How not to promote technology in teaching: An open letter

How not to promote technology in teaching: An open letter

The following is an open letter to all those who, like me, love to use technology in teaching; see the great promise of using technology to improve student learning; and actively promote the use of technology in higher education.

Dear fellow educational technology proponent/enthusiast:

I think we need to talk about how our enthusiasm for technology in education can go too far sometimes.

In the last 24 hours, I've seen two cases where people, presumably involved with education, have expressed views about technology that are so strident that the only way to explain it is that they've been burned at some point in the past by possibly well-intentioned people who promote the use of technology in teaching, whose enthusiasm crossed the line into zealotry. Are you and I the zealots, sometimes? That's what I'd like to think about with you.

First: I was over at the Chronicle yesterday reading the latest re:Learning post when I saw results from a survey for new article ideas. Check out the highlighted question that "Anonymous" submitted:

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When you see a topic like this being proposed and upvoted, you are looking at a substantial group of people who are sick of being evangelized. That notion that technology solves all problems in education, of course, is preposterous. Nobody really believes this. But sometimes, people can act as if they believe this. And when people act this way, and they are in positions of authority to write or make policy about education, you get a pervasive sense of evangelism that in an average-case scenario produces resentment and closed minds among the very people who might make the most use of the ideas that we have.

Yes, I said "we". We can all fall into this evangelistic trap, putting systems and tools before students and learning outcomes. I've certainly done it. I've gone into a class with a particular tech tool in mind, searching for a problem to solve with it -- a hammer in search of a nail -- rather than thinking carefully about the exact pedagogical issues in my class, and -- even worse -- without thinking about the people in my class and what their needs are for each one of them. You can guess how that turned out. We've all been there. But I wonder sometimes how hard we try not to get there in the first place.

The second thing I saw yesterday was this: A colleague forwarded this post from a guest at Diane Ravitch's blog. The post is not blatantly anti-technology. Rather it is passively anti-technology. Take this quote:

Without exception, [current offerings in mathematical software] are designed to take over a teachers’ job by distorting what math education is supposed to be. Kids, and that includes my daughter in 10th grade and my college freshman son, learn to press buttons, do calculations, enter solutions online with cumbersome interfaces instead of learning real math -- math that would be useful and interesting for them.

In the comments, I pushed back by claiming that the author is offering a false choice between great teaching on the one hand and technology on the other. The real measure of a great mathematics class, I countered, isn't teaching per se but rather the learning environment in the course. And technology can be selected judiciously and used intelligently to dramatically improve the learning environment of a math course. It's both/and not either/or.

But I stopped arguing in the comments after a while, because it quickly became unenlightening. There is an impasse between the author and I that won't be bridged in a blog post, and it has to do with the phrase "selected judiciously and used intelligently". When people hear educational technology enthusiasts -- people like you and me -- act as if they think that technology is the solution to all educational problems, the message is not one of judicious selection and intelligent use. And so even smart people can adopt an attitude toward technology that's like the attitudes people had toward computers and automation in the 1980's -- that humanity itself is being supplanted by machines, and people like us (as well as principals, Deans, etc. who have power to make institutional decisions) are just the mindless shock troops of those machines.

You and I see technology as a powerfully humanizing force, a means of restoring and extending the humanity of students. The others see technology as a dehumanizing force that kills "real education". This is a serious problem if we really want to improve education and student learning and students' lives.

So what can we do about it? I'd like to suggest three things.

  1. Adopt skepticism. We know that no technology is perfect, and not all educational problems are solved with technology. Let's be consistently realistic about this. Whenever we review a piece of technology, let's give a fair amount of time to its drawbacks and limitations -- what it will not do, or what it does not do well, and what its limitations are. Please, no more of these "My 99 Favorite iPad Apps" posts or conference talks. Let's appreciate and enjoy technology without being married to it.
  2. Lead with relationships, not with technology. The real center of education is relationships: Relationships between people, between ideas, and between people and ideas. Technology is useful in teaching and learning only to the extent that it enables those relationships, and this is the way we ought to be framing the use of technology in teaching. I use SageMath Cloud in discrete mathematics because it better enables my students to perceive mathematical relationships in discrete structures, rather than I use it because it's free and awesome. (Even though SMC is both free and awesome.)
  3. Seek minimalism when it comes to technological answers to educational problems. Develop an affinity for simple, cheap/free, low-footprint tools that don't demand too much from people as your go-to selections for technology in education. And help others to do the same. Always ask: What is the simplest, cheapest, smallest kind of technology that will help resolve the educational problem I am facing? And if there is no simple, cheap, low-footprint answer to that question... walk away. No technology at all is better than technology you constantly have to work against.

It's a pretty exciting time to be in education and to love technology. The possibilities are great! But the dangers are just as great that we can be over-enthusiastic and end up doing more harm than good. I need to hear this message as much as anybody! So let's all be mindful together as we move forward.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.