This essay could be considered supporting Alan Kay's suggestion that
"the computer revolution hasn't
Why Educational Technology Has Failed Schools
by Paul D. Fernhout
Educational technology has been a big success at homes, in libraries, in
museums, and in business.
Let's say you have an interest in, say, Aardvarks. At home and want to
know the weight of a typical aardvark right now? Google it:
Want to buy one? :-) Try Amazon:
Want to sell one you no longer need? Try ebay:
Want to collaborate with others on making one better? Try sourceforge:
Want a 3D simulation written by an aardvark?
Want to make your own educational simulation about aardvarks? Try one of
the tools linked here:
An endless variety of information related to just one arbitrary topic,
easily accessible using Google or another search engine.
At the library, want to find a good book on, say, Zebras? Use an online
library catalog system:
Want to make a museum kiosk showing protein folding in action in 3D? Write
a simulation with Python:
Does your business need to know more about "quality control" to prevent
customer complaints? Lots of online resources:
So, at home, library, museum, or business, technology is delivering the
goods (physical or digital) and making these places all a lot better.
With all that technological success in other areas, why are schools still
considered a problem area, see:
"To fix US schools, [bipartisan] panel says, start over"
Or in other words, why has technology failed in compulsory schools?
Clearly something is wrong here -- technology is helping make these other
places more productive and more flexible -- but in schools, there is not
much change, despite a huge expenditure in technology and training.
Ultimately, educational technology's greatest value is in supporting
"learning on demand" based on interest or need which is at the opposite
end of the spectrum compared to "learning just in case"
based on someone else's demand.
Compulsory schools don't usually traffic in "learning on demand",
for the most part leaving that kind of activity to libraries or museums or
the home or business or the "real world". In order for compulsory schools
to make use of the best of educational technology and what is has to
offer, schools themselves must change.
But, history has shown schools extremely resistant to change. Consider for
From there: "After many years of working within the school system, Holt
became disillusioned with it. He became convinced that reform of the
school system was not possible because it was fundamentally flawed. Thus,
he became an advocate of homeschooling. It was not helpful, however, to
simply remove children from the school environment if parents simply
re-created it at home. Holt believed that children did not need to be
coerced into learning; they would do so naturally if given the freedom to
follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources. This line
of thought became known as unschooling."
Classically, the problems attributed to schooling are really society
problems -- dropouts, druggies, unhappy people, unemployable people, teen
pregnancies, uncreative people, ignorant people, angry people, violent
people, uncritical people, and so on. But school somehow plays a part in
how people develop and is seen as a potential way to prevent much human
suffering. It is thought somehow test scores relate to these problems.
Problems with the results of schooling and test scores are often thought
to be from lack of success due to the failure to try harder of one or more
of the groups of students, teachers, parents, administrators, or legislators.
If only kids were more motivated by higher standards, if only parents were
more involved, if only teachers were given pay raises for performance, if
only administrators were more "hands on", if only legislators would put
more money into education, then all these problems would be solved, so it
is thought, see for example:
"All states and schools will have challenging and clear standards of
achievement and accountability for all children, and effective strategies
for reaching those standards." -- U.S. Dept. of Education
Or for higher education:
From there: "The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher
Education (CAS) has been the pre-eminent force for promoting standards in
student affairs, student services, and student development programs since
its inception in 1979. For the ultimate purpose of fostering and enhancing
student learning, development, and achievement and in general to promote
good citizenship, CAS continues to create and deliver a dynamic and
credible Book of Professional Standards and Guidelines and Self-Assessment
Guides that are designed to lead to a host of quality-controlled programs
and services. These standards respond to real-time student needs, the
requirements of sound pedagogy, and the effective management of currently
34 functional areas, consistent with institutional missions."
In theory, if everyone just tried harder, all kids would stay in school
for a long time (cradle to grave?), and they would all become bright, well
informed, creative, happy, cooperative, even tempered, employable people
who entered the work force in a productive way, were content with the
products of the marketplace, and who delayed children and marriage until
they were able to raise a family well (emotionally or economically).
Technology has been employed to help people work harder in schools, just
like in factories, and the most important appearance of technology in
schools has been in relation to measuring results and comparing them to
defined standards of quality -- recording attendance and test scores,
crunching the numbers, and producing fancy graphs suggesting where more
improvement is needed.
That is not all technology has been asked to do in schools. It has been
invited into the classroom in other ways, including educational
simulations, Lego/Logo, web browsing, robotics, and computer-linked data
collection from sensors. But assessment is mostly what technology does in
schools that *matters*, where the other uses of it have been marginalized
for various reasons. These "learning on demand" or "hands on learning"
activities have been kept in their boxes so to speak (sometimes
figuratively, sometimes literally). Or to recall from my own pre-computer
elementary school experiences in the 1960s, there was a big fancy
expensive "science kit" in the classroom closet -- but there was little
time to use it or explore it -- we were too busy sitting at our desks. :-)
Essentially, the conventional notion is that the compulsory schooling
approach is working, it just needs more money and effort. Thus a push for
higher standards and pay and promotion related to performance to those
standards. Most of the technology then should be used to ensure those
standards. That "work harder" and "test harder" approach has been tried
now for more than twenty years in various ways, and not much has changed.
Why is that? Could it be that schools were designed to produce exactly the
results they do? And that more of the same by more hard work will only
produce more of the same results? Perhaps schools are not failing to do
what they were designed; perhaps in producing people fit only to work in
highly structured environments doing repetitive work, they are actually
succeeding at doing what they were designed for? Perhaps digging harder
and faster and longer just makes a deeper pit?
Who designed compulsory schools anyway? And why?
According to New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto,
and other authors,
mass compulsory schooling was invented in the 1800s and designed mainly by
the captains of industry and related groups (non-profit and governmental)
to ensure most people in society became obedient factory workers,
compliant consumers, and unquestioning soldiers, all fitting into a well
defined social order or class structure.
Gatto points out this was a bargain eagerly accepted by the populace at
the time to gain the supposed benefits of mass industrialization (so, no
conspiracies here, except perhaps against ourselves).
However, over the past 150 years or so the world has changed, and we have
entered a post-industrial information age, with cheaply copied songs and
perhaps soon cheaply copied material goods in nanotech replicators. See:
Industry still matters of course, but only now in the sense that
agricultural still matters, where an ever smaller part of the population
is concerned directly with it, as innovation after innovation makes people
in those fields ever more productive. If only a small percent of the
people in the economy produce food, and now only an ever shrinking part of
the population produces material goods, what is left for the rest to do?
Might they be employed in research? David Goodstein, Vice Provost of
Caltech, pointed out in his testimony to the US House of Representatives
that science education in the USA is a "mining and sorting operation"
which finds the brightest and most scientifically-minded at every level
and discards the rest. This produced an ever increasing exponential growth
of PhDs (since each teaching PhD produces fifteen more over a career) but
a general scientific and technical illiteracy among the rest of the
population. He says that such exponential growth hit a wall in the 1980s
(in ecology this might be called "carrying capacity"), producing a
situation where there is now a vast oversupply of such people with PhDs
for the jobs available. So, the entire pipeline of researchers to jobs is
now backing up, resulting in more and more post-docs, and now even more
unemployed and underemployed PhDs, plus a rising credentialism everywhere,
as the graduate educational system continues seeks to justify itself
amidst the collapse of this pyramid scheme.
So, employment in conventional research is closed for most people. Still,
if you look at, say, the field of biology, there are endless opportunities
for people to research millions of species of organisms and their
biochemistry, ecology, and history. If you look at astrophysics, there are
endless stars and solar systems to study. If you look at medicine, there
is a vast amount we do not know, especially for chronic diseases of poor
people. If you look at music, there are endless opportunities for people
to make songs about their specific lives and families. If you look at
writing, endless novels yet to be written. And if you look at programming,
there is even a vast enjoyment to be had reinventing the wheel -- another
programming language, another operating system, another application --
just for the fun of doing it for its own sake. The world wide web -- from
blogs to you tube to garage bands -- is full of content people made and
published just because they wanted to. It is an infinite universe we live
in, and would take an infinite time to fill it up. However, there is
practically no one willing to pay for those activities, so they are for
the most part hobbies, or at best, "loss leaders" or "training" in
business. And, as always, there is the endless demands of essentially
volunteer parenting to invest in a future generation. And there are huge
demands for community service to help less fortunate neighbors. So there
are plenty of things that need doing -- even if they do not mesh well with
our current economic system based around "work" performed within a
bureaucracy, carefully reduced to measurable numbers (parts produced,
lines of code generated, number of words written) producing rewards based
on ration units (dollars).
But then, with so much produced for so little effort, perhaps the very
notion of work itself needs to change? Maybe most people don't need to
"work" in any conventional way (outside of home or community activities)?
But would not that be mass chaos? Well, historically, according to the
latest anthropological research,
for 99% of human existence, that was just how people lived as
hunter-gatherers, picking fruit off the trees, hunting wild animals, doing
a little bit of farming in easy ways, and averaging about 20 hours of work
a week (outside of child-care) for the 1/3 of the population who was not
young or old, according to Marshall Sahlins. And much of that work was not
boring, and could be done while engaged in discussion or singing in a
group setting. So, humans seem quite well adapted to a world of little
formal "work", and thus it makes sense to consider abolishing it:
It is only the last ten thousand years of agriculture and then
industrialization that have been the anomaly -- changes in part driven by
rising populations and growing bureaucracies. But truly modern technology
like nanotech replicators or flexible manufacturing powered by internet
connected computers means we can allow the masses to go back to that sort
of lifestyle revolving around family and community humans are so well
adapted for, where production of food or goods is only incidental, not
central. And where productive activity can then play other, deeper, roles
in building character and relation and meaning, unconstrained by a need to
maximize material output at the expense of spiritual output:
And without the infant mortality or other limitations such earlier
And it also turns out, based on psychological studies, that for creative
work (as opposed to ditch digging), reward is often not a motivator, and
creativity and intrinsic interest diminish if a task is done for gain:
This finding calls into question the entire notion of a scarcity-based
ideology oriented around exchanging ration-units for creative goods, as
opposed to a "gift economy", such as drives GNU/Linux.
So, if most of what people do is not related to growing food or making
things, then a system based around material rewards doesn't make much
sense. And it turns out, a lot of difficult work is quite interesting, if
you are not forced to do it -- where the work (and success at a
challenging task) is its own reward.
But then is compulsory schooling really needed when people live in such a
way? In a gift economy, driven by the power of imagination, backed by
automation like matter replicators and flexible robotics to do the
drudgery, isn't there plenty of time and opportunity to learn everything
you need to know? Do people still need to be forced to learn how to sit in
one place for hours at a time? When people actually want to learn
something like reading or basic arithmetic, it only takes around 50
contact hours or less to give them the basics, and then they can bootstrap
themselves as far as they want to go. Why are the other 10000 hours or so
of a child's time needed in "school"? Especially when even poorest kids in
India are self-motivated to learn a lot just from a computer kiosk -- or a
"hole in the wall":
"To test his ideas, Mitra 13 months ago launched something he calls "the
hole in the wall experiment." He took a PC connected to a high-speed data
connection and imbedded it in a concrete wall next to NIIT's headquarters
in the south end of New Delhi. The wall separates the company's grounds
from a garbage-strewn empty lot used by the poor as a public bathroom.
Mitra simply left the computer on, connected to the Internet, and allowed
any passerby to play with it. He monitored activity on the PC using a
remote computer and a video camera mounted in a nearby tree. What [Dr.
Sugata Mitra] discovered was that the most avid users of the machine were
ghetto kids aged 6 to 12, most of whom have only the most rudimentary
education and little knowledge of English. Yet within days, the kids had
taught themselves to draw on the computer and to browse the Net. Some of
the other things they learned, Mitra says, astonished him."
Granted if people want to send kids to a prison-like facility each day for
security or babysitting, then the "free school" model makes a lot of sense
and is much more compatible with democratic traditions than compulsory
schools (and is even cheaper to run). And the kids and teachers are
generally happier in "free schools" where they have to show up but can
otherwise then spend their time as they like; and such schools also do
well with "discipline problem" type kids. Just ask any teacher how much
happier they would be if only the kids in their classes were the ones who
wanted to be there. However, there are alternatives to "free schools" as
well, but requiring more parental involvement:
And NY BOCES-like local educational resource centers at the neighborhood
level could play a big role in any of those alternatives -- from free
schools to unschooling -- the difference just being that the kids actually
choose to go there and use those resources when they want to.
So, there is more to the story of technology than it failing in schools.
Modern information and manufacturing technology itself is giving
compulsory schools a failing grade. Compulsory schools do not pass in the
information age. They are no longer needed. What remains is just to watch
this all play out, and hopefully guide the collapse of compulsory
schooling so that the fewest people get hurt in the process.
As Jerry Mintz (of AERO) puts it:
"Nevertheless, there is an education revolution going on, and it is long
overdue. It is moving in the diametrically opposite direction of the
"testing" push. The latter comes from the bureaucrats from within that
dying system, who do know there is something wrong. But since they can't
think "out of the box," the only remedy they can come up with is longer
hours, more homework, and "teaching to the test," in other words, more of
the same. The education revolution is coming from people who have created
alternative schools and programs, thousands of them, and from others who
have checked "none of the above" and have decided to home educate. There
are now nearly two million people home educating. The first charter school
was started in 1991. Now there are 2500 of them! And there are over 7500
additional alternatives in our database and many thousands more we have
yet to discover. All of these fall in the general category of
"learner-centered" approaches. We list many of them in our book, The
Almanac of Education Choices. These people are steadfastly OPPOSED to the
governmental thrust for more "standardization" and testing. So a battle is
looming. The testers will ultimately lose. It has happened before, most
recently in the 80's with the "Back to Basics" movement. The question is
only how long it will take, and how much destructiveness will happen in
the interim. "
(Copyright 2007 Paul D. Fernhout; Released under the GPL version 2 or
later license; also under the GFDL license with no invariant sections).