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Shaun Johnson Headshot

Let's Get to the Bottom of #Edtech Hysteria

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I taught summer school for four weeks without any technology. Not willingly, per se. But the charter school in which I've taught the last three summers simply didn't have any available in this particular classroom. I didn't make a big deal out of it. I checked out a ton of library books, had reams of chart paper on hand and buckets of markers. We were all set.

As an educator, I'm certainly not averse to the use of educational technology. I incorporate at the college-level blogs, Twitter, podcasts, and other software tools. I use an iPad to write up all of my observations of student teachers. And I've used interactive whiteboards extensively in my college courses and in prior years of summer school teaching. No big deal.

I'm also very appreciative the ways educational technologies have enhanced what educators like myself do in and out of the classroom. Social learning sites and blogs have been important to my personal intellectual growth, and that of my students. I enjoy creating media for my professional life and for students. Countless resources are available to enhance the educational experience.

There's another side to all of this excitement over the latest and greatest ideas in #edtech that are visible once you step outside and see the forest for the trees (I use the hashtag "#edtech" in deference to the lively discussions on the subject via Twitter). The workplace has had an interesting relationship with technology over the last several decades, not all of it good. Some technological innovations, while increasing productivity, have displaced workers and eliminated jobs. In other ways, technologies have de-skilled once highly skilled labor, like some forms of manufacturing. This potentially depresses wages for what were at one point very comfortable middle-class occupations. It might also invalidate the need for human capital altogether.

There's an underlying "disruptive" strain to #edtech that is, from my perspective, disconcerting. It seems that certain proponents of #edtech are pushing technology in order to completely "teacher-proof" the classroom. That is, altogether remove teacher judgment and autonomy from the equation. Let us not pretend that this is something new; we've seen this before with "programmed instruction." Sure, the technologies are more sophisticated, but the intentions are similar.

Take "flipping" the classroom, for example. There is no substantial body of evidence indicating that this concept is remotely effective. Yet, the priests of #edtech see this as the perfect solution: eliminate the need for educators to possess sophisticated content knowledge and disallow them any control over how it is presented. Deliver content through a virtual warehouse of videos, easily produced, and cheaply disseminated. The professional educator then assumes the role of "facilitator." Take content or curriculum developer and pedagogue out of their skillset.

Here's another quick example: assessment. According to many in the policy community, educators' evaluative skills are not up to snuff. They are very ineffective at creating assessments numerically palatable to folks who'd rather not mess around in schools themselves. They'd rather judge performance on a dashboard from afar in the comfort of an office cubicle. The solution then is to create a very expensive set of new standards and compel professional educators to adhere to them lock, stock, and barrel. Roll out annual assessments and then a panoply of mid-range and formative benchmarks to ensure that everyone's on track. The #edtech component makes this all cheap and efficient: everyone takes the assessments on a computer and the precious is collected, evaluated, and analyzed from a distance. Take assessment expertise and evaluation out of the teacher skillset.

What's left? Not a whole lot. If we continue eliminating the carefully crafted skills that make education and teaching complicated professions, putting certain skills into the electronic hands of computers and software, then all classroom teachers simply become interchangeable parts in the educational process. The training and expertise required of educators becomes less sophisticated, cheaper, and faster. The benefits of a well-trained and adequately compensated workforce withers away in favor of underpaid, but ultimately cheaper, placeholders whose youthful energies can be exploited for a year or two before a fresh crop arrives on scene. Rinse and repeat.

I'm not saying we should stop developing new #edtech ideas or that some well-meaning developers are out there actually trying to improve teacher practice. Hiding within this current of enthusiasm for the latest #edtech gadgetry are those that see technology as a way to "sterilize" the classroom, putting quality control and standardization above all else.