We are still making the same mistakes when it comes to technology in education

Net Results: Emerging field of EdTech must emphasis pedagogical methods for PCs

Technology and education must be  coupled effectively to ensure the future of learning. Photograph: Fadel Senna

Technology and education must be coupled effectively to ensure the future of learning. Photograph: Fadel Senna

 

Last week, educator Gaurav Singh posted a detailed, thought-provoking Twitter thread on the failure of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, a heavily-hyped EdTech initiative that emerged from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) about two decades ago.

The project was headed up by MIT internet futurist Nicholas Negroponte (who also was director of the initial phase of the Digital Hub in Dublin). The little OLPC laptop was beautifully designed, cost just $100, and was intended to get laptops into the hands of children everywhere, especially in regions with little previous access to technology.

It had clever features, like a crank handle that could be used to charge the device, and an integrated e-reader. The problem, Singh notes, was that teachers, children and families didn’t quite know what to do with them. Plus, the devices often broke.

Negroponte and OLPC proponents firmly believed children would master the technology and expand their educational horizons through an innate drive to explore and learn.

But OLPCs didn’t develop a significant role in education. Why? Singh argues that far too much EdTech focus was placed on the “Tech” rather than the “Ed”. Not enough thinking went into how these laptops were to be used, or to prepare teachers and children for that utilisation.

Former Irish Times technology columnist in Silicon Valley, Danny O’Brien, wrote presciently about the laptop in a 2008 column, identifying exactly these looming problems during OLPC’s rollout.

“I can foresee so many ways in which it might fail. Children and teachers may not understand it (a failure of the teaching philosophy of learning by exploration that underlies Negroponte’s plans),” he wrote, having tinkered with one himself.

‘Gates-style genius’

“Playing around with eToys, a seemingly innocent game on the laptop, I stumbled, as a smart child would, on a toolkit of amazing, bogglingly advanced utilities: frequency analysis systems; a voice synthesiser, a video editor and a gesture recogniser,” he added.

“This computer rewards exploration, all right: if you’re a Gates-style genius.”

I experienced this same Ed vs Tech gap a decade earlier, around 1990, when I taught writing to first years at a Silicon Valley state university. During my job interview, I was asked if I would be willing to teach in some newly equipped classrooms. I said I’d love too.

Unlike the majority of my fellow part-time lecturers, I used computers myself and was interested in how they might be incorporated into writing classes.

I vastly underestimated the difficulties. Those of us using computer classrooms were just thrown in, without training or teaching materials or defined goals. Not one single idea was offered by the administration as to what we were to do with the PCs.

Every signal from the education sector indicates that technology will be an even more significant part of education

Few students then had a (costly) home PC, so any role for the computers had to be during class time.  

The machines on each desk were distractions, though they had no internet connection and required students to type in commands (these were  pre-Windows PCs). Students surreptitiously poked at keyboards and gazed at screens and their attention wandered any time I didn’t have them actively using the PCs for an exercise.

Tech vs Ed

I spent hours of personal, unpaid time attending some groundbreaking early EdTech seminars at UC Berkeley, trying to learn how to utilise equipment my own university had no idea how to use. It was sometimes inspiring – I was young, and we were pioneers in the EdTech area – but also exhausting, time-consuming and professionally discouraging.

Singh concludes: “Maybe the issue is not with how well the Tech works. Maybe the issue is with how well we know what works in Ed & how well we apply it.”

And here we still are. Thirty years after I encountered these exact issues, a decade after the OLPC project collapsed, the “Tech” piece is too often far distanced from the essentials of “Ed”.

Yet we are at a point where effectively coupling the two is absolutely essential for the future of education, something that should be crystal clear as we emerge from a pandemic with its intense shift to technology-based learning.

Teachers everywhere scrambled, often entirely on their own, to master a totally unexpected virtual environment that necessitated a massive EdTech shift for teachers, students and parents. Families without good internet connections or the ability to buy pricy tablets or laptops struggled.

Teachers from primary to university level have described to me the sense of angry frustration with administrations who mandated the Tech, but offered little support and few guidelines on integrating the Ed into that Tech.

Like me, way back when, they’ve been left to go it alone or trade ideas with each other in a pedagogical vacuum.

Students and teachers may be back in physical classrooms, but every signal from the education sector indicates that technology in times to come will be an even more significant part of education. Unless we want to make a pressingly difficult situation even worse, we need to remember (and then, ensure) that in EdTech, Ed comes before, not after, Tech.

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