In his recently published blog article for Inside Higher Ed, University of Texas professor Steven Mintz asks a pivotal question: “Can educational technology ever live up to its promise?”
Professor Mintz recalls a few of the edtech innovations that were rolled out to great fanfare over the past decade or two. He states that “the history of educational technology is littered with failure.”
Stating that he is a technophile, Professor Mintz writes that higher education would do well to change and that technology can play a role in the transformation. He creates two lists that are notable for consideration.
His first list includes the reasons why educational technology has not lived up to its promise, which are:
- Because innovators too often embrace an impoverished conception of teaching and learning and fail to do what teachers do – motivate students, keep students engaged and on track, scaffold and support student learning, and provide timely and constructive feedback.
- Because cost efficiency, rather than learning, tends to drive innovation and substitutes machines or software for the hands-on support that benefits students most.
- Because instructors aren’t trained to use classroom technologies effectively and continue to teach as they have in the past through lectures, discussion, questions, and demonstrations.
- Because educational technologies do not align with the way most instructors teach and instead presuppose that students learn individually or work in groups or are expected to engage in an activity in class.
- Because of a lack of compelling evidence that technology actually improves student learning, many instructors consider educational technology a waste of money, a distraction and an intrusion.
- Because of the gap between what technology promises and what it actually delivers, there is skepticism about the value of technology and the motives of its advocates.
- Because creating educationally impactful technologies is difficult, requiring a raft of specialists in user experience design, software development, and assessment.
Professor Mintz’s second list includes ways that he finds technology to be useful:
- Technology can be diagnostic, providing real-time insights into student engagement, create an understanding of essential course material, and flag areas of confusion and misunderstanding.
- Technology can prompt mid-course corrections and timely student intervention as necessary through the use of dashboards that are instructor-facing and student-facing.
- Technology can cut the cost of course materials through the use of open educational resources (OER) and other instructor- or publisher-developed interactive courseware.
- Technology can personalize the learning experience. Adaptive courseware may have been oversold, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea.
- Technology can bring previously inaccessible instructional resources into the classroom.
- Technology can transform learning into a more active process through tools that allow students to annotate and analyze text, manipulate and visualize data, map concepts, and create projects.
- Technology can create immersive learning environments. Digital environments like Second Life provide opportunities for role playing, collaboration, exploration, problem solving, and vicariously experiencing life in a different context.
- Technology can build skills by providing practice exercises and simulations.
Professor Mintz concludes by writing “[technology] can help make education more equitable and transform learners into investigators, analysts, and creators. It can offer the tools students need to analyze and annotate texts and data; make dynamic and interactive maps, timelines, and websites; manage bibliographic information; organize research materials; simulate laboratory experiments; and create media-rich narratives.”
Dr. Mintz’s conclusion is vastly different than his blog’s title and his first list of reasons why edtech initiatives have failed. As someone who has sponsored and approved education technology initiatives for an online-only curriculum for the past 18 years and who has taught in-person graduate courses, I have a slightly different perspective.
If you can only teach through digitally aided technology, you utilize the technology. It’s in the best interest of the faculty and students to see that educational technology is effective at enabling learning when classes are operated online only. If you teach in person, you are slower to embrace utilizing technologies that require you to learn how to use them.
One of the problems with edtech is that the technology changes much faster than we are able to adopt it to education. Custom software development is expensive and takes time to complete.
By the time some software programs are implemented, faculty are trained, and students are made aware of the changes, the technology may have advanced further. Because no one wants to frequently go through major software changes and adoptions, the tendency is to hold on to older technology that may be quite outmoded by the time of the next transition.
I believe that there are educational technology products that can live up to their promises. Many of the reasons for their failure to live up to expectations mirror the items on the first list created by Professor Mintz.
I also think that inadequate planning for an edtech implementation should be included in the list of reasons for failure with the reason of inadequate training. I have seen far too many usability issues caused by implementation leaders not listening or understanding the needs of the users in designing or configuring the user interface. I have also witnessed too many edtech entrepreneurs who develop a product under the belief that their personal learning experiences should shape the learning experiences of all students with no real understanding of the nuances of teaching, learning, and assessment.
Education that is well done benefits everyone. There is no shortage of stories about our education shortcomings, pre-K through 20. Technology can help people in many ways, and it can also fail to deliver.
There will be supporters and detractors of Professor Mintz’s article. I’m a supporter, particularly if it generates additional discussion and improves future edtech implementations.