ELTM8: It’s Not All Good; Be Careful

“This new technology is going to revolutionize education. Recent research has shown that classrooms in which out shiny gizmo was deployed significantly outperform those in the rest of their district. So, don’t settle for mediocrity. Join the legions of progressive administrators who insist that the district acquire gizmos for all of the classrooms. After all this is about the future of our children.”

Right. Guess who paid for that research. Notice that “significant” is neither quantified nor defined. Do you suppose that the school in question was a high performing one anyway? Are you really foolish enough to join the bandwagon…just because? Oh, and it’s not about the future of the children but, rather, about the fortunes of the stockholders, isn’t it?

Let’s be blunt: Educational technologies have had many failures. Hordes of items have come and gone. Some have been total wastes of time, products foisted upon a somewhat naive audience by cunning, aggressive and well-connected sales organizations; products that came with great promise of improvement but which left little by way of returns other than disillusioned users, cynical publics and depleted budgets.

Still others failed for reasons that were much more complex. Perhaps the concept was sound but hardware speeds were not sufficient and the result was sluggish, hard-to-use, and unreliable. Perhaps insufficient training was given and, so, users never got the opportunity to fully realize the benefits.

Perhaps, as is sometimes the case, the world was just not ready.

Take a look at the image below and see how many “things” you recognize. Look closely, though, at the image map. The items have several things in common, including the fact that all were carefully designed and were introduced to their various markets with a sense that they would have a significant impact. You will probably recognize many of them but if not, go ahead and hover (if you are using a PC; it won’t work for a ‘phone or tablet) to get the name or click on any image to obtain some background info. (As an aside here, heartfelt thanks go out to the developers of the image map HTML generator housed over on mobilefish; getting it done on WordPress would have been wretchedly complicated.) 

click map

Apple Newton Skinner's Teaching Machine Betamax Microsoft Bob IBM PC Jr. OS/2 QR Code Laser Disc Apple Lisa Pressey Machine

Here’s the big thing they all have in common: they were economic and educational failures. Despite good–in some cases brilliant–designs and well-organized marketing strategies none of them proved to be successful in the marketplace. Of course many of them—most notably Apple’s Lisa and Newton—ultimately proved to be the inspiration for hugely successful and useful products (the Mac and tablets, respectively) but that’s not the point right now.

What, exactly is the point? This: Corporations know that education comprises a huge market and they therefore expend enormous resources in marketing what they term “Educational Technology” in the forms of products and services to all facets of the education market. While many of the products are truly useful it’s important to be wary of the fact that many of the items are based on two flawed strategies:

  • Technologies intended for one purpose can be modified and can be shown to be of some benefit elsewhere. Examples: (good) word processors intended for business can be shown to be effective as classroom writing tools too (questionable) classroom audio systems intended for use with hard-of-hearing students, or for teachers with relevant health issues, are marketed to all classrooms because it ‘saves the teacher’s voice.’ There’s also just plain dumb. Remember “thin client” computers for the classroom, at a time when networks just could not handle the load?
  • Invented Applications. For example, commercial classroom TV that includes targeted ads is supposed to be, at least according to its vendors, a “must have,” else students won’t have access to quality video. Yeah, right. Ever hear of the Internet?

To the casual observer this may seem laughable, ludicrous even. The humour is lost, however on those of us who have had to suffer the consequences of it. Not only are bad decisions regarding educational technology wasteful but also they are frustrating to the users. Worse again, the time spent mucking around trying to make them work has a deleterious effect on morale and on achievement. How ironic.

So what’s the solution? For once the answer is fairly straightforward and in two parts:

First, remember it’s never about the technology. It is, rather, about the learning outcomes. Always focus on those and the right equipment and methods are much easier to spot.

Second, follow transparency guidelines. DO NOT allow the decision making and purchasing power to rest more or less in secret with a single individual or even with a small, closed group. Encourage discussion and debate prior to decision making.  Ensure that proper requests for proposals or tenders are used to procure equipment. In this way, enough voices (especially the dissenting ones who often ask the right questions) will be heard to ensure that the best possible choices are made.

You’ll get more on this later in the series.

Next: Hey, this series, while striving for balance and truth, is predicated on the notion that Educational Technology is generally a positive thing. Now that you’ve been warned, again, that it’s not all good (you were warned before), let’s move on to more positive things.

6 thoughts on “ELTM8: It’s Not All Good; Be Careful

  1. Boy, you’ve hit a nerve with this one Maurice. I remember all of these ‘innovations.’ Thanks for making me feel pretty darn old! I like the honesty with which you’ve dissected the problem here … and it’s a believable dissection because you experienced these failed technologies, first hand. My department recently moved into a new building and the change of address required that the faculty go down to what we call the ‘cave’ (in the old building) to take a look to see what we may have had in long term storage down there. Although I knew I didn’t have anything there I was required to take a few minutes to go down to make sure. As I strolled the aisles I chuckled on more than one occasion to see what had, in times long ago now, passed for ‘cutting edge’ classroom technologies and ‘innovative’ teaching tools. What were we thinking? The answer to that question is … we weren’t really. Or at least not thoroughly enough. You are correct in pointing out that many of these failed experiments were foisted upon us because the ‘higher ups’ were sold a bill-of-goods … they got the hard sell and figured if ‘everyone was doing it,’ we should be too. Your call for discussion and debate before making such purchases is a good one … but it usually falls up deaf ears. I’m very much looking forward to your next installment. D PS: Where are you finding time to put together these thoughtful essays … given the consulting work you’re supposed to be dedicating yourself to? PPS: I hope you’re doing AOK in this weather. Although ours probably can’t compare with yours … we’re predicted to be near -5F overnight … brrrr.

    1. Yes, indeed more than our share of false starts…and it will keep happening I suppose.
      As for the time to write these posts, I’m at a standstill waiting for another component to be ready so I can get on with my part of work. Been stalled since Dec. 18th. I may take on another job in the meantime but did tell the current guys that they’d be a priority. Bit of a conundrum but I suppose that’s part of being a contractor; got to learn to juggle jobs and handle unexpected downtime.
      I do have the next 6 articles ready to go, and the remainder in draft, by the way, but don’t like posting too often. With that in mind I notice that my readership is dropping way off–the eLearning stuff is not all that ‘popular.’
      As for the temperatures, I think we’ve been about the same, except for today, which has been unseasonably warm. It’s going back down now, though.

    1. We had a day that probably rivals yours for temperatures. It got as high as +9 today. Back to zero again and heading for -6 tonight; more our “normal.” At least it looks like the electricity is stabilized again…for now.

  2. Great – and I think this can be translated 1:1 to the adoption of technology in the corporate world. Buying into the promises of immature “innovative” technologies is called “vendor-lock-in” – even if the technology turns out as not-really-working you cannot ditch and replace it immediately due to technical and contractual reasons.

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