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Why Most Ed Tech Fails

Can educational technology ever live up to its promise?

March 22, 2021

Remember InBloom, the $100 million initiative, largely funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to aggregate student data and learning tools and allow teachers to individualize instruction?

Or how about Purdue’s Course Signals or Austin Peay’s Degree Compass, which were course recommendation tools?

And whatever happened to math emporiums, Knewton, Google Glass, Coding for All or the Year of the MOOC?

This history of educational technology is littered with failure.

Technology fads have come and gone with remarkable regularity. Mobile learning, personalized adaptive courseware and clickers all had their vogue. Then their 15 minutes of fame faded and new tech fads came and went, just like the teaching machines and Skinner boxes of earlier years.

Educational technologies aren’t new. In the early 19th century, the blackboard was a novel educational technology. But it was the 20th century that brought a profusion of ed-tech innovations along with the expectation that they’d upend education. Indeed, the introduction of every new communication technology prompted dreams of revolutionizing education. Radio, the movies, film strips, television and computers all held out the promise of expanding access, reducing costs and improving the quality of teaching and learning.

Yet even though we were told that the technologies were disruptive, transformational and revolutionary, their impact on pedagogical practice and student performance proved minimal. Far from upending current practices, ed-tech innovations often reinforced existing instructor-centered, lecture-driven pedagogies and rote memorization.

American society values innovation, and it’s not surprising that that techno-naysayers and skeptics have often been derided as worrywarts and impediments to progress. But often their doubts and misgivings proved to be right on the mark.

I must confess: I am a technophile. I am convinced that higher education would do well to change and that technology has an important role to play in that transformation. I have also been dazzled, often mistakenly, by flimflam, hot air and hyperbole.

So I write as someone chastened by past disappointments. I know firsthand that technology can be used for good or ill. Still, as the old quip goes, my hope triumphs over experience.

So which educational technologies hold out promise? Only those that help instructors do their jobs better, not displace them. These are technologies that:

  • Bring a wealth of instructional resources into the classroom.
  • Monitor student engagement and learning and prompt timely interventions.
  • Provide tools for analysis, visualization and project creation.
  • Support active, collaborative and project-based learning.
  • Ease grading and help instructors provide more constructive feedback.

Why hasn’t ed tech lived up to its promise? The reasons are obvious.

1. Because innovators too often embrace an impoverished conception of teaching and learning.

Technology would transfer information. Or automate drills and practice. Or provide tutorials. Or personalize and individualize instruction.

What it failed to do, however, was to do what a teacher does: motivate students. Keep students engaged and on track. Scaffold and support student learning. Provide timely constructive feedback.

2. Because cost-efficiency, rather than learning, tends to drive innovation.

Despite talk about democratizing quality instruction or individualizing teaching and learning, much of the motivation behind the adoption of teaching technologies is to reduce instructional costs, substituting machines or software for the kind of hands-on support that benefits students most.

3. Because instructors aren’t trained to use classroom technologies effectively.

In the absence of training or examples of the successful use of classroom technologies, most instructors continue to teach as they have in the past, through lectures, discussion, questions and demonstrations.

4. Because educational technologies do not align with the way most instructors teach.

Most teaching is didactic and instructor-focused, involving information transfer and guided discussion. Instructional technologies presupposes very different pedagogical approaches, in which students learn individually or work in groups or are expected to engage in an activity in class.

5. Because of a lack of compelling evidence that technology actually improves student learning.

Educational technologies are often promoted for nonacademic reasons: because of hype or an exaggerated belief that exposure to technologies will better prepare graduates for the digital economy. Without empirical evidence of effectiveness, many instructors consider technology a waste of money at best and a distraction and intrusion at worst.

6. Because of the gap between what technology promises and what it actually delivers.

Hypesters consistently overpromise and underdeliver, breeding skepticism and cynicism about technology’s value and the motives of its advocates. Despite claims to the contrary, there isn’t large unmet student demand for a more technology-enhanced education or evidence that exposure to ed tech makes graduates more employable and better prepared for 21st-century workplaces.

7. Because creating educationally impactful technologies is difficult.

High-impact instructional technologies are, almost always, beyond the ability of a lone innovator. Effective technologies require a raft of specialists: in user experience design, software development and assessment.

All this said, the past need not dictate the future. Just because technology after technology has been swept into history’s dustpan, this does not mean that technology can’t improve learning.

  • Some technologies have worked.

    The most obvious is the humble blackboard, which was first introduced at West Point early in the 19th century, and underscored the value of visualization, especially when used to illustrate the process of solving a problem or organizing complex material.

  • Instructors readily adopt technologies that improve student learning or their ability to perform their job.

    It’s not an accident that the educational technologies that have been widely embraced -- like today’s PowerPoint slides or LCD projectors or whiteboards or learning management systems -- genuinely contributed to improved student learning and represented indisputable improvements over the tools they replaced: the hornbook, the mimeo or the paper gradebook. Such technologies were adopted precisely because they made it easier for instructors to prepare classes, engage students, monitor learning and perform their administrative tasks -- because they were regarded as educationally beneficial, not because they were imposed from the top down.

  • Technologies can have a transformational impact, increasing student learning and engagement, and improving pedagogical practice.

    But if technologies are to have a “revolutionary” impact, we need to think as a tool that can solve problems we experience in the classroom.

Let me spell out ways that I find technology useful:

Technology can be diagnostic.

It can provide the instructor and the student granular, real-time insights into student engagement and understanding of essential course material and flag areas of confusion and misunderstanding.

Technology can prompt midcourse corrections and timely student intervention as necessary.

I am a staunch advocate of dashboards: instructor-facing, student-facing and both. Dashboards can reveal time spent on the course website, identify questions that students find difficult or confusing, or chart students’ progress. Dashboards can motivate students and prompt instructors to rethink their pedagogy and reach out to students who are off track.

Technology can cut the cost of course materials.

I’m not just referring to OER, the open educational resources, like those offered by OpenStax, that can replace costly textbooks, but to instructor- or publisher-developed interactive courseware, which combines the features of a textbook with rich multimedia, a wealth of instructional resources, data banks, tutorials, activities and assessments.

Technology can personalize the learning experience.

Apart from MOOCs, no technology was more overhyped than personalized, adaptive courseware. But just because a technology was oversold doesn’t mean that it was a bad idea. Many students do need a more customized, individualized learning experience that identifies gaps in their knowledge, makes recommendations about what to study next, offers tutorials to address confusions, provides opportunity to practice skills -- all at an appropriate pace and with tailored content that the student finds compelling.

Technology can bring previously inaccessible instructional resources into the classroom.

Whether these are primary sources including letters, diaries and other personal papers, visual resources, such as advertisements, artworks, maps or photographs, or data sources, such as census registers or voting returns, we now have an unparalleled opportunity let students work with the very sources that professionals do.

Technology can transform learning into a more active process.

Here, I’m thinking of tools that allow students to annotate and analyze text, manipulate and visualize data, map concepts or causation or networks, and create projects. I’ve found technology especially helpful in giving students ways to organize, analyze and present information and data.

Technology can facilitate team-based learning and collaboration.

Collaboration and communication tools can connect students with classmates, but also with those outside the classroom. Collaborative research projects and presentations can be undertaken remotely and even asynchronously. Connected learning might involve guest lecturers, practicing professionals and alumni, among others. These tools can also bring fieldwork or clinicals into a classroom.

Technology can create immersive learning environments.

Whether these are virtual worlds (like Second Life) or virtual reconstructions of existing sites (such as ancient Rome, a medieval cathedral or Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition), these digital environments provide opportunities for role-playing, collaboration, exploration, problem solving and vicariously experiencing life in a radically different context. Nonthreatening environments can also address issues related to performance anxiety and stereotype threat.

Technology can build skills.

Technology can help students master essential skills by providing practice exercises and simulations. Precisely because technology never tires or grows annoyed, it can take care of the more repetitive aspects of teaching and learning.

Education is, of course, not simply a matter of conveying information. Nor is it merely a matter of practice. In most instances, it requires social interaction, scaffolding, feedback and, yes, human connection, and needs an instructor who can tailor a lesson to students’ interests, prior preparation and skill level.

Technology can’t successfully replace instructors, especially not at the undergraduate level. But it can help make education more equitable and transform learners into investigators, analysts and creators. It can offer the tools students need to analyze and annotate texts and data; make dynamic and interactive maps, timelines and websites; manage bibliographic information; organize research materials; simulate laboratory experiments; and create media-rich narratives.

That strikes me as the pedagogical revolution we need.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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