Why I worry about ed tech

Opinion by Austin Block
Feb. 1, 2015, 8:11 p.m.

At Stanford, it’s easy to get excited about the potential for technology to revolutionize education. In recent years, the ed tech industry has grown from almost nothing into a multi-billion dollar industry, with many of its companies centered in Silicon Valley and some of them directly associated with Stanford itself. While Coursera attempts to open up massive open online courses to the world, companies like Knewton work on personalized learning and districts like Los Angeles Unified roll out initiatives to provide iPads for every child.

This column is not about why ed tech is awesome. In fact, it’s mostly the opposite: It describes some of the problems that technology can create in K-12 education. Let me be clear: I’m not a complete cynic about education technology. There are some good ed tech companies out there. For example, I love the way that Palo Alto School District uses a learning management software called Schoology to make it easier for students to keep track of assignments. With time, I do believe that schools will get better at using technology to enhance instruction.

But there are also a lot of unintended consequences that come along with bringing more and more technology into the classroom and into the home. As someone with experience tutoring middle school students in several different programs, I have seen how technology can prove harmful rather than helpful. The following list of concerns stems partially from my own observations and partially from other sources.

  1.     Technology is really distracting. For example, many students I have worked with are allowed to read homework assignments and take notes on an iPad. Although intended to boost student engagement, use of an iPad provides a host of opportunities for procrastination. Instead of reading efficiently and jotting down notes, students find themselves playing with the zoom function, agonizing over which color highlighter to use (so many choices!!!!) and swiping endlessly back and forth between note-taking apps, textbook apps and Internet apps. I have heard from more than one tutor that iPad use makes it harder, not easier, to help students learn. Even if safeguards are put in place to prevent students from going on Facebook or YouTube, the features of the academic applications themselves can lead to endless distraction.
  2.     Content-focused apps often forget who their audiences are (children). There are a lot of apps out there that provide endless streams of math problems at various levels and on a variety of topics. The questions are good, the interface is clear, fun and engaging; plus, when a student gets a problem wrong, there’s a detailed explanation of how to solve the problem. Unfortunately, however, when students sit down to use one of these apps, one of two things tends to happen: Either students avoid challenging themselves and only do problems that they know, or they resort to guessing and don’t read the explanations of the questions they get wrong. Either way, little learning happens. A well-designed app doesn’t change the fact that kids are kids. How many 12-year-olds are going to force themselves to do ever-more challenging problems when they could do the same easy ones over and over again?
  3.    Too many videos, not enough reading. Some new ed tech companies – like BrainPop – seem to focus on video-based learning rather than reading-based learning. While videos are a great way to get students interested and engaged, I fear for students’ reading skills. What happens when something they need to know can’t be found in video form? Will they have the critical reading skills to make meaning of a difficult text?
  4.     Too many screens, not enough books. There is some research that suggests that people who read on screens may comprehend less, skim more and/or get tired more easily. Although there are critics of this research, and although there are also studies that find no significant differences between screen and print reading comprehension, there are enough reputable studies casting doubts on screen-based reading to give us pause. It is in kindergarten through twelfth grade that we teach students the critical reading skills they’ll use for the rest of their lives. When I see students who no longer read any lengthy text on paper, I start to worry.

Before we push technology into every domain of children’s educational lives, we must develop a more robust research base on the effects such technology might have on student learning. Moreover, we must also consider the opportunity cost of education technology. Rather than blindly buying the newest technology (in the case of Los Angeles Unified, for hundreds of millions of dollars), school districts must carefully consider whether or not a particular ed tech investment is more worthwhile than other school improvement efforts. Education technology companies often want us to buy into the narrative that they provide silver bullet solutions to education reform. I’m not yet ready to make that discursive leap of faith.

Contact Austin Block at aeblock ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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