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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Digital Learning Has a Cheerleading Problem

By Rick Hess — September 23, 2019 4 min read
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Teachers have a long-standing and well-deserved skepticism of education technology. As teacher and author Roxanna Elden once noted in this blog, “Teachers have plenty of experience with products that require two hours of tedious busy work for every hour they ‘save’. . . It will be hard for us to trust [education tech] again if we have to find out about password problems in front of our students, or troubleshoot during computer-based high-stakes testing.” I’ve long believed that tech has a vital role to play in education and keep rooting for things to change. But it can be hard to find reasons for optimism.

For one thing, the disappointing realities are manifold. Larry Cuban famously summed up the story of ed tech two decades ago in his book Oversold and Underused. As Bror Saxberg and I once noted, Thomas Edison in 1922 proclaimed that the motion picture would “revolutionize” schools and “supplant textbooks"; in 1945, William Levenson, the director of the Cleveland Public Schools’ radio station, declared that radio (heralded as the “textbook of the air”) would soon be “as common in the classroom as is the blackboard.” And don’t even get me started on laptops or MOOCs or any of the other revolutions that weren’t. More than anything, the story of ed tech is one of overpromising and underdelivering.

If we’re going to break this cycle, it’s going to start by paying attention to what educators are actually doing with educational technology, what’s frustrating them, and how things work in real classrooms. That’s why I was guardedly optimistic when two expansive new surveys of ed-tech use were released this month by industry heavyweights Pearson and the NewSchools Venture Fund (the latter in partnership with Gallup).

And then I started reading the elaborate, colorful, and graphic-filled reports . . . only to be reminded why there’s so much skepticism surrounding education technology. Pearson breathlessly reports that “81 percent of people globally believe learning will become more DIY the older you get.” (I’d laugh, except I’m busy trying to figure out what “do-it-yourself” education means—and what those respondents thought it meant.) Per the survey, 83 percent of Americans say, “Students today have the benefit of using technology to support their learning, which makes learning easier and more fun.” Sixty-eight percent say, “I think AI could make a positive impact in the world of education.” Oh, and Pearson cheerily notes that 86 percent of U.S. respondents agree that “education helps people live a better life.” Aside from the staff charged with inserting cheerful bar charts in a glossy PR pamphlet for Pearson’s new product line, it’s hard to imagine who would find any of this interesting, surprising, or remotely useful.

NewSchools/Gallup reports that 85 percent of teachers see “great value in using digital learning tools in the classroom in the future,” and 81 percent see that value “now.” Seventy-seven percent of teachers say that “using digital learning tools helps me teach more effectively.” OK, that’s swell if true. It would be a lot more interesting, of course, if we had any idea what teachers meant by “teach effectively.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence in the report that there was any effort to clarify or understand what they meant. Worse, this is one of those questions where there’s pretty clearly a right answer—most of us would feel a little self-conscious saying that we’re the one person who, when constantly bombarded with messages about the wonders of the digital age, has to admit, “Nah, I can’t figure out how to use any of these ‘digital tools’ to teach better.” All of this sounds a lot less like the honest reactions one hears from parents and educators when the topic is education technology and more like something I’d expect to hear at a sales conference.

Reading through the reports, despite my qualms, there were some potentially useful bits. For one thing, students are decidedly less enthusiastic about ed tech than are the adults. While about two-thirds of teachers, principals, and administrators told Gallup that they think “the majority of students . . . would like to use digital learning tools” more often—just two in five students say so. For another, more than half the teachers surveyed told Gallup that “teachers do not have enough training on the effective use of digital learning tools” (which should raise some question about the cheery response regarding teacher effectiveness mentioned a bit earlier).

I don’t just want to kvetch. Surveys like these can and should be useful. In the spirit of constructive criticism, here are a couple suggested queries for next time:

  • How many minutes a day would you estimate you spent in the past week dealing with devices which didn’t start, froze up, or required a forgotten password?
  • In your experience, how often does your current district solicit teacher input about workability or required features when deciding to buy a new technology?
  • When you think about routine tasks like grading, copying, attendance, and homework, what’s one thing your school could do to minimize distractions so that you might spend more time working directly with students?

Anyway, I’m not an industry guru, an ed-tech hotshot, or a pollster, so I’m sure there are better ways to tackle these questions and get at all this. My hope is that the real experts will step it up and start focusing less on queries crafted to promote the glittery promise of education technology—and more on those that illuminate its gritty reality.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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