Our Short-Term Ed-Tech Memory

It's fairly clear that Silicon Valley has decided that education is a space ripe for "disruption."  But there's a lot of talk that "suddenly" technology and education are coming together.  This is a grossly a-historical way to think about ed-tech, one that ignores years of research, development, successes and failures.

February 7, 2012

The headline of the Techcrunch story today seems fairly par for the course: "Rice University and OpenStax Announce First Open-Source Textbooks." Commenters were quick to point out that this is hardly the first open-source textbook initiative, to which the story's author Devin Coldewey called that a "minor grammatical quibble."

But these sorts of quibbles -- grammatical or historical or otherwise -- occur again and again and again in ed-tech. They've been occurring for decades now, as education technology -- as represented by the media, as built by entrepreneurs, as implemented by educators -- seems to suffer from a strange sort of amnesia, where we keep having the same conversations, keep proposing the same solutions, keep struggling with the same issues that we have for a long long time.

As in: this is the year where technology will revolutionize education. (Just as we thought it would way back in 1967, when Seymour Papert created Logo.) Soon we'll have students who were raised around computers who'll become teachers and change the way technology is used in the classroom. (Just as we thought it would when all those kids who grew up circa 1983 around the Apple IIe became teachers and professors.)

But our ed-tech amnesia seems to have struck us again lately, as there's all sorts of clamoring that "suddenly" "now" there's a widespread interest in bringing technology into the classroom. As such, lots of folks are clamoring to claim responsibility for "the first," and "the trend," and "the interest."

Although it's easy to feel like education has suddenly seen an increase in venture capital investment, it's important to remember that the dollars that are flowing into the sector now are actually less than what we saw during the dot-com bubble. (And as such, it's important to remember what happened then…)

But it's not just the Nineties that we need to think about. It's the Eighties, the Seventies, and the Sixties. See, education technology is hardly new. The idea of having technology change teaching and learning isn't some sort of revolutionary insight that folks have suddenly stumbled upon.

Or rather, if you have suddenly stumbled upon the insight, you need to do a lot of reading about the history of technology in the classroom. Chances are there's a long line of theorists and practitioners you should read about. When it comes to the promised "revolution" of ed-tech, we've been agitating for a change a long, long time.

Required reading:

  • Larry Cuban. Overused and Undersold: Computers in the Classroom (2003)
  • Seymour Papert. Mindstorms: Children, Computers and Powerful Ideas (1981)

And after you've read these, then let's talk what's different now. Because, yes, things are different. But it's not necessarily just a "suddenly" sort of thing.

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