Weary Professors Abandon Technology?

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

According to US News & World Report, “[P]rofessors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.”

Just take a moment to break this sentence down and understand what’s being asserted here.

Professors don’t have enough help to use the technology. This comment implies that the technologies under consideration do not have an easily used interface. Good technology should not require any but the most rudimentary training that you can receive from, for example, watching a video.

Professors haven’t seen results from it. Some technologies in education do not generate results. They may be used inappropriately for the course. The results may not match what the technologies enhance. Many professors may be working with anecdotal data from others that could be quite unscientific. The fact that you haven’t seen results from some set of technologies does not mean that all technologies are useless in education.

Professors fear losing their jobs to technology. Some technologies in some institutions could be used that way. If the professor provides no added value, then what is that person doing teaching anyway? Almost no students can guide themselves effectively through the educational process. They don’t know enough to make the necessary choices. Educators will not become obsolete soon. Nevertheless, some institutions may reduce faculty in the mistaken idea that technology can replace them. Fear should not be a determining factor in what to do or not to do. Fearing the inevitable is foolish; fearing the impotent is abandoning yourself to fear. 

Later on, the article states, “One of the most common complaints from faculty is that much of this technology creates more work, not less….”

Such technologies should not even be considered in education. From the invention of the wheel, technology has promised more for less and more quickly with greater ease. While something that does not deliver on that promise may technically be called technology, it should not be part of the technologies under consideration for use. Why pay more and work harder at the same time to obtain modest learning gains when you can reduce costs and work for better gains?

What are these technologies that the article references? It mentions social media, “clickers,” online courses, and PowerPoint. That these mundane technologies do not produce astounding gains or cost savings should not surprise anyone. A fair section of the article covers those clickers.

“Clickers” or “student response systems” have had varying success, with one study showing a 4.7% increase in grades and another showing a 4.5% decrease. The second study claimed this result is significant even though the standard deviation of the scores was more than twice that of the difference. These numbers seem rather small compared to the investment in time and money represented by this technology.

This entire article proves nothing about technology in education except that some attempts have been fruitless and others have earned the ire of faculty. Technology in education or “ed-tech” has had a checkered history so far with more failures than successes. Any path to innovation contains many dead ends. A large fraction of those come from attempts to adapt commercial or consumer technology to education with the excuse that if it worked there, it must work here. Nonsense!

Educational technology has so much promise that it hurts to see it tarred with this brush. The rush to cash in on some commercial (e.g., PowerPoint or interactive whiteboards) or consumer (e.g., Facebook or game apps) technology has created negative attitudes in education that increase the wall that truly useful technologies must scale.

Educational technology should relieve educators of some of the repetitive burdens that they encounter regularly. It should lead to significant learning gains, not a few percentage points but entire grades, turning B students into A students and even F students into A students. It should make learning easier and swifter for students. It should also lead to measurable cost savings for the educational institutions involved.

Real innovation can create these changes. We are seeing the beginning of adaptive learning that will help those who are falling behind as well as those who wish to forge ahead of the pack. This trend should lead to learning to mastery in the future where anyone can choose to achieve total learning and the resulting A grade. We also are seeing more interactivity in ed-tech software so that students do not remain as note-takers but become active learners. Educational technology is advancing into more immersive and experiential areas.

Can technology “save” higher education? This is the wrong question and pervades this article. We are unlikely to see any technology saving much of anything. Finding or creating the right technology and using it well will help any industry. If that industry has fundamental flaws, painting them over with some technology is not the solution. Expect help from technology but not salvation. Even for help, you must choose wisely.

3 Responses

  1. No one can obtain the correct answer unless they ask the correct question. For example, before asking whether technology can save higher education, people should ask whether higher education must be saved, whether it should be saved, and what is currently being done to save it.

    The choice of technology as a panacea for anything makes a big mistake. What did the wheel do? It allowed things to move more rapidly. It did not change what was being moved.

    Always keep in mind that technology is a tool and that all tools are technology. Tools must be applied to tasks to which they are suited by people who understand how to use them.

  2. […] Weary Professors Abandon Technology? | Educational Technology and Change Journal […]

  3. Excellent technology will help professors and make their lives better while securing their positions, not threatening them.

    Poor technology will have all of the flaws mentioned in the article.

    Which are you using?

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