Feb 04

Technology not always effective in teaching

There are two kinds of fools:
one says, “This is old, therefore it is good”;
the other says, “This is new, therefore it is better”.
– William R. Inge
– Author, Priest and Cambridge Professor (1860 – 1954)

This is one of my favourite quotes.  I saw it on a professor’s door once, and it has always stuck with me.   It speaks of two different types of thinking, neither of which is intelligent or wise (though both of which may have an appearance of such).  The first speaks of doing things the way they have always been done.  Phrases like “it worked for me, it will work for them”, and “don’t change what aint broken” come to mind.  This concept hinges on the idea that just having done something a certain way in the past makes it a good way to do it, clearly a fallacy.  The second type speaks of changing how things are done and being new and exciting, just for the sake of being new and exciting.  Suggestions like “the old way is boring” and “this new technique will really get people excited!” can be thought of here.  This concept hinges on the idea that just because we have a new way to do something, it must be better than what is currently done, clearly another fallacy.

This concept quote heavily to education.  In education today, there are many people who just want to do it like it has always been done.  Things may not be perfect, but along the way decisions have been made to do X, Y, and Z for very good reasons, and changing them would cause more harm than good.  On the other hand, there are many who tote that the education system of today is deeply and seriously flawed, and we need to completely throw it out and start from scratch — brand new and shiny…with Technology!  For this reason, technology can get put at the front of this movement of people going for change, both by those in favour of the change, and by those not in favour of the change.  For instance, those wanting change will say things like “Today’s kids need to learn the technologies they will work on when they grow up!” and “Technology today can revolutionize the way we teach!”.  On the other hand, those who don’t want change can also put Technology use at the forefront suggesting things such as “Trying to put Technology into education is like trying to put a square peg in a round hole: it just doesn’t work”, or “Just because it’s the fad today, don’t ruin our schools by changing the curriculum around it!”.

As a mathematician, I strive to see past such biases – to seek the truth beyond all else (not at all an easy task!).  As a teacher, with regards to technology in education, I seek to know the truth of how useful it is; how much it motivates students; how much it helps students learn. The key is to be open minded enough to let in all good ideas, and closed minded enough to keep out all bad ones.

Today I came across an article of a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, suggesting essentially that  Technology in schools is more trouble than it’s worth.  He makes essentially three major points:

  1. technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools);
  2. that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and
  3. that quality education doesn’t require information technology.

Some interesting points!  He goes on to provide some good evidence throughout the article.  This brings to the forefront how important analyzing results are.  Using Twitter in the classroom is only good if it is good.  Using a forum for the class or using a blog is only good to do if it is helpful.  Technology may increase motivation (and if it does, then DO IT!).  But, could it ever decrease motivation?  Any technology that decreases motivation should likely be immediately scrapped!

So how do we tell?  How do we evaluate any given technology?  The question is similar to the question of how should teachers be evaluated?  By grades of their students?  No, certainly not.  Even if teachers could be held responsible for their students learning and understanding what is being taught, setting standards based on this would (and have) result in simply the lowering of the standard to increase perceived student comprehension.  At this point in my life, I don’t know what a good evaluation method of a teacher is, and in the same way, I can’t really come up with a good evaluation of using technology for education.

Any and all comments would be appreciated!



  1. Jaison Oliver

    All technology is not created equal. We have to really start to look with a critical eye at what is effective in classrooms and really having a positive impact on student learning.

    Throwing SMART Boards in the classroom without any training usually means that there won’t be much benefit. Certainly something like twitter which wasn’t designed with any educational use in mind could easily lead a student astray.

    Qualitative and quantitative results are essential and we really need to start holding these supposed edtech companies/organizations responsible.

    1. admin


      Thanks for the comments! You are absolutely right that a SMART board in a classroom can be a complete waste of money if there is no training (and they are CRAZY expensive).

      So the question is what do we do? How do we make an educated choice on which technologies to use, and, when we do, how do we determine afterwards if they were efficient/useful/supportive/motivating at all?


  2. Tim "eqdw" Herd

    Your post is too big to reasonably reply to at work, so I’m going to try and sum up my thoughts by replying to the 3-point list

    1) technology in education has a poor historical record; that computers in schools typically fail to have positive impact (with the rare exceptions occurring only in the context of competent, well-funded schools);

    I think this is a fair assessment. We’re seeing a similar thing in software development now, as most peoples’ personal computers outperform the computers provided for them at various places. What software shops are doing these days is encouraging or even requiring employees to provide their own machines. It’s really difficult (financially) to keep IT infrastructure up to date in the education system, and when students are constantly being pressured to use out of date equipment in a school context, it ends up being ineffective

    2) that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and

    it rarely is. To stay up to date with equipment is very expensive. At any given time, an average (ie not cutting-edge) workstation costs about $500-$800, and needs to be upgraded every few years. To maintain a computer lab of 20, 30 machines, it’s about $20k every three years. This is not a trivial cost for many students, especially in junior high / highschool. If nothing else, this money could be better spent (in my opinion) on up-to-date textbooks. This has a proven benefit; many public school systems in asia supply textbooks to students AND LET THEM KEEP THEM. If students are allowed to keep textbooks, it becomes less of something-they’re-forced-to-use and more of soemthing they have the awesome opportunity to read.

    3) that quality education doesn’t require information technology.

    Not much to say on that. I think it is true. To pull an example from CS: I think that Michael Zapp was one of the best professors in the program, and his teaching technology was an overhead projector. Sometimes the whiteboard. Of course, sometimes the technology definitely improves things. Mike Domaratzki and Terry Andres both relied heavily on powerpoint, and I feel their presentations were better for it. Ultimately, quality education depends on the educator. Throwing tech at a bad teacher doesn’t fix the problem.

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