The following is an adapted excerpt from “GEEK HERESY: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology” by Kentaro Toyama. Reprinted with permission from PublicAffairs.
“Technology is a game-changer in the field of education,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan once said, and there was a time when I would have agreed. Over the last decade, I’ve built, used, and studied educational technology in countries around the world. As a computer scientist and former Microsoft employee, I wanted nothing more than to see innovation triumph in the classroom.
But no matter how good the design, and despite rigorous tests of impact, I have never seen technology systematically overcome the socio-economic divides that exist in education. Children who are behind need high-quality adult guidance more than anything else. Many people believe that technology “levels the playing field” of learning, but what I’ve discovered is that it does no such thing.
I didn’t always see things this way. In 2004, I moved to Bangalore, India, to help Microsoft start a new research lab. In a country known globally as an information technology superpower, but lacking in basic education for its billion-plus population, it seemed natural to investigate how digital devices could support learning there.
My research team and I began by spending time in rural India’s government schools. They were blighted by absent teachers, broken toilets, and unquestioning parents. Desperate administrators often turned to technology as a solution, and a startling number of rural schools had computer labs. Because of small budgets, though, the labs were limited to a handful of personal computers. Joyojeet Pal, one of our first interns (now a professor and colleague of mine at the University of Michigan School of Information), visited schools across the country and returned with photo after photo of students piled on like rugby players around a single PC. There were never enough terminals for all the children. One dominant child – often an upper-caste boy – tended to monopolize the mouse and keyboard while others crowded around, hoping to have a chance to interact.
It was a perfect opportunity for innovation: What if we plugged in multiple mice per computer, each with a corresponding cursor on screen? As with a video game console, many children could engage simultaneously. Udai Singh Pawar, a smart young researcher in my group, ran with the idea. He quickly prototyped what we called MultiPoint, along with its own educational software.
Students loved it, and formal experiments confirmed its effectiveness. Pawar verified that for activities like vocabulary drills, students learned just as much with MultiPoint as with a single PC all to themselves. One child, enthralled with the prototype, asked, “Why doesn’t every computer come with multiple mice?” We filed a patent, convinced Microsoft to release a free software development kit, and imagined that schools around the world would benefit. We temporarily forgot about the lack of toilets, the silent parents, and the absent teachers.
Projects such as MultiPoint won us awards and recognition. Children inevitably smiled in front of new technology, and politicians loved photo-ops where they handed out new gadgets. I often found myself in teak-paneled boardrooms discussing technology strategy with government ministers, World Bank officials, and nonprofit luminaries. By inventing and disseminating new, low-cost devices for learning, we believed we were improving education for the world’s less privileged children. But were we?
The success of our MultiPoint trials encouraged us to expand its use, and we went looking for schools that could benefit from it. But exactly in the schools where help was most needed – where administrators were apathetic or underfunded, where teachers were absent or overloaded, or where students learned little and rarely graduated – it was impossible for MultiPoint to gain a foothold.
One visit I made to a government primary school just outside of Bangalore illustrates why. The headmaster unlocked a large metal cabinet to show me where he kept the school’s personal computers. Inside, desktop PCs, monitors, and keyboards were piled shoulder high, somehow caked in dust even though they weren’t out in the open. He explained that the PCs had been received with excitement two years before. The school had cleared a room in the spartan cement-block building for a computer lab. Classes visited the lab one after the other, and students, crowding five or six to a PC, found games to play. The teachers, however, complained that the games didn’t follow the curriculum, and in any case, they didn’t know how to incorporate digital tools for teaching. Then, within weeks, the equipment began to fail. Power surges were probably to blame. The school had no IT staff, and there was no budget for technical support. Soon after, the machines were locked away, and the computer lab was repurposed.
The situation wasn’t unusual – in fact, similar stories repeat themselves across the world, as much in America as in India. Many schools have neither staff nor finances for ongoing technical support. Schools’ computer budgets tend to pay for hardware, software, and infrastructure – which are seen as one-time costs – but they neglect the ongoing costs of storage, upgrades, troubleshooting, maintenance, and repair – which are ongoing. And PCs need a lot of care when banged on daily by energetic children.
In his research on the digital divide, Mark Warschauer, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and an expert on technology in U.S. classrooms, heard many teachers complain that computers in the classroom doubled their workload. Not only did they have to design lesson plans involving computers, they also had to write low-tech backup plans in case of technology failures, which were frequent.
Even when the technology works, it’s not necessarily used well. Students are often asked to copy-and-paste bits of information they find online into PowerPoint slides without being challenged to think about how to select good material or how to construct a strong argument. Meanwhile, teachers who have computers dumped into their classrooms feel like seafaring captains suddenly asked to pilot a jumbo jet, all while the unruly passengers are given free access to the controls. For teachers already struggling to keep their students engaged, a computer is less help, more hindrance.
In the course of five years in India, I oversaw at least 10 different technology-for-education projects. We explored video-recorded lessons by master teachers; presentation tools that minimized prep time; learning games customizable through simple text editing; split screens to allow students to work side by side; and on and on. Each time, we thought we were addressing a real problem. But while the designs varied, in the end it didn’t matter – technology never made up for a lack of good teachers or good principals. Indifferent administrators didn’t suddenly care more because their schools gained clever gadgets; undertrained teachers didn’t improve just because they could use digital content; and school budgets didn’t expand no matter how many “cost-saving” machines the schools purchased. If anything, these problems were exacerbated by the technology.
My experiences in India caused me to re-examine my assumptions about digital innovation, and what I’ve arrived at is something I think of as technology’s Law of Amplification: Technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces. In education, technologies amplify whatever pedagogical capacity is already there.
Amplification neatly resolved the paradoxes of my research. Why did MultiPoint, for example, work in our pilots, but not when we took it to other schools? It was because our positive results relied on special conditions that we had imposed. For our trials, we had deliberately chosen partner schools with capable teachers and principals. As a result, the students were focused on learning. They followed instructions without too much distraction. Another critical factor was our own presence as researchers. We set up the technology ourselves. And where we found teaching capacity wanting, we filled in. In other words, we had lined up all of the social conditions favorably so that the technology had a chance to work. And on that firm base, MultiPoint increased the number of students learning from computers. (Other educational technology programs impose similarly advantageous conditions when running their pilot programs.)
But, for expansion, we targeted subpar schools. They needed the most help, after all. We also reduced our personal involvement, since the schools would eventually have to operate without us. In the absence of good teaching and IT support, however, the technology didn’t do much.
In the worst cases, technology was detrimental. More times than I’d like to admit, I’d visit a class involved in one of our projects, and something would go wrong with the technology. With no IT staff, the teacher would fumble to figure things out. By the time the power was back on, the PCs rebooted, and the children once more settled into their seats, half of a 50-minute class period was lost. It would have been better if they had stuck to pencil and paper.
In other words, technologies don’t have fixed additive effects. Rather, they magnify existing social forces, which themselves can be good, bad, or neutral. For instance, administrators rarely allocate enough resources to adapt curricula or train teachers, and this problem is worse in lower-budget schools. Where teachers don’t know how to incorporate digital tools appropriately, there is little capacity for the technology to amplify.
And what about computers outside of school? What happens when children are left to learn on their own with digital gadgets, as so many tech evangelists insist we should do? Here technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves with Angry Birds. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites. The balance between them differs from child to child, but on the whole, distraction seems to win out when there’s no adult guidance.
This is exactly what economists Robert Fairlie and Jonathan Robinson found in a randomized controlled trial of laptops distributed to some California students but not others: Those with laptops saw no improvement “on a host of educational outcomes, including grades, standardized test scores, credits earned, attendance, and disciplinary actions,” though they did use the laptops for social media and video games. That is, if you provide an all-purpose technology that can be used for learning and entertainment, children choose entertainment. Technology by itself doesn’t undo that inclination – it amplifies it.
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