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 My partner had just laughingly told me about how the first out of date and now useless Smartboard showed up in his school's staffroom - the general repository of ed tech junk.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.


  1. Hi Tara,

    I dunno if it's crossed your path, but you might appreciate some of the discussion in => The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains.

    Beyond this point, I think it's also meaningful to highlight that many of these tech-centric solutions are pushed /on/ teachers, not derived /from/ the needs of teachers. It's that same politics of authority I discuss in my thesis. Eerie how often it's applicable ...


  2. Yes, just finished reading it...also an excellent read.

    1. Hi Tara, thank you for bringing up this important issue which many teachers are reluctant to discuss. As parents we question both the cost and the pedagogical value of replacing teachers with iPads. Unfortunately, our concerns are routinely marginalized and silenced by the tidal wave of 21st Century Learning.

      While educational budgets are cut on many fronts, no one (including parents who are taxpayers and "stakeholders") is allowed to question the sacred plans of technological advancement in millions of dollars. No one is allowed to question the cost of purchasing $700/pc iPads, of thousands of wireless routers (along with licensing fees for apps and newer routers' automatic opt-in cloud computing contracts), the cost of energy powering these devices, especially WiFi routers which operate 24/7, the cost of replacements to feed corporations' planned obsolescence which will occur every few years for decades to come, and the cost of health which is incalculable.

      I'm not surprised Mr. Carr said that tech gadgets caused him "a chronic state of distraction". Apart from the the psychological urge to get immediate feedback through the devices and the internet, there is valid physiological reason, when WiFi is used, that leads to inattention, impaired memory, insomnia or other more severe adverse effects to the brain and the body. Please take a look at the two videos below which show the level of "cellular noise" created by wireless equipment. Humans are electromagnetic beings, that's why doctors are able to use EEG to measure brain waves and EKG for the heart. The natural frequency of the human body is about 7.83 Hz. Wirelessly plugging our bodies to WiFi frequencies of 2,400,000,000 and 5,000,000,000 Hz, 24/7, is unnatural and invasive.

      Please hear the Pulsed Microwave of WiFi and iPad Radiation captured on Videos:

      iPad WiFi Radiation with Wireless Router On

      Radiation of iPad with WiFi ON but no Internet Connection

      The European Parliament, the Council of Europe as well as many doctors' groups have been advocating, in recent years, the REDUCTION of electromagnetic radiation in our environment, especially for children, youth, pregnant women and babies.

      In this letter, Dr. Martha Herbert, a Harvard Neurologist who specializes in Pediatric Neurology, explains her research and concern about wireless radiation damaging children's brain function.

      Will SMART kids really be smarter, or dumber?

    2. FYI. Your article was mentioned in this post:
      New Industry-Affiliated Website
      Promotes WiFi in Schools. Denies Health Risks.

  3. It is this influx of this marketing scheme and it's technology toys that will be the undoing of public education. Search blended learning and working conditions and you'll see it's touted a solution to teacher working conditions, the very opposite of what is best for education and learning, building relationships between students and teachers, engaging them personally. Soon this effort to 'reduce working conditions for teachers' will further reduce the number of teachers deemed necessary. With one teacher instructing the online course, only a supervisor is needed in the classroom, not necessarily a teacher. Soon why even bother with a teacher at all, just hire an 'expert,' and save money. The Founder of the Khan Academy suggests already that you don't need a teacher to learn and Districts are using these online tutorials all across the province and bringing in this company to provide in-service in school districts. He thinks your training as teachers is pointless, he doesn't have an education degree and he's teaching kids around the world.

  4. I recently watched part of the LA United Board meetings where industry, administrators and some teachers were pushing for the installation of Wi-Fi across their School District. I couldn't watch further after listening to one defend the need or WiFi because it was felt a miracle solution for those students with ADD. They simply sit down in front of a screen and are mesmerized, instantly 'engaged' in the 'learning,' or so we're told. Yet we know better, this isn't learning and it's certainly not personalized learning.

    Personalized Learning for every student is the absolute ideal and personally I believe strongly in this approach BUT it's impossible in this current climate of cuts, under-funding and push to put students in front of screens instead of what we know works, smaller, well resourced classes.

    With this well versed tech marketing scheme comes the well oiled terms suggesting that education reform requires new teachers well versed in new ways of learning implying that seasoned teachers are like dinosaurs unable to acquire the necessary attention and 'engagement of students if they don't use the new technology. Isn't one of the best predictors of student success the greater years experience a teacher has?

    There are many reasons to question WiFi in schools, from the decrease in interpersonal skills, to the dumbing down of society, to the lack of pre-planning skills kids now find a challenge given their instant lifestyle. The risks of WiFi are another that are affecting more and more students and teachers. There are many health risks beyond the 2B carcinogen reclassified in 2011 by the WHO but shouldn't hat be enough.

    Canada has one of the lowest safety standards in the world and yet we're not using the precautionary principle. Instead many are trusting industries promise that the levels meet Health Canada's dismal standards. Yet only late last month Health Canada's lead researcher admitted in court that safety code 6 doesn't account for non0thermal affects despite assuring parents and schools of this across the provinces. The court transcripts are now available from the Superior Court of Quebec for a fee and by mail. You can read more about it here:

  5. Why, with so little evidence, if any benefit from WiFi and all it's toys is public education further pushing students and those working in the education community to seemingly blindly risk not only their educational outcomes but their health. Oh right, we want to dumb down society, their easier to manage. Yet why risk health? It'll only cost society in the end? Compared with tobacco, wireless technology is following the same path only it's risky 'smoke' is invisible. Already insurance companies aren't insuring technology corporations against health risks. Companies like Fortis BC are hiring Product Defense Companies (Exponent) to defend the wireless capacity of smart meters. Asbestos, Tobacco, Monsanto's and other corporations marketing risk hire these companies to create doubt in the consumer so they con continue to line their pockets not because they're safe for the population. Their mandate is to get the best bottom line for their clients, to keep the bank roll rolling or as long as they can, despite the risks.

    Los Angeles Teacher's Union Passes Resolution to Ensure Safety from Hazardous Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) in Schools including EMF Emissions from Wireless Technology - W.E.E.P. News - March 09, 2013:

    “I move that UTLA will abide by current National NEA Policy for Environmentally Safe Schools which states that all employees and stakeholders should be informed when there are changes in their exposure to environmental hazards including electromagnetic radiation and that all stakeholders and the public should be notified of any actual and potential hazards. UTLA will advocate for technological solutions that maintain technology upgrades while not increasing employees exposure to electromagnetic radiation."

    The BC Education system needs effective technologies, as Dr. Stuart Shanker says "where necessary" and used safely with no risks to either teachers or those involved in education.

  6. Ms. Ehrcke,

    I couldn't agree with you more. As it stands now, technology in school is a distraction, especially when the motive of vendors is to push their wares from a profit point of view.

    True use of technology is not about iPads or smartboards. It has to start from the content side of things.

    WiFi in school could turn out to be a ticking time bomb. There is actually no "safe" threshold on the amount of electro-magnetic radiation. Any guideline is just an arbitrary number.

    Patrick Chun
    CEO, Greenwood Canada
    ESL educational software developer

  7. I can see both sides of this argument. It is definitely a topic that we need to address. One thought, and something that I have used in classrooms, is to recognize, with students, the increased use of technology but in the same breath, discuss the benefits of using technology only when it can meet our information needs - valuing the interpersonal discussions - and not 'buying into' how many apps and games entice us to become preoccupied with technology. I don't think anyone would argue that having information at our fingertips hasn't improved learning and that being able to access worldwide information and opinions doesn't increase our sense of global responsibility. Preparing our students to examine the role of technology in their lives is a discussion that all teachers and parents can have with their children.

  8. Hi Tara,

    Without addressing the ongoing conversation of the safety of wireless technology, I wanted to offer some counterpoint to the idea that we should resist all forms of educational technology in our schools if we want to uphold our responsibility to the public trust.

    While I might share many of your concerns about marketing and commodification making their way into modern classrooms, resisting digital technology of all stripes would see schools ceding valuable territory in the struggle for modern democracy that is occurring more and more on the open web. The literacies that attend web communication - including elements of self-regulation / 'attention-literacy,' visual and design-related presentation and communication skills, as well as data ownership, privacy - are increasingly vital to an education system that hopes to prepare students to resist the more malignant elements of digital technology and retain their ability to seek out and create individual voice in society. Like prohibition left the booze business to organized crime, creating schools that ignore the web as a forum for democratic participation help enable the corporate takeover of what little remains of digital 'public space'.

    Your own blog, for example, which is the personification of this exercise in democratic voice, is hosted by Google; we do ourselves and our students a disservice by not seeking out experience in ensuring autonomy and agency over our own and our students' web footprints.

    Someone whose work I've found inspiring in his drive to maintain individual freedom and public trust on the open web is Dr. Gardner Cambell, who wrote the influential essay, "A Personal Cyberinfrastructure," in which he argues that students should be provided with an education where they learn how to become their own systems administrators:

    Gardner's talk, "Teaching, Learning & the Digital Imagination," also might help frame the pursuit of the digital humanities as part of a developing liberal arts education:

    I fully agree that there is a lot of corporate profiteering masquerading as educational necessity, and we need to be aware as educators of not only these perils, but the possibility which exists on the open web as well. Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) is someone who does an incredible service in keeping up with developments in K12 and higher education along these lines, and whose work I think you (and your readers) would appreciate. She blogs at:

    I think our schools should provide many of the experiences you are calling for above, but also believe that the diversity of perspectives teaching professionals bring into the learning environment help shape the future healthily, empathetically, and democratically. As someone who feels as though I am fighting for the same sort of school system advocated here, I wanted to offer some of what underpins my belief that digital technology does have a place in our classrooms, and that this place doesn't necessarily denote a 'corporate takeover' of any sort.

    On the contrary, technology is in my classroom so that my students (whose lives are suffused in technology whether I limit its exposure or not) venture onto the web with their eyes open to both the peril, and the possibility of digital public space.

    Enjoy your spring break,


  9. Hi Bryan, I think the one point where we may disagree is that I see a *connection* between the profiteers and others that can be unhealthy if it is not recognized. Yes, there are many teachers who use IT in their classrooms for genuine, worthwhile reasons. I am one of them. But when teachers start to jump on the bandwagon (sometimes just because they are excited about what they are doing, but sometimes for the purpose of personal career advancement) they go from using tech for their own teaching to advocating tech. Thus the profiteers exploit teachers to assist in advocating for change that in the long run is not healthy for schools and children. When this happens with district administrators and Ministry officials and university professors, these people become "internal validators" - lending justification for the vacuous arguments of the tech companies.

    When I say "resist", I don't necessarily mean "ban" (although that certainly might make sense in some circumstances). I mean think critically about whether the introduction of a new technology should or should not be adopted. Who wants it and why? In other words, do not capitulate to the vapid arguments of "it is there, so we have to use it", "it is there, so it is coming anyway", "they use it in life, so we have to in school", "they will use it at work, so we have to in school". None of these are good arguments.

    When considering whether or not to adopt new technologies, we also have to look at the bigger picture, including what gets removed...because every time something new arrives, something else goes. So, it is perfectly sensible to consider the overall screen time of children and consider whether or not any more screen time should take place in school. Or to consider whether we want wireless turned on all day so that kids can use their devices during recess, when that very well might displace f2f and exercise. Or to consider the degree to which "collaboration" with technology replaces reading books, and the impact that has on learning and thinking (suggest here Proust & the Squid...and In the Shallows...very good introductions to the effect of technology on the reading brain, what is lost...).

    I don't disagree with teaching digital literacy (although perhaps for different reasons than you...I think the "democracy" of the internet is largely a myth, but I do think kids should understand how the machines around them work), but that is very different than infusing teaching with technology or using technology for teaching and learning other subject areas.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments - Tara

  10. Hi Tara,

    First off, truce. If I need to hold out a white flag here then please consider this to be one :).

    As a parent, I truly appreciate there are people like you and Tobey who are taking a very critical look at the role of technology in our schools. I agree with much of what you write and speak about - corporate agendas, the desire for quick fixes, the motivations for why we need technology in our schools, distractions - these are all incredibly valuable and important conversations for educators and parents to have.

    Technology is a tool that can be used well and can be used poorly. I am a Neil Postman fan and agree with him when he speaks about technology not as an either/or, but a this and that. There are tradeoffs, concessions and difficult discussions to have. What do we keep and what do we replace? Does this change the way we do things? How? What part is good and what part is bad?

    I agree with Bryan here that this issue of what role technology plays in our classrooms is vitally important to creating digital citizens of the future who can operate in the world and act with agency and autonomy. Who can change & challenge (or at least have the skills to deal with) the very things about our world that we both want to see changed. There are a myriad of reasons to keep technology out of the classroom - all valid.

    But keeping it out only means we do not work to find solutions to those problems. We hid them. Worse, we don't help our kids find solutions to their problems. How can they be expected to deal with making correct choices about issues like information overload and critical media literacy if they are not engaging in real and authentic ways with these issues?

    I worry that we underestimate the internet and that we are not doing enough to teach our kids how to thoughtfully and deliberately engage with it. To take control of it. To even realize that they can take control of it.

    We are letting the technology agenda be written by the corporations, by the entertainment industry, by the publishing companies when we enact policies that pretend the internet doesn't exist and hides it away from our kids. We are not preparing our kids to carry on the kinds of fights and deeply critical analysis we both want. We are not teaching them that the internet is THEIRS and THEY own it and THEY can control it. In a world where our kids are not taught how to take control and use the internet as a learning tool, Perez Hilton wins. And that frightens me a helluva lot more than wifi.

    With respect,
    Clint Lalonde