Teaching and technology

I was looking for something interesting to read this morning, and I came across a blog, The Treehorn Express.  Phil Cullen, the blogger, frequently posts an annotated bibliography of readings about education.  In one of those posts I ran a cross a link to a Chronicle of Higher Ed post entitled Why Technology Will Never Fix Education by Kentaro Toyama.

In the article, Toyama talks about work he did in India.  He says:

Over time, I came to think of this as technology’s Law of Amplification: While technology helps education where it’s already doing well, technology does little for mediocre educational systems; and in dysfunctional schools, it can cause outright harm.

I was interested enough to keep reading.  And what he says was worth my time.  He goes on to state:

The Law of Amplification’s least appreciated consequence, however, is that technology on its own amplifies underlying socioeconomic inequalities. To begin with, the rich will always be able to afford more technology, and low-cost technology in no way solves that. There is no digital keeping up with the Joneses.


So what is to be done? Unfortunately, there is no technological fix, and that is perhaps the hardest lesson of amplification. More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.

I know that in the school I most recently worked at, a charter high school with a largely at-risk student population, we were always encouraged to get and use technology.  In the math program, we had software that ran the program for us.  That was supplemented by more software to practice more skills and ipad apps to allow students to play math games and do more creative kinds of math activities.  For some students, this worked pretty well, but for others it really didn’t. Even though our teachers are all very dedicated and very good, technology didn’t solve the problems most of the kids have with math.

Part of the problem is just what Toyama says it is:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation.

Many of our students don’t see a lot of value in learning math. (Unless it has to do with money.  Then they not only see the value but can do pretty well with it!)  Until they want to learn math, all the technology in the world isn’t going to make much of a difference.

And how do we get them to want to learn it?  A big part of the answer to that one, I think, is to move it off the worksheet or the computer screen and make it real.  Until they can see potential application, most of our students don’t care if they learn it or not.

Can technology help make students see the application of math in their lives?  Of course.  Does it?  Not yet.  At least not in my experience.

And technology can’t change the fact that many of our students are or have been homeless, that almost every single one qualifies for free lunch, and that they have a ton of problems in their lives that make education seem even more irrelevant.  Technology isn’t going to bring them out of poverty or give them stable home lives, and most of them can’t really see that education might be able to do it, either.  Until something changes the reality of their lives, education is always going to be a challenge.

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