The Latest Whiz-Bang Gadgets vs. Real Change

keller80By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

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 in 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.

Someone using an external keyboard to type on an iPad

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 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.)

  • Probeware
  • Interactive White Boards
  • Simulated Labs
  • Office Software
  • Game Software

I’m sure that this list will cause quite a few educators to object, some even 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?

Note: This article was first posted as a comment to Shimabukuro’s “The Limits of Educational Technocracy: Change As No More of the Same” on 26 June 2010.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks, Harry! We needed this perspective in the ongoing discussion. You’re absolutely correct. Redirecting power from technocrats to teachers, staff, administrators etc. — by itself — would be tantamount to opening a pandora’s box of great ideas as well as chaos and wasted funds. Short of returning to the technocratic model, colleges and schools will need to come up with sensible plans, procedures, and rules for tech spending. Leadership is critical, requiring the ability to maintain a balance between imagination and common sense. But I believe they — teachers, staff, administrators — are ready for the challenge, and the dialogue on how best to use tech funds will be the next exciting stage in the sweep toward profound changes in tech and learning. -Jim S

  2. Harry, I have an objection to only one item in your list: Office software. Proper text editors can make studying a lot easier for dyslexics – because of the spell checker, but also because they can use it to reformat electronic texts they have to read with proper title styles, and thus get an interactive table of content.

    Among the geeks I know, a surprisingly high proportion got initially interested in computers via text editors, because they had some kind of dyslexia.



    PS Alternative illustration for your post: the usbtypewriter demo video, which got embedded and apparently taken seriously by Charlie Sorrel in his USB Typewriter Turns iPad Into Paper article for Wired (2010-06-14)

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