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Technical Difficulties

February 01, 2001 3 min read
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A lot of folks—especially those who don’t spend much time in classrooms—have high hopes that technology is going to transform schools.

New technology may not transform schools, but it may make them obsolete because schools behave as if they are in the teaching business and not the learning business.

Politicians, business leaders, and prominent educators are pushing agendas that involve wiring all school buildings to provide ready access to the Internet, giving every student a computer, connecting homes and schools via modems, and training teachers to use the new information technology.

Betting on the promise of technology is certainly reasonable. In a mere tick of history’s clock, technology has radically altered our lives. The world has probably changed more in the past hundred than in all the previous years of recorded history combined. If Rip van Winkle had slept through the 20th century and returned today, he would understand very little of mankind’s creation—until he wandered into a school. There, except for the number and diversity of the students, everything would look pretty much as he remembered.

The intriguing question is why people expect technology to revolutionize schooling, which has been virtually untouched by the astounding advances of the past century. Some might argue that much of the technology developed was not relevant to schools and has become so only with widespread availability of personal computers and the emergence of IT—information technology. Let’s assume that’s true. The question remains: How likely is it that new technology will transform schools?

My answer: not very likely. The new information technology and traditional schools are incompatible. So the chicken-or-egg question is, can technology transform schools, or do schools have to be transformed before they can effectively use the technology? If new technology is to have the profound impact on learning that its advocates hope for, schools will have to dramatically alter the ways they are organized and operated. For example:

  • The rigid grade-level structure, the artificial segmentation of time, and the lock-step curriculum will have to give way to a more flexible environment that personalizes education, allowing students to move at their own pace. The power of IT is that it allows access to almost unlimited information and knowledge and provides tools for complex calculation and simulation.
  • The day-to-day work of teachers and students will have to change substantially to adapt to a more flexible environment. Students will necessarily assume more responsibility for their own education, and teachers will be more like mentors, guiding students and helping them.
  • The barrier between school and the real world will crumble. Because learning will not be restricted to specific rooms in specific buildings, the custodial function of schools (which society seems to value as much as the academic function) will erode. (Consider the consequences of that.)
  • Conventional testing and accountability systems, geared as they are to our present standardized form of schooling, will not be compatible with the more flexible environment produced by new technology and will have to be redesigned or replaced.

Reformers have been trying to bring about such changes for the past 20 years without much success. It’s difficult to be optimistic that the new technology will accomplish them.

Technology is almost always developed to achieve a specific objective, solve a problem, or find a better way to do something—explore outer space, improve navigation, or predict weather more accurately, for example. A technological advance is usually the result of intensive research by people with extraordinary expertise and a deep understanding of the context in which new tools will be applied. These same people are seeking change and are prepared to adapt to the consequences—often unforeseen—that technology will bring to their work and their lives. Such conditions are not normally found in public schools.

It is often pointed out that the railroad industry became obsolete because it behaved as if it were in the business of operating trains instead of transporting goods and people. New technology may not transform schools, but it may make them obsolete because schools behave as if they are in the teaching business and not the learning business.

Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2001 edition of Teacher as Technical Difficulties

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