Saturday, March 9, 2013

Why educators should resist educational technology

I sat down earlier this week to write a blog post and I had a catchy title in mind: "iPads in the Classroom: Deja vu all over again". I had just read an article tweeted to me by my friend Tobey Steeves that appeared in the Atlantic in the mid-1990's. The article is called "The Computer Delusion" and I would recommend it (

It begins with a short history lesson on past technological advances meant to revolutionize teaching, learning and schools, like television. And how these did nothing of the sort. And I thought, yes, just like the current crop of fad technologies: Smartboards, iPads, MOOCs. My partner had just laughingly told me about how the first out of date and now useless Smartboard showed up in his school's staffroom - the general repository of ed tech junk.

But the more I think about it, the less I think it is the same all over again.

It is very true that since schooling and technology there has been technology in schools. Some technology is very helpful. Some does genuinely change the way we teach and learn, a little bit. And lots gets left in the dust bins of staff rooms for a whole variety of reasons well articulated in The Computer Delusion.

However, just like everything else in society lately, what is different now is not the perpetual change and the perpetual adoption of change before there is evidence to support the change. What is different is the pace of change. Things are happening so fast no-one has time to even reflect on what went wrong.

In Education Week an article on educational technology happily examined "adaptive content". "What if, for example, we designed MOOCs (massive online courses) that, when illustrating a principle during a lecture, could use examples which were designed for the student's context? After all, most online communities already require members to fill in their age, location, etc. Or, if we had webcams that would interpret student's emotions and speed up / slow down a lecture/provide more illustrations/segue to an activity as needed. This technology, in fact, is already used by marketing companies to score consumer's reactions to their products online by reading their facial expressions via webcam, instead of written/multiple-choice feedback."

I don't know about you, but that creeps me out on a lot of different levels. Learning as social activity? No.  Learning to broaden your horizens? No. Learning without privacy intrusions? No. But from one point of view, why not, if that is the fastest and cheapest way to make human beings learn and fast and cheap are the criteria?

About five years ago I was teaching Information Technology and one of the classes I taught was game design. A researcher from the local university came to study my class, interested in how "gamification" related to learning. I didn't think all that much of it at the time, but am starting to see that educational technology is no longer just about tools to enhance learning, but rather the insertion of some of the most disturbing aspects of marketing into the previously (somewhat) protected world of schools and childhood.

Joel Bakan has written an excellent book called "Childhood under siege". In it he examines some of the ways that marketers have used their techniques to sell toys, create addictive games, and market pharmaceuticals to children. It is disturbing. Those same trends are evident in the pitch to change teaching and learning with technology.

One of the words that really bothers me right now is "engagement". It is so trendy. You can't have a conversation or read an article about education without encountering it. But what does it really mean?

Learning is hard. And learning hard things is harder. Learning also is often uncomfortable. And sometimes it is boring. Anyone who has learned to play the violin knows that it takes at least 10,000 hours of often repetitive practice that sounds bad. There is no shortcut. You can play with others, play pieces you like, and perform. These all make it more fun. And you hopefully learn along the way that the practice is worth it. And this is what motivates you to practice more.

What the educational technology companies are pushing is "engaged" learning as a short cut. But it won't work. It won't engage. It won't teach better.

First off, much of what passes for educational technology these days is really modified consumer electronics. iPads, iPhones...these are consumer devices, not educational tools.

Apps and games are designed to addict, not engage. I find apps the most disturbing...the most simplistic human reaction - just touching it - gives you a reward and a little hit of dopamine. You keep playing. Or checking your email. Or your twitter feed. It is this very feature of apps that make them appealing to two year olds. Playing on an iPad is more fun than learning to walk. Why? It is easier. You learn less (if anything at all). That is why they have temper tantrums when you take the iPad away.

Sherry Turkle, in her book "Alone Together", considers the touted advantage of "multitasking" with technology. "When psychologists study multitasking, they do not find a story of new efficiencies. Rather, multitaskers don't perform as well on any of the tasks they are attempting. But multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking "high". The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive. In search of the high, they want to do even more. In the years ahead, there will be a lot to sort out. We fell in love with what technology made easy. Our bodies colluded."

App development and consumer electronics are not designed for optimal learning. They are designed for optimal addiction. Very, very clever marketing people put their minds to this. They use everything we know about human psychology. Online pets die for a reason, as Joel Bakan explains in his book. The reason is to cause fear and worry in the child who must return to the program to feed it.

My daughter is 13 years old, and I look around and am thankful I didn't have to keep iPads away from her. How did this happen so fast? She's not even grown up, and already childhood is different, and not for the better. This year in our school District, Wifi will be available to every child in every high school. Why? I don't know. So they can watch youtube at lunch hour instead of hang out with their friends? Respond to their text messages? Check their Facebook? Is it *necessary* or even *beneficial* for learning? I've yet to hear a good reason.

We didn't use to have think about the precautionary principle in education. The popular myth had it that the pendulum would always swing back the other way, protecting us from fads and political interference. But this myth is just that - a myth. For twenty years, from a computer in every classroom to massive online learning, technology companies have become more and more sophisticated at pushing their product. We need to resist before it is too late.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Will School Board budget woes lead to more inequity and privatization?

The news from the province for School Boards in BC was another disappointment. A "no increase" budget combined with inflation, rising pension costs, PST conversions costs and ten years of chronic under-funding means another round of cuts, layoffs, school closures and reduced services.

Not surprisingly, amid these budget woes, some turn to the private or "choice" options. Parents turn to private schools who can offer class sizes of 10 - 20 while public schools are double this number. Or if they can't afford it, but they can drive across town and pay student fees, they look for the "programs of choice" that segregate the more affluent public school families into particular schools and particular programs. This week's Fraser Institute rankings showed pretty clearly the growing socio-economic divisions in BC schools. Unsurprisingly, private schools topped the lists, where classes are small and resources are high. Next came the schools of choice and schools in wealthier Districts and neighborhoods. Last on the list are the "inner city schools" - where poverty is often at crisis levels. Rather than being the great equalizer, schools in a world of parent "choice" serve to further stratify and segregate students. Growing inequality just keeps growing.

Just as disturbing is the trend towards privatization by some in the education community. More and more school districts are looking towards fees, fundraising, fee-based international student programs and even public/private partnerships as a way to make up for woefully inadequate public funds.

One example is found in a public survey put together by the Maple Ridge school District ( In it they ask if there is community support for the following:

  • Increase or introduce fees for optional programs (e.g. academies, band, bussing)
  • Promote public private partnerships 
  • Should the school district pursue public - private partnership opportunities in any of the following areas? Advertising, playgrounds, sponsorships, naming of facilities 
Or, they ask, should they increase class sizes, reduce special education teachers/assistants, or close schools.

What a false dichotomy! It is unfortunate that Maple Ridge has even posed these questions. The clear answer is to re-invest in public education through adequate public funding. The way there is through advocacy and communities and elected officials working together to pressure the provincial government to do so. If Maple Ridge and every other District facing funding shortfalls had joined with Cowichan to submit a deficit budget based on the genuine needs of the school district, perhaps the education budget today would look different.

Chronic under-funding is not just about money. The current Liberal government has pursued this manufactured "crisis" to lend legitimacy to private options. But this path has only one end - quality schooling for the few, and ghetto-ized schools for the many. Rather than follow this dead end, I hope Trustees and others in the education world will take the opportunity of the coming provincial election and the coming District budget cycle to stand up and speak up for public education.