Home > Uncategorized > Technology is Fast and Cheap… but it Isn’t Good.

Technology is Fast and Cheap… but it Isn’t Good.

January 6, 2018

Diane Ravitch’s posts yesterday included on that had a link to an article she wrote recently for EdSurge, a pro-technology website. In the article she identified five major risks associated with the use of educational technology. After reading her article I left this comment with a link to this post:

The tech industry is serving shareholders, politicians and, alas, voters who don’t want to spend more for education. Technology is currently cheap and fast… but it isn’t good.

A consultant whose name escapes me gave a presentation to the administrators in the MD district I served in the early 1990s. She wrote three words on the board (this was pre-powerpoint era): “fast”, “cheap”, “good”. She said that in any undertaking you could only choose two of these. (NOTE: I just learned from my friend “Google” that this is now called the “Iron Triangle”— and example of technology’s utility).

Technology promises to provide all three… but it really only provides “fast” and “cheap” means of covering the curriculum that is measured by standardized tests. It’s faster than the laborious face-to-face tutoring it supposedly replaces. Its’ cheaper because it lowers the costs to school districts by selling the data it collects to third parties. But because it is fast and cheap it isn’t good: it takes the “costly” human interaction out of teaching; it has a limited scope because it only delivers instruction in areas that can be measured by standardized tests; and it requires schools to compromise the principle of student and parent privacy in order to secure the low costs valued by politicians and voters.

Like Diane Ravitch and several of her commenters, I was an early adopter to technology applications. As a public school administrator I found technology a godsend for scheduling, tracking budgets, preparing cost-benefit analyses, calculating the impact of collective bargaining proposals, and especially for writing. And while the introduction of the internet was a mixed blessing (emails tended to eat into my daily schedule on the job and outside of it), it did provide a means of making every decision transparent and disseminating information rapidly. And as one who tends to think in bullet points and one who used an overhead projector as a teacher, I found powerpoint to be very useful in preparing presentations on everything from budgets and building projects to future directions I hoped we might be able to take.

But unlike Ms. Ravitch and her commenters, I was a school superintendent and, as such, witnessed the intense pressure to suppress costs while simultaneously introducing children in schools to the technology school board members and I were using every day on our jobs. One thing I learned was that the use of technology required some degree of standardization.. and some teachers and parents bridled at any form of standardization. In devising schedules and linking the schedules to computerized report cards, for example, I needed to demand that teachers re-name some of their courses to “fit” the fields “the computer” allowed. In implementing a computerized parent portal that enabled parents to monitor their child’s progress in various subjects periodically we needed to ensure that teachers entered grades into their grade books regularly and not at the very end of the grade period. In collective bargaining, we needed to make certain both parties were using the same spreadsheets to calculate the impact of changes in compensation. Each of these “standardization” efforts resulted in faster and more efficient operations… but whether it was BETTER was debatable in the minds of some people in virtually every case.

My bottom line is that the effectiveness of technology is limited by the factory paradigm we insist on retaining in public education. As long as we group children by age and measure their progress by tests that are linked to their cohort group we will continue to mis-use and abuse technology. The ideals espoused by progressive educators like John Dewey are not based on operating an “efficient” (i.e. cheap and fast) system in the fashion the industry leaders envisioned at the turn of the 20th century. We need to let children roam free in the real and virtual worlds and not be limited to pre-programmed electronic worksheets that quickly and inexpensively move them through a standardized curriculum. Doing so might be slower and/or more expensive than what we are doing now, but it would be better.

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