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Bursting the 9 Myths of Computing Technology in Education

By Kentaro Toyama on January 28, 2011

olpc in peru

I am Kentaro Toyama, and in the Educational Technology Debate post, There Are No Technology Shortcuts to Good Education, I’ve argued that 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); that information technology is almost never worth its opportunity cost; and that quality education doesn’t require information technology.

Though I only presented a smattering of the evidence in the post, the conclusions are clear. Put together, the strong recommendation is that underperforming school systems should keep their focus on improving teaching and administration, and that even good schools may want to consider more cost-effective alternatives to technology when making supplementary educational investments.

Unfortunately, all of this evidence doesn’t provide the gut intuition required to reject seductive rhetoric. So, below is a point-by-point refutation of frequently heard sound bites extolling technology in schools.

The 9 Myths of ICT in Education

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 1: 21st-century skills require 21st-century technologies. The modern world uses e-mail, PowerPoint, and filing systems. Computers teach you those skills.

Reality: This is bad reasoning of the kind that, hopefully, genuine 21st-century skills wouldn’t allow. What exactly are the “21st-century skills” that successful citizens need? Some people define them as the 3 Rs and the 4 Cs (critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity). But, aren’t these the same as 20th-century skills? The skills haven’t changed; only the proportion of people requiring them.

Of course, the tools that people use at work and at home have changed, but the use of these tools is easy to learn compared with the deep ability to think and work effectively. As far as I know, not in the 500+ years since Gutenberg invented the printing press did anyone suggest that every school, to say nothing of every student, needed a mini-printing press to learn printing skills. (From the 1960s through the 1990s, schools incorporated typing half-heartedly into their curricula, but even that was relegated to a one-year elective.)

Today, any idiot can learn to use Twitter. But, forming and articulating a cogent argument in any medium – SMS text messages, PowerPoint, e-mails, or otherwise – requires good thinking, writing, and communication skills. Those skills might be channeled through technology, but they hardly require technology to acquire. Similarly, any fool can learn to “use” a computer. But, the underlying math required to do financial accounting or engineering requires solid mathematical preparation that requires working through problem sets – Einstein didn’t grow up with computers, but modern physics would be delighted to have more Einsteins.

We need to distinguish between the need to learn the tools of modern life (easy to pick up, and getting easier by the day, thanks to better technology!) and learning the critical thinking skills that make a person productive in an information economy (hard to learn, and not really any easier with information technology). Based on my own experience trying to teach undereducated English-speaking adults how to use Google, I’m quite certain that what limited their ability to capitalize on the Internet was reading comprehension and critical thinking skills, not computer literacy skills.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 2: Technology X allows interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, [insert educational flavor of the month (EFotM) here] learning.

Reality: All of that may be true, but without directed motivation of the student, no sustained learning actually happens, with or without technology. Good teachers are interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, and capable of EFotM, but on top of all of that, they are also capable of something that no technology for the foreseeable future can do: generate ongoing motivation in students. If education only required an interactive, adaptive, constructivist, student-centered, EFotM medium, then the combination of an Erector Set and an encyclopedia ought to be sufficient for education.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 3: But, wait, it’s still easier for teachers to arouse interest with technology X than with textbooks.

Reality: Maybe a little bit at first. But, the novelty factor of most technologies quickly wears off, and those which don’t tend to turn viewers into zombies rather than engaged learners.
In addition, this comment is a real insult to good teachers everywhere. Good teachers are exactly those who can engage students creatively, regardless of the aids available to them. Technology might amplify the impact of good teachers, but it won’t fix bad teaching.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 4: Teachers are expensive. It’s exactly because teachers are absent or poorly trained that low-cost technology is a good alternative.

Reality: Low-cost technologies are not so low cost when total cost of ownership is taken into account and put in the economic context of low-income schools. Furthermore, technology cannot fix broken educational systems. If teachers are absent or poorly trained, the only proper solution is to invest in better teachers, better training, and better administration… even if it’s expensive. As they say in KIPP schools, there are no shortcuts!

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 5: Textbooks are expensive. For the price of a couple of textbooks, you might as well get a low-cost PC.

Reality: Anyone who says this is using American predatory pricing of textbooks as a guide. In India, a typical text book costs 7.5-25 rupees, or 15-50 cents. For $1-3, you could buy all the textbooks a child will need for the year. It can be more expensive in other countries where printing costs are not as low as in India, but there is no reason why a textbook needs to cost more than a few dollars. Please, let’s stop propagating this myth.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 6: We have been trying to improve education for many years without results. Thus, it’s time for something new: Technology X!

Reality: Technology has never fixed a broken educational system, so if anything is getting old, it’s the attempt to patch bad education with technology. If other efforts aren’t working, maybe the school system needs to be thrown out and rebuilt from the ground up, as Qatar recently did with its education ministry. There are plenty of new things to try that don’t require new technology. (Though, novelty for its own sake doesn’t make sense, either. There are plenty of old examples of good education, too.) It should be cautioned though, that efforts to improve teachers and administrators is itself a multi-year, if not multi-decade effort. Again, there are no shortcuts!

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 7: Study Z shows that technology is helpful.

Reality: Technology can be beneficial. But, it’s always worth looking at two things more carefully: First, how good was the educational environment in Study Z without the technology? Invariably, it will have been good; often, very good. This means it was secret-sauce + technology that caused the benefit, not technology by itself. Second, what was the total cost of the technology (including training, maintenance, curriculum, etc.)? Inevitably, it will be a factor of 5-10 more than the cost of hardware. Both issues suggest that for ailing schools, technology is not the answer.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 8: Computer games, simulations, and other state-of-the-art technologies are really changing things.

Reality: This article was written with current and near-term technologies in mind. It’s possible that future technologies will not fit the theses. Certainly, a humanoid robot indistinguishable from a good teacher could work wonders! More realistically, it’s likely that sophisticated software could become richer in the range of things they can teach and the degree to which they sustain motivation. But, any such advances should pass lab trials, pilot runs, controlled experiments, and cost-effectiveness analyses before anyone starts advocating them for widespread use. So far, no technology has met this bar – computers running existing software certainly haven’t.

Pro-Technology Rhetoric 9: Technology is transformative, revolutionary, and otherwise stupendous! Therefore, it must be good for education.

Reality: This myth is pervasive because it is so easy to believe and because we want to believe it so badly. After all, with computers, we can publish our own newsletters, buy gifts in our pajamas, and find the best Italian restaurant in town. And, it would be nice if all we had to do was to sit every child in front of a computer for 6 hours a day to turn them into educated, upright citizens.

But, why do we believe this? It makes no sense. We don’t expect that playing football video games makes a child a great athlete. We don’t believe that watching YouTube will turn our kids into Steven Spielbergs. We don’t think that socializing on Facebook will turn people into electable government officials. And, if none of those things work, then why do we expect it of writing, history, science, or mathematics?

A good education is second only to parenting in the importance it has in raising capable, upright members of society. We would never think to replace parenting with technology (and when we do at times, we do it with shame, and only because we’re too damn tired to parent, not because gadgets are superior to us). Why do we keep trying to replace teachers?

Honesty in Technology Failure

As if to underscore these points, last month, the Azim Premji Foundation, a well-funded non-profit in India and arguably the world’s largest non-profit organization dedicated to working with computers in education, made a startling – and courageous – confession. They had worked for over half a decade with tens of thousands of schools, providing computers, training teachers, designing whole software libraries in 18 languages, and integrating material with state curricula. Aspects of their programs and their software could be criticized, but their methods were as thoughtful and as heartfelt as any technology-for-education effort I have witnessed, with frequent research and evaluations to confirm outcomes. Their conclusion?

“[W]hen we took stock at a fundamental level, we realized that [our whole effort in computer-aided learning] was at best a qualified failure… there was practically no impact in a sustained, systemic manner on learning.”

Anurag Behar, co-CEO of the foundation cited a number of issues (the full article is worth reading), but chief among the problems were that any deficiencies in administration and teaching were not overcome by technology. He notes: “At its best, the fascination with ICT as a solution distracts from the real issues. At its worst, ICT is suggested as substitute to solving the real problems, for example, ‘why bother about teachers, when ICT can be the teacher’. This perspective is lethal.” He concludes with a paraphrasing of what he learned from education leaders in Finland and Canada (two countries who consistently do well on PISA): “not a dollar will we invest in ICT, every dollar that we have will go to teacher and school leader capacity building.”

In short, there are no technology shortcuts to good education.


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Written by
Kentaro Toyama is W.K. Kellogg Associate Professor of Community Information at the University of Michigan School of Information, a fellow of the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT, and author of Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.
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