6.24.10: See Debra Park’s experiment with iPads with her summer class at Kelly Walsh High School, Casper, Wyoming (Jackie Borchardt, “High School Students Pilot iPads,” Star-Tribune, 6.2.10).

5 Responses

  1. Great comments, Jim.

    What you describe parallels my own experience at the K-12 level. When online education and instructional technology in general were first introduced in our school district, control was placed in the department controlling technology in general, all of whom were selected for their positions based on their expertise in technology rather than instructional theory. I was headquartered across the hall, in the department of instruction, where we were working to bring new and exciting instructional methods to the classroom in order to improve student achievement.

    While doing some research, I encountered a flood of articles that showed that when technology in education was used to support those innovative techniques we were teaching, student achievement soared, but when it was used in more traditional instructional ways, student achievement actually fell. I presented this and several other critical studies indicating that we were not making wise use of instructional technology to my superiors.

    The result was not at all pleasant for me. I was told in no uncertain terms that the instruction department had nothing to do with instructional technology and should keep its nose out of it. When working with teachers on instructional strategies, we were not even allowed to mention technology–that was the job of the technology team. they were the technology decision makers, not we.

    So we went forth and showed teachers how to teach in certain ways, and the technology department went out doing the opposite.

    When online education started, it began with the technology department as well. Their goal was to use technology to bring education as they knew it to the district. Education as they knew it was not education as we knew it, and so we had a great and painful disconnect. Even when control of online education was was finally wrested from them, there was still a divide.

    If we use technology, especially online education, to create a high tech way to perpetuate poor instructional technique, then we are just finding a high tech way to help students fail.

  2. Hi, Jim and John,

    I’ve posted a link to this post in a related discussion – Faculty vs IT – in the College 2.0 Facebook group.

    Maybe the role of education authorities in the rising power of tech experts should be considered too.I’ll try to find a way to explain this better without using examples that might expose me and perhaps ETC to a libel suit ;-)

  3. Thanks, Claude. I’m really glad that this topic is actually being discussed. Teachers who are willing to speak out are few, so their voices are invaluable: John, who seems to have started the thread, and Bobbie who describes her relationship to the IT dept. as “having to go to ‘daddy’ to ask permission or demonstrate why I need to try or do something.”

    The response from IT folks is the usual dialogue stopper: security and bandwidth. Bandwidth is usually a reference to the limited amount of network space and access to that space, and “security” is the bogeyman that instantly spreads dread over all educators — the fear of being sued!

    “We don’t have the bandwidth to _____” is enough reason for IT departments to reject any “outside” ideas. And if the outsider says her/his social networking innovation won’t require any of the IT department’s networking resources, the security argument is raised, with the admonition that non-IT networks are insecure, and the naive teacher and the college will be open to lawsuits. Shudder!

    But if we’re willing to step outside this box and if we’re willing to ignore fear (of offending IT folks) for a moment, we may be able to see that the huge proportions of our IT budgets that go toward technocrat salaries and resources could be redirected — redirected toward robust and ample infrastructures that would expand the college’s network and access to it.

    The redirection could also explore, develop, and implement ways to accommodate and facilitate social networks and other web-based services and applications that faculty are futzing with in the real world. Part of this effort could be devoted to the issue of security.

    This process of redirection could be accomplished by the college’s non-IT dept. teachers, staff, and administrators. If tech expertise is needed, it could be brought in on a contract basis for a limited time, with the goal of training existing staff.

    -Jim S

  4. While I agree completely with Jim’s comments, John Adsit’s additions point to a broader problem, one that I’ve also seen. This problem transcends the technocrats issue.

    Few people in education (including technology specialists, teachers, and administrators) can see outside of the box in which they’ve placed themselves. John is a rare exception.

    When computers first entered classrooms (focusing on K-12 now), they were used on very conventional ways. The first educational apps were basically drills. Many still are. These can, with slight loss of efficiency, be done well with paper and pencil. No quantum leap in real learning occurs.

    Then, office apps were taken from the world of business and applied to education. Instead of typing on a typewriter, students could type with a word processor. Instead of drawing a graph with a pencil, they could use an electronic spreadsheet. And so on. These approaches did add some engagement and saved some time, but they also cost more, limited access because of few computers available, and removed some important learning in some cases. Most importantly, these were all incremental changes in efficiency and engagement; they were not the quantum changes in learning everyone expects to come from large infrastructure investments.

    The incremental mindset continues. To my mind, one of the worst problems orbits the teachers who are technology fans. They fall in love with the latest whiz-bang gadget and expect their students to do so too. I read a post from a middle school principal who said that he loves the iPad and would like to have them spread across his entire school. Not a word did he say about how it would be used, what wonderful apps would be be employed in learning, or how he would convince his teachers to use it — or even why they would choose to do so.

    I have been watching technology in science education closely for decades now. You can barely imagine my frustration in seeing millions of dollars poured down the rat hole of obviously useless “investments” in technology. I object as a taxpayer, as an entrepreneur who could use a very small fraction of those funds to make something that really works, and as a scientist who would like to see students’ science education really benefit from technology. Instead, I see science classes using technology to continue on the old memory game. Learn procedures; learn formulas, learn vocabulary. While some of this sort of thing is necessary, it has elbowed out learning SCIENCE.

    Here’s my list of some technologies that do not help learning science and, in some cases, actually harm that learning. They waste money. (Yes, exceptions exist but only in the hands of the most talented teachers who can also work without them. These technologies may help the memory part, but that’s not the point here.)

    Interactive White Boards
    Simulated Labs
    Office Software
    Game Software

    I’m sure that this list will cause quite a few educators to object, even to do so vociferously. That’s good; open debate will shine more light on this issue. Also, feel free to add your own pet example of technology that doesn’t add to learning science, real science: the nature of science and scientific reasoning skills.

    We all know that technology can help people memorize better and faster. We all know that technology can attract attention. These gains are useful in learning, but I’d like to see really new stuff and/or quantum gains in learning. I’d like to see things that cannot be done with low tech (and at much lower cost). Some of the social software begins to break down old teaching. That’s great. What’s next?

  5. Great comments so far.

    The point I want to make here is almost embarrassing to make, because the real educational experts who studied educational technology more than a decade ago, almost two decades ago, in fact, made the point long before I did: Technology that is used to support sound instructional processes increases student achievement; technology that does not support sound instructional processes lowers student achievement.

    I was once at an educational technology expo and sat with a group of teachers watching a demonstration of a computer game designed to teach the Civil War. In it, students would assume a persona who was a spy for one side or the other, and he would go on an adventure superimposed upon a map of the eastern United States. This adventure would occasionally put him in conflict with an enemy spy. Should that occur, the two would engage in a rock fight. The player would try to aim an accurate throw to hit the opponent.

    I asked what the student was learning from this.

    “Trajectory,” was the answer.

    I asked what they were learning about the actual Civil War. Well, it turns out that every now and then a multiple choice question about the Civil War would pop up, a random question that had absolutely nothing to do with anything that was happening in the game. Students had to attempt an answer and then move on to the game, regardless if they were right or wrong. In reality, students did not have to read the question–as soon as the question popped up, they could select a random answer and get on with the trajectory problem.

    The people watching the demonstration were lapping it up, enthralled with the technology, never noting that students would not learn one iota about the Civil War while playing it. (I hope the trajectory lesson was valuable.)

    The problems in this regard may be much more subtle than that example. Last year I showed a new reading program to a reading specialist. She agreed that it did a very good job of teaching very poor instructional methodology.

    It’s like the old joke about the airplane pilot who announces that he has good news and bad news. The bad news is that they have lost all navigational instruments and have no idea how high they are or where they are going. The good news is that they are making very good time.

    The problem is that it is relatively easy to create software that teaches using poor methodology. Rote learning is easily done that way. What we need is for technologists to sit down with true instructional experts and ask them what it is they do and then figure out how it could be done better.

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