For years, we’ve been hearing about how technology is going to “Revolutionize Education.” About how designing digital devices will save the students, crafting the future of learning. Well, suddenly and without warning, the future of education is here, and it doesn’t look very revolutionary. Why not?
This idea that technology will fix education is not new. Hundreds of articles have been written on the topic—and by all the heavy-hitters: Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Mark Zukerberg have all donated billions, with their opinion-strings attached.
Let’s look at some of the common claims for how technology will fundamentally change the way we think about education.
Claim 1 – Technology leads to personalized learning. It’s repeatedly assumed that students need to learn content that is specific to them, and tailored perfectly to their interests and passions. My learning needs, it is said, are drastically different than yours. Technology will solve for this. EdTech magazine describes that “An effective personalized-learning approach successfully threads digital tools into the mix, creating a solid fabric for students heading out into the modern working world.” Presumably, the modern working world will also be personalized just for me.
Claim 2 – Technology is entertaining, and entertainment leads to engagement. Learning should feel like a game, not a chore, because we like games and want to play more and more of them. Learning without technology is boring. Forbes explains that “Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality are examples of transformative technology that enhance teacher instruction while simultaneously creating immersive lessons that are fun and engaging for the student.”
Claim 3 – Technology gives us learning at scale. Just as the printing press gave us books at scale, devices will give us textbooks at scale, and bring learning to the corners of the world. The Atlantic describes that “The poor farm kid in Nebraska, the retired grandmother, a young girl in India will all have access to ideas that were beyond their grasp before.”
Claim 4 – Technology gives students access to unique content, content they could otherwise never get. Expensive libraries of textbooks can be replaced by access to expensive digital content repositories. Students don’t want to read, and now they don’t have to: they can just watch videos. From Good Magazine: “… teachers and professors could hand out an assignment or study guide with a QR code printed on it. Once students scan it, they could be taken to additional resources or activities.”
Claim 5 – Technology means that learning is “always on” and self-paced. Open EduCat explains that “Without technology, access to the school was limited. But, now it is completely changed. The idea of keeping in touch with assignments, teachers, and fellow students. All the student needs is a device, a tablet, a laptop or a smart-phone to keep connected with an unlimited supply of information. In the end, the school stays with you and it is not the other way around.”
Claim 6 – A familiar delivery mechanism means students just learn better. Students, particularly younger ones, have an almost innate feel for interacting with digital devices. An article in Educause describes that “Students are increasingly comfortable using wireless devices to organize their academic work, personal lives, and eventually their professional activities once they graduate into the workforce. We have actually reached the point of no return in usage of such technology.”
Somewhat ironically, in the midst of the quotes from tech leaders like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg emphasizing technology, Steve Jobs offered this gem:
“I used to think that technology could help education. I’ve probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I’ve had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve. What’s wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology. No amount of technology will make a dent.”
At their heart, these articles and claims aren’t necessarily wrong; they just aren’t inherently right, either. Technology is just a presentation layer on top of good teaching. As educators, technologists and designers, we must build and design solutions that focus on teaching and learning—if they happen to include holograms, AI, and machine learning, wonderful. But if they lead with simple, honest communication with a human being, all the better.
Our present circumstances have revealed that no amount of video chats and generic tech can solve the real challenges students face learning new material, replicating peer connection, or getting much-needed support from teachers and mentors. The time to invest in design strategy for education is now.